Should we keep politics out of religion?


Three recent news headlines have caught my eye.

1] The crazy story about the Irish woman politician- a minister no less,-who turned up at mass one Sunday recently to find that no priest was available, and consequently used the episode as an occasion to demand the ordination of women.

2] A yarn from India, about a judge who had opened up a temple to women which only men had been allowed to enter previously.

3] And finally, the report from Australia that the prime minister had called on Pope Francis to sack a certain bishop who had been involved in a serious scandal.

The details of each of these incidents are hardly important. But what’s going on? Haven’t we all been told that religion and politics were supposed to be separate?  Isn’t this wall of separation a key component in what it means to live in a modern society? Wasn’t it all supposed to be so much easier if we didn’t allow religion to get mixed up in politics? Isn’t secularism a precondition of good government? But yet clearly we have here examples of politicians and judges getting involved in the practice of religion.

Is this an outrage? Shouldn’t politicians be kept out of religion? This was certainly my first thought. But on reflection I don’t think so. I suspect that we’ve all been misled by the enlightenment. Despite what the philosophers of the eighteenth century thought men and women are not simply reasoning machines which inhabit a body, but profoundly complicated entities in which spirit and matter are melded. Mind cannot be divorced from body, nor body from mind. They are inextricably entwined – which is why the Church has always talked about the Resurrection of the Body, and not simply survival.

Ultimately this is why we haven’t a monkeys chance of getting religion out of politics. Christians and other religious people will always want to talk about and act in the world in which they live. The names of Samuel Wilberforce and Martin Luther King come to mind- but there are plenty of others. And atheists will often find themselves talking about religion- even when they decry its influence.

So while only a very few would now wish to introduce established Churches where they do not exist, the attempt to maintain politics as a religion free zone in our culture is doomed. So too is trying to keep politics out of religion. Human beings do religion. And they also do politics. Keeping the two separate is like trying to separate the gin from the tonic. And this means, on the one hand, that liberals and atheists are going to have to get over the fact that religion will always influence politics. But on the other hand religious purists are going to have to live with the reality that politicians will always want to exercise some influence over religion. The paradox is then that in that part of life most susceptible to dogma we will have to learn to be most pragmatic- and that could be good for us all! R.M.

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