[Viewpoint] What religion can add to politics

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[Viewpoint] What religion can add to politics

To the surprise of many in the media - at home and abroad - Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to Britain was an outstanding success. As a Roman Catholic and as the person asked by Prime Minister David Cameron to supervise government arrangements for the visit, I was naturally delighted. But I was also pleased from the point of view of a citizen, with a strong dislike of the herd mentality.

The media tends to move like market sentiment. One moment, the public square is full of bulls; the next you’re being clawed by bears. We were told before the visit that the British public would be at best indifferent and at worst hostile. Even some in the Vatican feared this outcome. But from the moment the Pope arrived in Scotland, he was overwhelmed by enthusiastic crowds of well-wishers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

I drove in the papal cavalcade along the motorway from Edinburgh, where Benedict met Queen Elizabeth, to Glasgow, where he celebrated an open-air mass. All along the road were throngs of people. From the first day, the media understood that they had badly misread the public mood. The visit went from incipient disaster to huge success overnight. The public had poked a sharp stick into the eye of metropolitan cynicism and know-all journalism.

The message conveyed by the pope and by the religious leaders with whom he met defied the contemporary assumption that the public cannot understand anything longer or more complicated than a sound bite. The late American politician Adlai Stevenson once said that the average man (or woman) was a great deal better than average. Voters should be treated as equals, and politicians should not talk down to them.

Mind you, this was not enough to win Stevenson the presidency in the 1950’s.

“All the intelligent people in the country are supporting you,” he was told.

“That’s not enough,” he replied. “In order to win, I need a majority.”

Nevertheless, I think we have suffered too much from politics by simplistic slogans. Making a coherent, well-argued case is surely the best way in the long-term of trying to mobilize consent for any course of action. It dignifies an argument - and those to whom it is addressed - to set it out thoughtfully.

This is what Benedict does, as does his interlocutor in Britain, the head of the Anglican Communion, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Both are intellectuals and address difficult questions in a quiet, carefully considered way.

This has led Williams, in particular, into several run-ins with the media. For example, he was widely criticized for a lecture in 2008 in which he spoke about the relationship between Islamic Sharia law and the British legal system. What he said was both interesting and correct, but it was ripped out of context, and he was unfairly pilloried as a result.

The pope’s main speech was delivered to an audience of the great and the good in Westminster Hall, a medieval building whose use over the centuries has been intimately tied up with some of the greatest dramas in British history.

It was here that Thomas More, later canonized, was put on trial for defying his master, King Henry VIII. More would not accept the king’s assertion of supremacy over the church. His conscience would not allow him to bend to Henry’s will. He was executed in the Tower of London, martyred because of his conscience.

Saint Thomas More is regarded as the patron saint of politicians, which is rather flattering to many of those over whose spiritual interests he presumably presides. After all, not every politician is widely commended for following his conscience.

But the story of More, and the fact that the British legal system in its early years evolved under the high wooden beams of Westminster Hall, gave Benedict a good hook on which to hang a sermon about the importance of ethics and religion in public life.

Many secularists argue that ever since the Enlightenment, reason has been enough to guide governance and policymaking, buttressed by the rule of law if a community is lucky. But Benedict asserted the importance of faith alongside reason and law in safeguarding our civilization.

Europe’s foundations lie not just in Aristotle, reason, and classical Greece, and not just in Rome with its understanding of the importance of the law, but also in Jerusalem and Abrahamic faith groups - Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Reason devoid of ethics can prove insufficient to support the survival of civilization, a point that the pope’s own homeland, Germany, discovered in the 1930s.

To illustrate his argument, Benedict noted that the international financial crash, partly a consequence of insatiable greed, had provoked debate about the need for an ethical basis for economic behavior. Have we forgotten so readily the repugnance with which we discovered the dishonesty and extravagance that helped to wreck our prosperity in the West?

Another example of the relationship between ethics and policy is the response that rich countries have made to global social inequity, a deep moral affront to everyone with even a modicum of conscience and sensibility. In the midst of a gloomy crisis for public spending in Britain, the government has committed itself to sticking to its pledge of spending 0.7 percent of GDP on development assistance in poor countries. If only others would do the same, like rich Italy, which spends only 0.15 percent of its GDP on overseas aid. Where can and should religion and ethics contribute to political discourse?

*Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.
The writer is the former British governor of Hong Kong and is now the chancellor of the University of Oxford.

By Chris Patten
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