Religion and politics do not mix ... which is a lesson that our politicians should learn
Political power doesn't give you the right to impose your beliefs on the electorate, says Fionola Meredith
When Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's spin doctor, said "we don't do God" he clearly wasn't thinking about Northern Ireland. Here our politicians do God all the time. Religion is interwoven so tightly with politics that it's often impossible to tell the two apart.
The place of faith in a politician's life - or more importantly how their faith intersects with their politics - has come to the fore again with the row over the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, and whether or not he approves of gay relationships.
Personally, I could not give a stuff whether Tim does or doesn't consider it a sin for two men to get it on together. Or two women, for that matter. He's a born-again evangelical Christian so I would have assumed he thought it was a big no-no. He implied as much, in an interview two years ago, when asked if homosexuality was a sin, to which Farron obliquely replied "we are all sinners".
But now, after much media interrogation, he has decided that what gay people do in bed isn't a sin after all. Well, thank the Lord!
What with the proximity of the general election, and the kicking meted out to anyone who doesn't celebrate gayness in all its myriad, glorious forms, it looks like Tim chose pragmatism over personal principle.
Some may call him a hypocrite. Rod Liddle labelled him "a weak little weasel". Me? I think Farron is entitled to think what he likes about homosexuality or any other issue, as long as it doesn't impact on the requirement to be fair in his politics.
Farron himself recognises the need for separation between his public life and his private views. He said that as a political leader, his job is not to pontificate on theological matters. "I don't think people want political party leaders telling them what is and isn't sin," he said. "For me, separating faith from politics means you shouldn't … be trying to impose one's beliefs on others."
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And there's the key - not trying to force your own beliefs down others' throats. Not enacting them, without evidence, as public policy. Not dressing up private conviction as a universal common good. These are the kindergarten lessons that many politicians in Northern Ireland have yet to learn.
Of course people do not go into politics, here or elsewhere, as blank slates. They come with values, beliefs and principles that inform the way they look at the world. That's fair enough. Everyone is entitled to those private views, and to express them as they see fit. What's not fair, and what's deeply retrograde, is to use political power to impose those views on others.
This happens time after time in Northern Ireland. Our abortion laws are a sick joke because politicians place their personal religious beliefs about the sanctity of life above a raped woman's need for a termination. Gay marriage is outlawed because it goes against Biblical teaching, and would apparently make a mockery of every God-fearing heterosexual union, especially Jim Allister's. Even the licensing legislation - particularly the loony, arbitrary laws around when and where we are permitted to drink at Easter - is dictated by the temperance brigade.
Look, this is not an attack on Christianity, or on religion in general. I don't subscribe to the illiberal, intolerant and infantile fashion for trashing Christian beliefs, dismissing them as stupid bigotry writ large. These days, bigot simply means 'anyone who doesn't agree with me'. Christians, of the political variety or otherwise, are absolutely entitled to their views. What they believe is no business of anybody else's.
But our political leaders have a duty to represent the rights of everyone in the community, not just those who happen to share the same ideas about the big moral issues of our time.
Let's face it, politics in Northern Ireland is a fairly brutal, simplistic, unevolved game. It's populated by people who are convinced of their own supreme moral rectitude, and who interpret electoral success as a mandate to impose their personal beliefs on the people at large.
As for Tim Farron, if he says he doesn't believe gay sex is a sin, we'll have to take his word on that. But even if he thought it was the depths of depravity, the Lib Dems, led by Farron, have a strong record on gay rights. What matters is public action, not private belief, and it's perfectly possible to keep the two things separate.
The mistake that Northern Ireland's politicians make is not to do God. It's to behave as though they are God.