“Think ‘church’ before you vote – and punish candidates who believe in marriage equality (i.e. don’t believe in the ‘sanctity of marriage’”).
That’s the view of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Paisley, Rt Rev John Keenan, who was one of the authors of a “pastoral letter” read in every Scottish Catholic church last Sunday.
The faithful were told that “life, the family, the economy, human freedom, peace and evangelisation are all key issues the faithful should consider when voting.”
The letter argues that “the dignity and value of every human being should be at the heart of politics….the sanctity of human life, protected from its beginning to its natural end, is…the fundamental issue.” The letter also suggested, in unsubtle fashion, that Catholics should support candidates who “defend the institution of marriage and the family as the basic unit of society on which so much depends.”
Keenan certainly has form on this, and it’s obvious what he means by “marriage”. In his former role as Catholic chaplain to Glasgow University, he offended the Student Representative Council with his views on marriage equality; he has also been an outspoken advocate of “traditional” marriage. He also openly criticised the pro-independence movement’s proposed constitution for Scotland for having “hardly any mention of religion” in it – clearly he believes the Church should wield strong political influence.
Keenan and his co-authors also argue that economic policy should be centred around the “dignity” of the individual, and that nuclear weapons represent a “threat to the human family”. This seems reasonable, even praiseworthy. However, they also target politicians who, in spite of being declared Catholics, “remain silent – or even surrender”, urging them instead to “remain faithful to the Gospel of Christ”. The inference is obvious – those who have voted for equal marriage and LGBTI rights have betrayed their faith and should be replaced.
The Church of Scotland is expected to follow suit, with Moderator Rt Rev John Chalmers confirming he too will write to every congregation underlining the “opportunity” for the church to “positively engage during this election campaign”. There seems to be a marked difference in emphasis in his approach from that favoured by Keegan, with Chalmers advocating participation – “no matter which party you support” – in contrast to the moralistic tone of the Catholic letter. The Kirk seems to favour championing democracy through constructive engagement; the Roman Catholic leadership prefers to opt for the narrow, prescriptive and moralistic agenda. Chalmers also doesn’t seem to want to condemn marriage equality.
The question, however, is not whether we agree with the aims of Scotland’s two main churches but whether we should – as Keenan believes – think “church” when voting. It is also pertinent to ask whether Christianity, and religious belief more generally, has a part to play in this election – and, if so, what should it be saying?
Interestingly, the leaders of Labour, UKIP, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats gave Easter messages this year. Most likely this is because we are in an election year, and Easter provides party leaders with a convenient platform for communicating messages of goodwill and hope. Farage and Cameron predictably played up their credentials as Christians and reiterated their respective models of British identity, interwoven as they are with Christian tradition. But the nominally Jewish Ed Miliband talked of “the church shar[ing] the story of the resurrection, and spread[ing] the good news of Easter”, while atheist Nick Clegg referred to “the moving and powerful story of Jesus’s sacrifice and resurrection”. This is not accidental. Meanwhile, senior politicians such as Michael Gove are perfectly happy to defend their Christian beliefs publicly.
Tony Blair’s Labour government famously “didn’t do God”. That seems a very long time ago now.
All this serves as evidence of the ongoing existence of a very real religious influence at the heart of British politics. It is not simply a cynical attempt to win over the Christian vote, but a conscious acceptance that, irrespective of declining church attendances, churches and other religious organisations are discovering their political voices. The examples of CARE, whose influence extends directly into the corridors of power, and the various parties’ well-organised Christian groups are testament to this. When churchmen such as the Archbishop of Canterbury openly criticise welfare policy, political society and the media listen closely. Even the Free Church of Scotland’s intervention on the independence referendum, while having minimal impact, was given huge coverage.
Christians, like all other voters, have a role to play in politics. There are Christians – and people of other religions – in all mainstream political parties, many of whom have proved effective MPs and ministers. I welcome the contribution they make. I also welcome attempts by church groups to further democratic involvement and engage with pertinent social issues.
However, Christianity is distinct from the institution of Church. Keenan seems to believe that the interests of his Church, and the moral agenda of its leadership, are synonymous with Christianity. He couldn’t be more wrong. In adopting a retrograde moral position that even Pope Francis would find hard to back, and suggesting that Catholics vote to support it, not only is the Scottish Catholic hierarchy guilty of displaying astonishing spiritual arrogance but also underlining how out of touch it is with the views of congregations.
“Thinking church” is not the same as “thinking Christ”. The Roman Catholic Church continues to say many things about LGBTI equality – including that equal marriage is “an assault on family life”. Jesus clearly said no such thing, and many Christians, even in Keenan’s church, take an opposite view.
Keenan’s problem is that he defines his politics in accordance with the issue of equal marriage, and in grossly black-and-white terms. While he urges people to vote for a party that values his specific definition of “the sanctity of marriage”, it is unclear which of the parties he could possibly be referring to. There is no Scottish equivalent of the Democratic Unionist Party. He seems to entertain the false belief that some candidates, somewhere, share his ambition to repeal equal marriage legislation.
The church has the right to participate as it likes, although I’d imagine the Kirk’s attitude is more likely to be productive than the Catholics’ top-down and authoritarian voting instruction. However, in a democratic society the Church should not be entitled to speak from a privileged position, or indeed to imagine that it merits such privilege. It is one voice of many. The State and the Church must remain distinct. I wonder, however, whether the right to do something means that one should – perhaps the Catholic Church would be better advised to put its evident influence to better use.
Perhaps the Bishop of Paisley could turn his attentions to tackling homophobia, recognising that legal inequality is a crime against humanity and to more effectively representing the views of the Catholic faithful on LGBTI rights? Perhaps he could accept that “the sanctity of marriage” extends beyond opposite-sex unions and therefore requires respect for all marriages? Perhaps he could prioritise eradicating poverty over “evangelisation”? Perhaps he might also urge Christians not to “think Church”, but instead focus his efforts on ensuring that his Church “thinks politics” in a more mature and responsible way?
Instead of thinking “church”, I’d suggest voters would be able to create a better Scotland if they thought about such values as social justice, acceptance, tolerance and inclusivity when casting their ballots. But I’d also ask the question John Keenan doesn’t: which party gives Scotland’s LGBTI community, including its many Christian members, the best deal?
Andrew Page is a member of Affirmation Scotland, and writes here in a personal capacity.