Saints in Politics

One book that influenced me greatly during my time at University was called Saints in Politics. It was an account of the Clapham Sect—a band of evangelical Christians around the turn of the Nineteenth century, whose most famous member was William Wilberforce, a man who spent a lifetime campaigning against vested interests for the abolition of the slave trade. The book was written by E. M. Howse, later to be Moderator of the United Church of Canada.

From the political point of view, one interesting feature of Wilberforce’s position was that he entered Parliament in the days before the Reform Bill of 1832, as representative of a ‘rotten borough’, and had bought his seat in Parliament from the local landlord. He therefore had less difficulty in securing a Parliamentary seat than a religious maverick would have in our present system of ‘one man one vote’, of organized parties and party platforms.

The influence of his approach led to many social reforms in England in the Victorian era: Factories Acts, labour laws, public health laws, and in due course, old age and other pensions. It spilled over into Canadian politics in the religious element of the C.C.F.—Holdsworth, Knowles and Tommy Douglas, for instance—not to mention the strong religious basis of the Social Credit movement in Alberta.

What strikes me today, however, is the possibility that he started a trend in politics that has become highly dangerous, and very difficult to reverse. This is the trend to make religious positions into law. We have seen it in the Divorce law as it stood before 1968, when, by a policy more strict than that of Moses, nothing but adultery was allowable as grounds for divorce, and some very unpleasant home situations existed as a result.

We have seen it as a gradual trend, by which legislation to set out, say, fair conditions of work (which costs the government very little to do) has been supplemented and supplanted by much more ambitious schemes to totally redistribute incomes from the productive to the poor, so giving a ‘right’ to both the unfortunate and the lazy to receive an income from the taxpayer through the welfare schemes of the Welfare State. A trend has therefore set in by which elections have started to resemble more and more an auction of the spoils of office, in the manner of the declining days of the Roman Empire. All in the name of Christianity and loving our neighbour, of course!

By doing this, we have turned the Government into God. When a tornado strikes, people feel they have the ‘right’ to indemnification from the authorities. The government is the rock beneath our feet, the shepherd who makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us forth beside the waters of comfort. The government is being asked by those opposed to abortion to bring punishment to the immoral and the wicked who generate unwanted babies, and to harass prostitutes with a cloak of silence. It may sound wonderful, but it’s not democracy, and it’s not even good politics.

The laughable result of all this is that the churches, who started it all, have been responsible for replacing God with Bureaucracy—and have received no thanks for so doing. Instead of encouraging their faithful to minister to the world in the tradition of the Good Samaritan with personal sacrifice for social and medical care, they have demanded that Society levy taxes to pay for it all, while they spend the money of the faithful on the requirements of buildings and ministries devoted to the good of the soul. (I exaggerate, but the overall trend is unmistakable!)

What do we need? Perhaps a church that thunders from the pulpit against the appalling extortions of the tax-collectors and usurers of the world. A church that tells the faithful to stay away from sin and immorality, but does not impose its own standards by law on other people. A church that tells its people to be socially conscious and support the weak and needy—but out of their own efforts and their own pockets, not those of everyone else.

It would be a welcome change.

– Gemini, February 1989