Comment: A purely private faith is of no public use and is not Christian

Professor Stephen Williams, Union Theological College, Belfast
Professor Stephen Williams, Union Theological College, Belfast

In the run-up to the election, we hear some Christian politicians talking about separating their faith from their politics.

Their faith is private.

Of course, if their faith tells them to be honest and keep to their word etc, that affects their public conduct.

Also, compassion and justice matter in public life. But these are shared general moral standards which everyone professes.

Religious faith has no role to play in shaping the world of public policy, where we are trying to legislate on behalf of everyone.

This is a complete misunderstanding of faith, politics and their relationship.

Law and public policy are not value-free zones.

Some group’s values will prevail in public life; some groups will lose out.

Because they’re in the headlines, take the arguments over abortion, just as an example. People value differently the life of the unborn child in relation to the mother’s choice.

These are not just ‘personal values’; they are the values which people believe should be enshrined in law.

There has got to be some law on abortion.

If Christian values do not prevail, the alternative is not neutrality.

It is that others’ values will prevail.

Secularists, atheists and adherents of other religions can say exactly the same.

The language of ‘imposed’ is adversarial, but if you think of politics in terms of conflict – and that is the sad reality – then values are always being imposed by some on others.

A faith which is purely private is of no public use and it is not Christian.

Imagine a Marxist saying: ‘My personal values are Marxist, but I put them aside when I enter politics.’

I say ‘Imagine a Marxist’, but I can’t imagine a Marxist saying that.

And he or she would be quite wrong to do so. In their views of labour, wealth and capitalism, some Christians will agree with Marxists; others will not. But if Christians say that their Christian values are personal and must be set aside in public life, it is just as odd as Marxists saying that.

It is a misunderstanding of Christianity which, like Marxism, has a set of views on how public life should be organised.

People who separate faith from politics are over-reacting.

There have been bad experiences over the years of Christians or churches trying to impose their views in a way which they have no right to do. But the answer to that is not to withdraw faith from the public arena.

It is to present views and arguments for public discussion and scrutiny, just as adherents of a secular faith do.

If secular people believe that their values are best for society, they are quite right to try to promote them.

It is very odd if Christians believe that their values are best for society but decide not to promote them.

What we need is a culture of debate with input from all sides, not Christians (or anybody else) keeping their faith tucked away in a private corner of their lives.

• Professor Stephen Williams is a lecturer on theology at Union Theological College