Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain have increased the pressure of religious authorities on the upcoming General Election by backing Catholic archbishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s call for new restrictions on women’s access to abortions.
Sacranie said: “We welcome [Tory leader] Michael Howard's stance which we hope will reduce the number of abortions that occur in this country.” Sacks added: “Clearly the time has come to reconsider our stance on abortion, and give weight to the right of the unborn child.”
These religious figures are not responding to medical advances which make foetuses able to survive and develop independently from an earlier stage, but merely seizing on them to push the aim of a total ban on abortion (and, for the Catholic Church, on all forms of effective contraception).They want to sacrifice the rights of women to the hypothetical rights of biological material.
Murphy-O’Connor has upped the temperature, claiming that abortion laws and embryo research are “on the road” to Nazi eugenics. Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams has chimed in, hesitantly but clearly, saying that abortion is “the deliberate termination of a human life”, and that concern about organised religion’s increasingly vocal role in politics is “alarmist nonsense”.
Even Murphy-O’Connor says he does not want “an American style” of religious intervention into politics. But there is nothing uniquely American about religious intervention in politics. For decades the Catholic Church in Italy used to warn voters that it would be a terrible sin to vote for the Communist Party. And what is happening now in Britain is very like the first stages of the reassertion of a religious voice in politics such as exists in the USA.
Although religious observance in the USA is higher than in Britain — about 20% of adults attending church, mosque, temple, or synagogue regularly — it is declining. Between 1991 and 1999 the percentage of adults who said they had been to church in the previous week went down from 49% to 41%. The percentage reading the Bible at home has also declined.
But, where religious observance had almost no correlation with politics before 1972, and little before 1992, now it is the strongest single predictor of political alignment. 54% of those who attend church (or synagogue, etc.) weekly define themselves as “conservative”, while 74% of those who never attend religious services define themselves as “moderate” or “liberal”. The correlation is even higher among whites in the USA, and quite low among blacks and Hispanics.
With the labour movement in disarray, and offering little vision of how life could be different from the dog-eat-dog present, religious figures are filling the philosophical gap.
What makes them religious figures is that they purport to express not only their own opinions, but the dictates of God, who, in all these religions, is liable to punish those who flout his wishes with a ferocity that no human torturer could equal. Their intervention in politics is not just a matter of individuals expressing opinions, as they have a right to do, but of moral blackmail.
And they are especially dangerous because of the pressure they can put on vulnerable children and young people. At present, according to a recent survey by the Guardian, only 25% of 16-year-olds in Britain believe in any species of God. But that is not for want of state-aided pressure from the organised religions.
Back in 2001, the Church of England resolved to develop 100 new church-controlled secondary schools within the state sector, in addition to the 204 they had already. The Government has backed them. They are on course to achieve it. The number of students in Anglican state secondary schools has gone up from 64,000 in 1950 to 150,000 in 2000 and 164,000 today.
One-third of all state schools are religious. Muslim schools are now developing alongside the Catholic and Anglican ones, creating a danger of educational segregation.
All the leaders of the big parties, while making the same demur as the cardinal about not wanting “an American style”, have said that organised religion should play a bigger role.
Speaking to the Faithworks group, organised by Baptist preacher Steve Chalke, Tony Blair said: “I would like to see [churches] play a bigger, not a lesser, role in the future”.
Charles Kennedy told the same group that “churches should be trusted more”. He wanted “a wider role for faith groups in education and other public services”, and reckoned that “religious faith of all denominations can provide society with a moral compass — a sense of what is right or wrong”. Why the 95% in Britain who are not regularly religiously observant should be told by the hierarchy of the other 5% “what is right or wrong”, he did not explain.
Michael Howard claimed that politicians should “listen to and respect” the “faith communities”, which (the 5 per cent!) he called “the forgotten majority”.
It is down to socialists to fight for a clear separation of politics from the moral blackmail of organised religions.
By Colin Foster