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Stephen Simpson/Newscom

Escaping the 'Enlightenment trap'

Britain | With UK's election, the church stakes out its place in the public square

Issue: "GOP idea man," May 22, 2010

Labour candidate Leo Barraclough, running for a seat in Parliament, stood before a gathering of voters at St. Thomas Church in Eastleigh, a town in the southern part of England, and talked about something British politicians have avoided in years past: his faith.

"It's always been important to me that my Christian values also tallied with my values in politics," he said. "I've tried to look at all the policies of the Labour Party in that light and that if Jesus was looking at these policies He would find something He could approve of."

Eastleigh was tightly contested, just like all of the May 6 general election, making the Christian constituency there that much more vital. Barraclough is not the only candidate who deployed religious rhetoric. Even the Liberal Democrats' party leader Nick Clegg, who declared himself "not a man of faith," said "Christian values" are central to his policies. "I do believe in the separation of church and state," he told the Christian magazine Faith Today. "But that doesn't mean keeping faith out of public life."

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Other party leaders were not to be outdone in the days leading up to one of Britain's tightest elections in memory: Labour leader Gordon Brown talks about the "moral compass" his Presbyterian faith gives him, adding in his own comments to Faith Today: "I absolutely reject the idea that religion should somehow be tolerated but not encouraged in public life." Conservative leader David Cameron, a member of the Anglican church, commented, "I do think that organized religion can get things wrong, but the Church of England and the other churches do play a very important role in society."

Mentions of God or religion in British politics have historically been rare. "We don't do God," Alastair Campbell, spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair, famously said in 2003-interrupting an interview when a reporter asked the Labour prime minister about his faith.

On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, as Blair was about to deliver an address to the nation, he reportedly told his advisers he planned to conclude by saying, "God bless you" but they heartily rebuked him: He concluded the speech instead, "Thank you." Blair publicly converted to Catholicism, but only after he left office.

The separation of church and state was a founding principle in the United States, where settlers first came to escape state religion in reaction to colonial overseers in Great Britain. But the American political firmament is historically more colored by religion, and public religious faith is nearly imperative for viable political candidates. Ironically, Britain, with its centuries of institutional ties between the state and the Church of England, has had little use for religion in politics. Politicians rarely mention personal faith, and they haven't felt the need to court religious voters like their counterparts in the United States.

But British think tanks like Theos, which focuses on religion in society, have noted increased religious rhetoric over the last decade, partly because issues like religious liberty and faith-based initiatives have come to the fore. "Religion is not just in the news, it's leading the news," Paul Woolley, director of Theos, told me. Woolley also credits the new attention to religion to Britain's increasingly globalized society, where people identify themselves more in religious than ethnic terms.

Brits also face religious freedom controversies that Americans have only glimpsed. Christians have been charged for publicly speaking of homosexuality as a sin, most recently a Baptist street preacher just three days before the election. A Christian doctor was barred from sitting on a public adoption panel when she asked to abstain from adoption decisions involving same-sex couples. Others have been banned from wearing crosses in the workplace. "The rights Christians thought they had in this country are being eroded," said David Muir, head of Faith in Britain.

Paradoxically, British citizens also rely on the church for many basics of society: Taxpayers fund religious schools, something all three parties support to some degree. The government funds faith-based initiatives domestically and abroad, and party leaders have applauded their work, with Labour's Brown even insisting that government should provide for "more faith-based services." Clegg asserted that churches and related organizations will have a "bigger role" under Liberal Democrats. The parties do differ somewhat in their policy approaches to faith-based organizations, such as whether those organizations can discriminate in hiring.

As the church's influence in society has grown, Christian political groups and think tanks have blossomed, like the eight-year-old Faithworks. The public-policy group CARE, which at almost 40 years of age has been around longer than most, helped organize hustings (similar to town halls in the United States) in more than 250 churches during this national campaign. In fact, most hustings take place in churches, though they are open to the general populace.

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