Politics and Religion

Sermon: Hull Unitarian Church, 13th April 1997

This week the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland produced a report, Unmployment and the Future of Work, on the widening gap between the haves and have nots. The report highlights huge housing areas that now survive on meagre levels of benefits and yet which cost huge social security budgets. Its recommendations inevitably are political calling for the likes of a minimum wage, the redistribution of income through taxation in order to generate jobs, and good training towards jobs. The report was released into the thick of the General Election campaign which some say is otherwise largely about seeking 70000 undecided votes in marginal constituencies.
There are three main positions connecting Christianity and the political economy. The CCBI report on unemployment draws on one Protestant perspective, commonly referred to as Christian socialism. It develops the view of incarnation as God's concern for everyone, the potential good of all creation and preparation towards the bringing in of the Kingdom of God. A key principle was in the statement once made by Ronald Preston that "the economy was made for humankind, not humankind for the economy" or, in other words, the economy exists to deliver social justice as well as wealth. This economic and political stance largely comes from broad Church, liberal mainstream and Anglo-Catholic positions and was best promoted by the great public figure Archbishop William Temple.
The other Protestant position, a mainly evangelical or fundamentalist view, believes in the individualism of the market economy which matches an individualist perspective on salvation. However, it also preaches a collective emphasis on morality, particularly sexual ethics. Of course some evangelicals do say that you cannot save souls unless people have full stomachs first.
The third main Christian position is the official and international Roman Catholic view, developed consistently from the late nineteenth century. This stance derives primarily from the teaching authority of the Church, not as such the biblical based view about preparing for the coming of the Kingdom of God. It was recently seen in this country in the report called The Common Good, which is a long standing Catholic phrase. Journalists described this as being novel support for the Labour Party, but in fact the Catholic position has consistenly called for the priority of labour over capital in the working of capitalism to be achieved by state interventions but only within the context of the subsidiarity of responsibity with families and individual conscience. Unlike Protestant Christian socialism it proclaims conservative views on sexual ethics.
Three positions: Christian socialism based on a biblical view, individualist capitalism with ethical conservatism based on a biblical view and The Common Good with ethical conservatism from the Catholic Church. So a there is a variety of politics there.
So what about the connections between Unitarian religion and the political economy?
We can start with those who set in motion this congregation in pre-Unitarian history. They were merchants and part of the system of gilds which set prices and the trading behaviour of members. We know that the first church in Bowlalley Lane from 1680 was build in the architectural style of Merchants' Halls. The nearest equivalent today of gilds would be the professions; the nearest equivalent of their beliefs today would be the Ulster Unionists, that is strict Protestant trinitarians. And while the upper classes went through the laxities of the Restoration, our spiritual ancestors combined relief for basic poverty with trying to prosecute people for anything beyond an approved Puritan lifestyle. So this is one foundational inheritance: authoritarian conservatism.
Things changed with the emerging free market but the new ever wealthier middle class, outside the Church of England, were excluded from the political process. So they took part in political agitation, and thus they gained a reputation for radicalism. The Unitarians approved of the liberal 1789 French Revolution. They wanted emancipation for Catholic, Jew and non-conformist because it would sweep away the old regime and give their class political power that matched their ever growing economic power. That was the whole point of the 1832 Reform Act and Hull had provided leading agitators for that and associated legislation.
Deism is a belief associated with Unitarians as well as others. Deism is about a God who sets up the world but makes no supernatural interventions. And if God does not intervene, but what he had done at the creation was "good", so the Bible says, then you get the rightful invisible hand of the market economy. Other Unitarians did believe in God's intervention, as in the materiality of biblical miracles. That materiality was combined with a pseudo-scientific rationality under God. So the market economy was seen as tactile and material and believed to lead to the greatest good of the greatest number. The nearest equivalent today of these market and liberal agitating Unitarians is Thatcherism. Thatcherism itself, of course, was not the old Disraeli one nation conservatism but a reinvention of Whig or Manchester liberalism.
However, this scene got complicated because Unitarianism itself developed into two movements. One side saw a further necessary radicalising of the biblical Unitarianism which believed in a sovereign God. Education, education, education is a slogan much heard today. It was important then to the biblical side. But James Martineau, the leading Unitarian theologian of the nineteenth century, sneered at these Unitarian for believing in &"Educational development for the sake of happiness." Martineau said the Church's only task is to develop the holy, the metaphysical and the transcendent. He was a Tory, and often reminded detractors that a Conservative government was in power when in 1845 legislation stopped the denomination's trust funds being forced back to trinitarian chapels. We hear the same argument today: churches should keep out of the political economy.
James Martineau may have been liturgically influential but churches did still develop programmes of basic education, leisure provision and welfare. They were agents of middle class philanthropy to the poor but this declined when first the Liberal Party and then the Labour Party introduced state provision for education and welfare and, later, with more wealth leisure was found outside the churches.
Some Unitarians became very radical or socialist. Philip Henry Wicksteed tried to keep the Rev. John Trevor within Unitarianism. He failed and John Trevor set up the Labour Church. Unitarianism was too middle class, and the Labour Church even rejected Christianity.
Unitarianism had taken on, with others, a belief in an evolutionary Romantic and semi-socialist view of building the Kingdom of God on earth, a belief not helped by the First World War, the depression, the holocaust, the Second World War and Communism.
Since the 1970's collectivist views declined and pluralism in society has been paralled by the growth of religious pluralism in this denomination. Unitarian pluralist roots lie in the nineteenth century rewriting of history as to why our forbears rejected creeds. As for the oputcome today, any pluralist theology intends to promote: liberation from conformity and ignorance; human values; freedom, reason and tolerance; subsidiarity; and more than the material. So unlike our Puritan ancestors, it welcomes a wide variety of lifestyles, for example gay and lesbian equality. Process supercedes beliefs, and beliefs differ. So this religious liberalism is very close to political liberalism.
Part of this pluralism has included a rebirth of the once excluded Emerson and Thoreau's nature transcendentalism, the somewhat taboo Neo-Paganism and creation spirituality. This inevitably a close relationship with environmental politics.
Postliberalism or postmodern religion is also a development of that relativity that comes from the vast choice of pluralism. Postliberalism means the end of dogmatic ideology and the growth of pragmatism. It does not forget past traditions but uses them ironically. And we can see this postmodernism and its irony in the current election, especially in the way that the Conservative Prime Minister presents his apparent ordinary origins while New Labour bcomes pragmatic, even embraces some privatisation and seems middle class. What a funny world we live in.
Well, they say that where there are two Unitarians there are three opinions, and in the last parliament two Unitarian MPs represented three political parties: Liberal Democrat, Green and Plaid Cymru. The Welsh nationalist connection partly comes from the location of the Welsh language churches.
So, here we go! The Unitarian inheritance has embraced: middle class interests, lifestyle authoritarianism, concern for poverty, free market capitalism, socially concerned capitalism, respectability, social indifference, welfare socialism, varied lifestyles, political liberalism, ironic pragmatism, environmentalism and even nationalism. So I leave it to you and me to choose if and how our religious affiliation will influence voting on May 1st!


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful