Should religion play a role in politics?

From religious leaders who take on political roles to the daily influence of faith on political values, Dawn Foster and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown – two practising believers – find themselves on opposite sides of the debate.

Illustrations: Kate Copeland

YASMIN: Faith and state should always be kept separate. I am a practising Shi’a Muslim. I pray, go to mosque and feel part of a wider global community. My faith is in my heart and head – indoors, intensely personal. It’s solace; an antidote to the lies and noise of life outdoors. It makes me strive to be a better person. Millions of believers across faiths and lands share those feelings and views.

Political Islam, in contrast, is aggressive, dominant, ruthless and totally unethical. Think about Iran and Saudi Arabia: the first, a brutal Shi’a theocracy and the second a Sunni-Wahhabi powerbase which violates every human right within and outside the Kingdom. Think about authoritarian, powerful Catholicism. Secular states have their bad histories too and some, like China, are currently behaving monstrously towards individuals and minorities. But, it seems to me incontrovertible that the most sinister and oppressive states in the world are those that use God to control the minds and actions of their populations. Religion does have a place in public life. But when bishops, rabbis, priests and mullahs get political roles, they corrupt both good governance and religious integrity.

DAWN: Like Yasmin, I’m a person of faith: a very active, practising Catholic – I attend mass a few times a week, meet up with my parish’s youth group regularly, go on prayer retreats… Catholicism is as much a social and theoretical structure of my life as my socialism and trade unionism: it infiltrates and informs every aspect of my life. My belief in equality and workers’ rights comes from my faith and political beliefs. I can’t extricate the two, nor would I wish to. Collective action is key to the success of campaigns and movements: the Catholics for Labour group I belong to within the UK Labour Party are politically diverse – with people from the furthest Right of the Party to people to the Left of Momentum, all diligently eschewing our differences to achieve things together.

Oscar Romero was canonized this year: he initially felt politics and faith must be kept apart. But the killings by military police of innocent people of faith, low-income workers and rebel priests like Rutilio Grande led him to use his platform to condemn the government and call off the killings. He was assassinated, but has inspired millions, and his death and legacy pressurized the US government into changing position in Latin America somewhat. As religious people, we cannot stand by when we see injustice, just to remain impartial. We have to fight for people who can’t, and for a common humanity.

YASMIN: I am not as assiduous as you are, Dawn, and would never consider my religious self to be my core self. It is a part of who I am, mainly because I was born a Shi’a Muslim and my mother – the person who totally made me into the person I am – was a devout believer. But even she could see how religions could and did stop progressive change; how religious leaders exploited usual human terrors and used them to control the faithful. When I was six she took me out of our faith-based school in Uganda and sent me to a multifaith school instead.

I go to mosque intermittently and find brief comfort being with my own tribe. But, all too soon, their inwardness becomes irksome and, at times, vexatious. Our Islam is open, modern, undogmatic, yet there is this sense of superiority. This, you will know, is common to all religions.

You are right to point out the work of liberationist theologists; many of them are absolute heroes. But various forms of Christianity have historically and in contemporary times calamitously affected populations in various parts of the world. Their abuse of power is worst when it is linked to state authorities. Making people feel they must procreate, must punish gay people, must reject unmarried mums… Political leaders then step in and exert further control. Look at the anti-gay laws across Africa. The laws against abortion in so many Catholic countries. Do you not recoil from such infringements of human rights? You say religious people cannot stand by when they see injustice but what are we to make of the millions of religious people who perpetuate and justify appalling injustices? You clearly don’t see that and should.

DAWN: I totally agree there are tendencies within religious communities to become insular and exclusionary: that’s why ecumenism is so important – fostering outreach within communities to other churches and faiths, and with those locally who subscribe to none. When religion is fully unmoored from politics it becomes all the more insular and more open to abuse: politics plays a huge part in our lives, and political policy is essential for a lot of the ideas central to the main faiths to come to fruition: charity, togetherness, human dignity, enabling family life to be economically viable, fighting homelessness and destitution and opposing war and violence.

My belief in equality comes from my faith and my political beliefs. I can’t extricate the two, nor would I wish to – Dawn

These ideas should transcend Left and Right, and people of all faiths should hold our politicians to account for failing to build a dignified and fair society. A lot of the issues in our financial system run counter to many teachings in Christianity and Islam, and a wider pool of people lobbying to fix a broken system, from campaigners and party members to faith leaders, strengthens those efforts. Religious leaders are still respected and their voices carry weight when they speak for the oppressed, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury recently condemning British government policies that perpet-uate poverty. Involving religion in public life and showing faith and politics aren’t incompatible also pressurizes religious institutions to be more open and accountable, breaking the damaging culture of silence that can let abuse continue.

YASMIN: I agree with you when you write that religions can (and should) foster human connections and humane values. People of good faith can insert these virtues and sensibilities into politics and society. Charity, for example, is one of the pillars of Islam, as it is in Christianity. And I know how much is done by, say, Christian Aid or Islamic Relief worldwide. However, I fear and loathe the politicization of religion and religious collaborators with political power. Church leaders blessing Donald Trump and cursing his opponents as godless dramatically play out the dangers of these unholy alliances. The worst example is Myanmar, where a large number of Buddhist monks – those gentle, self-denying men in saffron – have backed and participated in horrific, state-sponsored persecutions of the Rohingya Muslims. Meanwhile women and girls, even rape victims, are imprisoned in some South American states if they have abortions.

The most sinister and oppressive states in the world are those that use God to control the minds and actions of their populations – Yasmin

And here in England and Wales, more faith-based schools are being funded. These schools may be producing good exam results, but they are socially conservative and focused on their own religious exceptionalism. Incongruently, in Northern Ireland, integrated schools are being encouraged because the people there know what happens when religious and political apartheid continue from generation to generation. I am so glad we had this exchange. It has helped me understand why faith means so much to many of us and pushed me towards an uncompromising position: states and faiths must be kept apart.

DAWN: But equally, in the US, many religious leaders have spoken out against Trump – a number of nuns and Jesuit priests were arrested for demonstrating against his immigration policies recently after refusing to leave a sit-in. Religious leaders have been deeply involved in anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles, and [are] often killed themselves when speaking out against repressive regimes.

The demand for faith-based schools isn’t just down to exam results, but people wanting to connect with their own culture: my Catholic school taught us a lot about the history of oppression, struggle and the fight for civil rights – not all schools are chosen by parents for social conservatism. In Northern Ireland, especially around housing, the state’s blindness to religious background and rush to build integrated communities without considering safety and cultural history has led to attacks on homes and households being forced to flee for their personal safety after police warnings. The state has a duty to consider how important religion is to so many people, rather than blindly seeking to impose secularism on a community without considering the consequences and complications.