Religion and Politics

David Gee, an activist for a religious-political group, Quaker Peace & Social Witness, has published a report which argues that “recruits [to the Armed Forces] are unable to make informed choices about enlisting and children are being targeted.”.

His research has been funded by another religious-political organisation: the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, which is a body which “seeks to support the spiritual life of the Religious Society of Friends, and the development of Quaker responses to the problems of our time”.

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust has also established a website, Before You Sign Up, “that claims to give “independent and fair information about the benefits, risks and terms of service of a career in the armed forces”.

Quakerism is a religious movement which has, as one of its core principles, a commitment to non-violence: the so-called “Peace Testimony”:

We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world. The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight any war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world

Here is a lovely picture by the Quaker artist Edward Hicks, entitled the Peaceable Kingdom. In the picture, small children and vegetarian animals are seen snuggling up happily with gentle, former carnivores:

There is something rather lovely about the Quaker vision. It is mystical, and poetic. Poetry and mysticism have an important part to play in the private lives of many people, as do religious beliefs.

Religious people are also often motivated by their faith to do ‘good works’. Often, the “good works” that religious people engage in coincide with a more general, non-denominational and non-religious, understanding of “good”. Religious people may have a supernatural or mystical reason for pursuing a practical good. However, you do not have to be a christian, muslim or jew to believe that – for example – it is a good thing to alleviate starvation and world poverty. Sometimes, by contrast, the ‘good’ that religious people seek to do only really has value in the context of the theology in question. Baptism is only valuable within the context of Christian theology: although christians may, mistakenly, believe that baptism is good for everybody.

This is one of the reasons that I am very dubious about religious organisations engaging in public policy debates. Religious groups, with a strong commitment to a particular doctrine, often find it very difficult to separate the religious justification for the policy which they promote, from the rational ones.

Take, for example, another recent Christian sect: the Christian Scientists, founded by a woman called Mary Baker Eddy in order to to get out of paying her doctors’ bills. Eddy’s “discovery” was that man is created in the image of God, who is good and perfect. Therefore, she reasoned, man is also perfect. Accordingly, sickness is merely an illusion, which can be flushed away with prayer. Accordingly, Eddy did not need to pay the doctors who had treated her for the effects of a nasty fall: because God, and not they, had “cured” her of an injury which was, in any case, illusory. My unreliable recollection is that Eddy’s doctors sued her, and won. That is as it should be. Personal religious explanations, however ‘real’ they appear to the faithful, have no role in the shared, public sphere.

I mock the central tenets of Christian ‘Science’, as I’m entitled to do. They are silly and – if put into practice – potentially dangerous. However, they are evidently comforting to those who hold them, and so I’d only want to attack these beliefs if there were any danger that they’d be acted upon. Ditto, the belief of Jehovah’s Witnesses that transfusions constitute eating blood, and the belief of Scientologists that auditing to remove the souls of thousands of dead aliens from our brains is to be preferred to clinical psychology.

Were a Christian Scientist charity to fund a report by a Christian Scientist, recommending changes to public health policy, I’d naturally be wary of it. Similarly, I am wary of the value of reports by Quakers funded by Quaker charities, recommending changes to military policy.

Quaker non-violence made perfect sense for a small, embattled sect in the 17th century facing persecution by a suspicious state which regarded religious radicals as a threat. Indeed, the 1661 Peace Testimony, suggests Wikipedia, had a very sensible political aim: it was issued in the wake of:

an armed revolt by religious radicals in London in January; its issuance at this particular time was as much to remove any suspicion that Friends might have been involved as a desire to make their position clear.

As a basis for public policy, the Peace Testimony is a disaster. Look at Hicks’ picture of the Peaceable Kingdom, and imagine what would happen if a collection of herbivores and tiny children were actually to find themselves in close proximity to hungry carnivores. Quakers are very good at spreading the message of inner peace and tranquility, no doubt, but their principles can not be put into practice. Although it might seem harsh to say so, Quakers are in effect, “freeloaders” in a society in which the state has a monopoly of lawful force. Quakers are not living in a vicious, murderous totalitarian society today, because the Allies fought and won the Second World War, and because the West built nuclear weapons and won the Cold War. Quakers and other groups of similar eccentrics exist, because we live in a society which uses force to protect them.

Similarly, although there are very few indigenous Quakers in Afghanistan, armed forces acting under a UN Mandate in that country, are presently protecting the overwhelming majority of peaceful Afghans who are utterly terrified that the distinctly non pacifist Taliban, will return to rule them, brutally.

I would have thought that a sensible position for Quakers to take would be eschew the sin of violence personally, but at the same time, to express their gratitude to liberal and democratic states for taking on that burden of sin, in order to protecting Quakers, and other innocents, from those who would oppress them. However, some Quaker organisations seem to be quite bad at working out who their allies are. Quakers, in CND, had no difficulty in working with agents for Soviet block countries. Those agents were, of course, not believers in peace at all. They simply lied to the Quakers, who trustingly believed them.

I’m not in a position to make any comment on the research which Gee has published. He may have some sensible points to make.

However, given that Gee’s starting point is that “the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight any war”, I would have thought that the best place for his report is Thought for The Day, rather than the Radio 4 news headlines.

Failing that, it would have been nice if the BBC had mentioned that the Rowntree Trust is a religious-political organisation, and that Gee’s only qualification to write the report – apart from being “moved” by the “Spirit of Christ” – is that he is a “researcher who formerly ran the Quakers’ peace and disarmament programme”.