My predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli, speaking in Aylesbury in 1861, declared: “The most powerful principle which governs man is the religious principle...A wise government, allying itself with religion, would as it were consecrate society and sanctify the state.”
It was not, by the standards of the age, an exceptional statement. Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Gladstone all regarded political action as a manifestation of their religious commitment.
Today, such a statement from a political leader would be greeted with incredulity, even hostility. Religious faith has been pushed to the margins of public debate.
Of course there are some good reasons why political language is mostly secular. Politicians (and, for that matter, bishops and other religious leaders) ought to be very cautious before proclaiming divine approval for a particular policy. I would be hard put to search out some biblical or doctrinal premise that would lead ineluctably to a particular position on planning law or the level of petrol duty or the best location for the European Parliament.
But I think we’re in danger of getting into a position where religion is seen as something that is fine for consenting adults in private but should not be part of public life.
Let me sketch three reasons why this view is wrong. For a start, it misunderstands religion. All three Abrahamic faiths teach that obedience to God has profound implications for how we live our lives in the world. For Christians, loving your neighbour is not an abstract idea but a commitment to be carried out in the time and place where we live.
Second, political debates today are dominated by the immediate. What subject will capture tomorrow’s headlines? What can we achieve given the deadlines imposed by the parliamentary year, the budget cycle or the timetable for elections?
The Church and other faith groups can help restore the balance by bringing to political debate an understanding of human nature, of social relationships and mankind’s relations with the rest of creation.
And this helps explain why many of the longest-established, most successful and innovative voluntary organisations in modern Britain are faith-based.
What I see in my constituency surgery is how people at the bottom of the heap in our society need not just help with money but practical love and emotional support.
That’s something that even the most sympathetic clerk in the Jobcentre or the benefits office can’t provide but which voluntary and particularly faith-based organisations can and do.
Third, a Christian’s awareness of his own sinfulness should make him hesitate before condemning others. In Northern Ireland, individual clergy, both Protestant and Catholic, took the risk to reach out to men of violence in efforts to bring about peace and reconciliation.
A constituency MP is asked for help by constituents who have committed crimes, or misused drugs or alcohol, or otherwise behaved anti-socially.
They’re not always polite or good at helping themselves. Religion teaches that they are entitled to dignity and respect. God loves them, too. I find that’s a helpful thought to have in mind.