Bishop Martyn's address at the Justice Service 16 October 2022
On September 12, 1960, John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for President, gave a speech in Houston, Texas on the role of religion in politics. The “religious issue” had dogged his campaign. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic, and no Catholic had ever been elected President. There was a general fear that Kennedy would be beholden to the Vatican in the conduct of his office or might impose Catholic doctrine on public policy.
Hoping to allay these fears, Kennedy agreed to speak about the role his religion would play in his presidency, should he be elected. His answer was simple: none. “Whatever issue may come before me as president” he said, “on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject – I will make my decision in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest.”
46 years later, on June 28, 2006, Barack Obama, soon to become a candidate for his party’s presidential nomination gave a very different speech on the role of religion in politics. He described his own Christian faith and argued for the relevance of religion to political argument.
Religion, he said, was not only a source of resonant political rhetoric, (he is of course quite a Pentecostal preacher himself), but he went on to argue that the solution to certain social problems requires moral transformation, not legislation. “Our fear of getting ‘preachy’”, he said, “may lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.” Addressing problems such as “poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed,” would require “changes in hearts and a change in minds.”
Two very similar men, young and gifted, carrying the hopes of millions, but with two very different views on the role of religion in politics.
In just a few weeks’ time, I have the great privilege and honour of entering the House of Lords. In a tradition going back to the 14th century, Bishops have been part of the upper House of Parliament. Today this tradition takes the form of 26 of the 42 diocesan bishops sitting in the House of Lords with 751 other members, hereditary and appointed. The 26 are decided on length of time in office, hence the fact that after six years as Bishop of Leicester, I am now to take the place of the recently retired Bishop of Blackburn.
I am very aware that the place of bishops within the Lords is highly contested. For some like the National Secular Society it is simply anathema to have religious leaders involved in public life. Others ask the question as to why it is only bishops - why not other Christian denominations and other faith leaders. And the answer that the Church of England is the established church in this country is not a satisfactory answer for some people.
But then there is the more subtle argument that those who make the law, together with those who interpret it and those who enforce it, should be neutral when it comes to moral and religious questions. This is the argument famously put forward by the philosopher John Rawls, who, speaking of the American judicial system said: “the justices cannot, of course invoke their own personal morality, nor the ideals and virtues of morality generally. Those they must view as irrelevant. Equally, they cannot invoke their or other peoples’ religious or philosophical views… they must restrict themselves to arguments that all citizens can reasonably be expected to accept.”
This is the John Kennedy approach – religion and politics must be completely separate. But perhaps you won’t be surprised to know that I am more persuaded by the Barack Obama approach, which acknowledges the fact that everyone of us has values and commitments which shape our decisions and there is no such thing as ‘neutrality’ in moral matters. Even Kennedy spoke of being “guided by his conscience”, though he didn’t elaborate on what he meant by this.
And this brings me to our Bible reading this evening, for in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he likens the church to the human body, a body which has many parts all of which must work together for the body to be healthy, and all of which are animated by the same Spirit. The image of course is not original to Paul, it had been used by many others before to speak of society, the whole of society working as one body with some parts being given positions of prominence and others positions of humility. Paul however translates this picture to the church with the added resonance of the church being the living body of Christ, in some sense replacing the physical body of Christ which was buried, rose again and ascended to heaven. The church then continues the work of Christ and does this by every baptised Christian playing a part in the life of the body.
Within this imagery, it is impossible to talk of some part of the body somehow being neutral in its relation to the rest of the body. No part can stand separate and view the rest of the body unattached. Every part of the body is attached and therefore has a limited perspective or function and needs every other part of the body in order to flourish. So the same is true of the church and of society in general, we are all connected, and for the body to be healthy, all parts must work in harmony together, respecting each other’s unique function and role.
And this is why society only functions well, when people of different backgrounds, different faiths, and different cultures mix with one another and have the humility to learn from one another. Far from keeping their religion or their culture to themselves, we must all be public about our commitments and values so that we can have genuine debate about the common good.
I would dare to say that this is one of many factors which lies behind the recent unrest in Leicester. In what is a very complex situation, it is nevertheless true to say, that there are people in this city who believe their gifts are not recognised by others and not welcomed by others. They feel excluded from society. They have no stake in society and so no reason to conform to societies expectations.
So we need spaces in society where people of different beliefs, different values and different cultures come together and learn how to live well together. The House of Lords is intended to be such a place, but far more important are the local ‘intermediate institutions’ – places such as interfaith groups, community associations, together with sports clubs, theatre groups, uniformed organisations and so many others – these are the places where each one of us can feel that we belong, where we can contribute, while also being the places where we encounter people who are very different. When they function well, these spaces enable us to learn how to disagree and to disagree well. But far from parking our faith and culture at the door, in a vain attempt to be neutral in our interactions, we need to be honest about beliefs and our differences.
This then is why I support Barack Obama’s view, even though he may not have quite realised the vision he held out before people. But he was right to insist that moral and religious convictions can and indeed must play a part in politics and law – for whether or not we are open and honest about our own beliefs and convictions, they do shape our decision making. Far better then, for each one of us to realise that we do not have all the answers, and we do need to receive from others, and we need to debate with others with a genuine openness to changing our minds. Far better to recognise that we are one body, and we need each other for the body to be healthy. I hope therefore, that today we can all recommit ourselves to this task of playing our part in this body and working together for the good of all in society.
+ Martyn Leicester