27 July 2009

David Kerr: Thoughts on God in politics...

An act of informed voting is always going to be a trade-off among the voter’s priorities. Yes, the candidate is in favour of independence, but he is a schmuck. No, she doesn’t think that there should be a poll tax, but she also is against gay adoption. Another candidate has exemplary ideas on criminal justice, but cannot fathom climate change and is disposed to deny its significance. Nuclear power, wars, guns, free care for the elderly, graduate endowments, tuition fees – the informed voter is drawn by the nose this way and that by individual candidates’ opinions, which are never easy simulacra of the exact political positions of the voter who decides on them. You have to fudge – at least a little, sometimes a lot.

I think its in this context one has to see the warm words and interesting discussion around David Kerr’s candidacy in Glasgow North East, and precisely what weight his religious opinions should have in the decision to vote for or against him. Some, including the man himself, suggest that they shouldn’t, that it doesn’t matter, or indeed that it is villainy to enquire. I disagree, strongly.

Here is why. As has been reported, David Kerr was asked, predictably, what his views were on abortion. Avoiding providing a direct answer, Kerr justified this evasion by saying that he was not there “to talk about theology.” The quote is truncated, excised from a wider context, and hence, one ought to be cautious about being too expansionist about what he means to imply. But put it this way. Think of the many ways one can label the debate on abortion. A political issue, perhaps – one of public health – of ethics and morals – of an epistemology of embryology – in the final analysis, also one of law. To this, we can add another calculation – and cannot accuse Kerr of being exhaustively evasive of his views on the abortion question. After all, to reply that he wouldn’t talk about theology entails that if he was to talk about abortion – he would be in the theological realm. His wasn’t an absolute non-answer, since he candidly frames how he would discuss abortion as a personal and religious issue.

That said, if we were firmly in favour of abortion, it being a high priority on our voters catalogue of interests, we would probably want to know other things. For example, would he oppose or support particular approaches to public policy in this area, based on these religious norms? Alternatively, would he suspend judgement, conscious of the privacy of these feelings, and abstain on the relevant votes? Or would he go further, submitting to the party whip and follow the political commitments of his overseers, despite his personal views? One can envision similar tribulations in any number of areas where the godly norms Kerr perceives conflict with the pressing political directions taken by party and parliament. What would he do? These are relevant questions, fairly asked. There really are no protest votes – if your candidate and party win – the individual voter is implicated in giving those characters their mandate and social authority. We’re not exhaustively responsible, clearly, but if our men and women begin making mischief, or oppressing others, our continuing support for them in that knowledge is blameworthy. Given that the ideology of Opus Dei - quite consistently - seems to deny any division between public and private, just as Catholic theology generally insists that God's laws are objectively true and hence, ethics isn't as atheists imagine it - Kerr faces a problem. If he is unable to deny the religious call to wholeness in public and private life, voters who disagree with him on these issues have every reason to reject his candidacy. Depending, of course, on the priority among their individual preferences. Folk maybe don’t consciously think of it in this way, and perhaps don’t reduce these preferences to writing, but they play out in every Labour voter who gave up on the Red Rose Brigade after Iraq, or every Tory who turned UKIP on Europe.

Lets look at the religious norms in public life issue atheistically. Assume, for the moment, that God is false, that the Bible and the rules of the Church are man-crafted and without divine sanction or objective resonance. Say instead that every person has an individual notion of ethics – but some people are more individual that others. When Kerr says this is right, he is making a statement of the same sort as my statement this is right. He may feel less responsible as the originator of this ethical ejaculation – attributing it to a magic book or the word of an invisible spirit – but if his surrounding cosmology is false – he is reduced to the same, plain human level my moral views must be couched in. There is no substantive category difference.

That being so, consider the following hypothetical scenario. I am a would-be lawmaker and hate homosexuals, but for resolutely secular reasons. Heaven knows what these might be – but given man’s irrationality – anything is possible. I argue against adoption, against civil unions, even against gay teachers. For some, this is not an issue to rouse them from their lethargy, and my other virtues and views may overbear and prove conclusive. Not so for those who place equality of this sort higher up their agenda. They would vote against me with feeling, and would be correct to do so. Change this scenario only in one particular – that the aforementioned hatred and activism was animated by a religious sense rather than a godless one – and the same conditions obtain.

While it doesn’t matter whether Kerr believes in the Almighty, if you the voter do not believe in God, you have every good reason to reject him based on his views. Since the boundary between religious ethics and ethics simplicter must be fictional in an atheistic world view – it is simple consistency to hold Kerr to account based on those opinions. Faith matters, precisely because morals matter. You can’t have politics without politics. Crucially, however, how significantly particular moral positions matter will be a point of variability between different people. That is why it is erroneous to insist as a universal truth that one can excise personal faith from the political agora. While for some people, this may well be true, for others, it must be of the most intimate consequence.

Recognising this diversity is to take ethics – and religion – seriously. As we ought to.


  1. A well considered and interesting blog lallands.

    Have you considered that the Labour candidate is also Catholic and may well be pre-conditioned against abortion, homosexuality and sex before marriage?

    I can't help thinking it's strange to be focusing on one candidate like this, indeed, it's positively worrying that the Scottish press seem to have gone 'tabloid' over the whole affair.

    I'm fairly sure that Kerr will candidly talk about abortion and other issues when on a level playing feild of a televised debate with the other candidtaes.

    At the moment, led by Labour press / spin, the national media seem to be on a witch hunt for 'on o' there ane'.

    My own view is that if this is the best 'dirt' that they can dig up, then Labour are in deep deep trouble.

    Have you ever heard Willy Bain speak?

  2. I find it difficult to comment on this because I don't want to rock the boat in a critical by-election, so I will confine myself to saying this - the problem is not David Kerr's Catholicism, it is his adherence to Opus Dei. I invite anyone who doesn't see the problem with this to consider Opus Dei's record during the Franco regime in Spain.

  3. Wardog,

    I absolutely accept that my remarks logically have a much wider application that David Kerr. He's just an object lesson in the particular issue - and because most folk know about the conflict about him, its an obvious starting point for a more general discussion.

    As for Willie Bain, I am totally unfamiliar with him, either as a legal scholar or as a speaker.