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Faith in Politics?

Faith in Politics?

R. D. Harries, Faith in Politics? Rediscovering the Christian Roots of our Political Values, 2nd edn. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2014.

When the first edition of Richard Harries’s book appeared in 2010, the sense of political crisis in the UK was profound. The MPs’ expenses scandal had wrecked the credibility of politicians, a messy election had led to the defeat of the New Labour project and the arrival of a coalition government threatened tough medicine for severe economic problems caused by malpractice in the financial world – a good time, then, for a book that took a step back from the specifics of any of those problems and asked about the system as a whole: was it redeemable and what do we actually want to change?

This new edition is equally timely. The banks are no more popular now than they were then, journalism has been dragged over the coals, sex abuse scandals have wreaked havoc on public institutions, and politicians are not trusted. There has been some real political change, though. UKIP has shaken the political parties in England that have failed to inspire for some time. North of the Scottish border, 85% of the population voted in a referendum (45% of them to leave the UK).

Harries’s book is entitled Faith in Politics, but in truth, the scope is significantly broader. It is really looking at the whole state of the UK – politics, law, economics and society. It begins by making its case for Christianity to speak at all on these issues in an increasingly secular public square, and establishes two fundamental building-blocks upon which the rest is based: that law must be tied to a conception of public morality and the common good, and that democracy is the political system that best values the innate dignity of all people.

The second half of the book advances Harries’s own vision for politics. He is effusive in his support for the human rights movement and rightly notes that Christian concern as to whether rights undermine the need for an equivalent sense of duties is misplaced when the one necessarily implies the other. There is a difficulty, however, which Harries does not really confront, which is not so much the principle of human rights as the growth in human rights legislation. Increasingly, European law in particular uses rights as the primary means of creating community solidarity. This expansion is moving beyond what Harries envisages as a demonstration of love to a means of imposing laws without recourse to democratic process.

This is a point which is also relevant to Harries’s vision of the three principles that have defined modern Western politics: liberty, equality and human community (his preferred term for fraternity). His central argument is that while all three are necessary and rooted in Christianity, there has been an excessive focus on liberty associated with social liberalism at the expense of human community. It is difficult to see, however, how the aim of rebalancing is helped by the expansion in rights legislation. Such legislation is increasingly dictated by courts rather than by elected governments and is invariably better suited to securing individual liberties than to benefiting the community.

The attempt to restructure society to take more account of human community seems very reminiscent of Christian democracy. Whereas for socialism, the primary end of politics is equality and for liberalism, liberty, the primary end of Christian democracy is solidarity. Harries seems to sit within that tradition. That, however, raises a problem. Christian democracy, in electoral terms, is effectively extinct. It collapsed in the 1990s and even
Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party is a poor shadow of its former self, relying at least as much as other conservative parties on the economic and social liberalisms that Harries identifies as the fundamental problem in politics today. If such a model has already been tried, tested and found wanting, is it truly plausible to expect it to make a return now?

That aside, this is an excellent book. It accomplishes what it sets out to do in providing an analysis of our times and making the case for the rooting of our political culture in Christianity. It is at its best when making a case for the fundamental values of our society, weakest when looking forward to what needs to change.

This review first appeared in Modern Believing, 56.2. 

Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos

Image by secretlondon123 from flickr.com under the Creative Commons Licence

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