On Politics, Power and the Pulpit

Following the news that two members of Pussy Riot have been sent to remote penal colonies in Russia, UCB Radio asked me on to Paul Hammond’s show on to discuss ‘Politics and the Pulpit’.

Is a church an appropriate place for political messages?   There are two aspects to this question. The first is whether activists should protest in a Church.  Was the uninvited ‘hooliganism’ of Pussy Riot justified? I cited the example of Jesus himself, who caused havoc in the Temple in what was surely a political as well as spiritual protest (see, for example, Mark 11-15).

In the case of Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk Prayer‘, as in the example of Jay-C in the Temple, I think the protest act was justifiable, even if it did cause a hullabaloo.  In both cases, the message was about the corruption of the Church hierarchy.  The point of the protest was indeed to shock and offend, in the hope that the devout would be jolted into the realisation that their religious leaders were wielding their power inappropriately, for earthly ends.

(As an aside, I might also mention Behzti, the play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti set in a Sikh Gurdwara.  Critics of the play thought that Bhatti chose the Temple purely to cause controversy for its own sake.  However, anyone who has seen the play knows that this religious setting is essential.  The Gurdwara carries an unassailable power that a private house or a community centre does not.  The main antagonist is able to take advantage of this power, to the detriment of the other characters).

So a place of worship is often exactly the right place to take a stand, because of the power that such places hold.  Ecclesiastical architecture exudes power, which those within the establishment use to give credibility to their pronouncements. Often, this power needs to be appropriated and subverted.  Never was this more true than in the Pussy Riot case – a feminist critique of an institution that still embraces the word ‘patriarchy’ in reference to its priestly caste.

But what of the other issue – when those for whom the Church was designed use the pulpit to give political messages?  This summer, many people criticised Cardinal Keith O’Brien after he made a statement against gay marriage.  Was he right to do so?

There is certainly no way we could ever advocate a law (legal or ecclesiastical) against political speech from the pulpit.  So it is clear that Cardinal O’Brien and his colleagues have a legal right to say what they feel they must.  The question becomes purely one of morality and appropriateness.

As I said in the UCB discussion, I think that all religious discussion is also political.  Religions make claims to be all about inner spirituality and the afterlife, but actually they spend much of their time discussing how we should interact with other people.  This is the essence of politics.  One may argue that religions are anachronistic and irrational… but it is no surprise that, while they exist, the adherents and leaders will discuss how to organise society and the priorities of the community. When Bishops take a stand against poverty, they do not receive much criticism, even though this is a hugely moralistic thing to do with far-reaching implications for public policy. So it cannot be morally wrong in principle for a senior religious figure to say political things from the (literal or metaphorical) pulpit.

Instead, the criticism that senior religious figures receive when they condemn gay marriage or abortion rights is simply politics in action.  Speech and counter-speech, no different from when a politician or a celebrity says something off-colour.  The opprobrium that Cardinal Keith O’Brein received was not anti-free speech, or unthinking ‘political correctness’.  It was simply a large group of people calling him wrong and hypocritical.

Watching religious leaders come under such scrutiny in this way is fascinating, because it is only in the modern era that we have been emboldened to challenge them.  Previously, what the clergy said was considered unimpeachable. The Holy See still maintains the ridiculous pretence of Doctrine of Infallibility when the Pope issues a decree.  The Islamic doctrine of Ismah makes similar claims about The Qur’an and Mohammed.

Because of this legacy, challenging Bishops in Cathedrals still has a novelty value. We still experience a certain frisson when people utter blasphemies or deliberately show irreverence towards places of worship.  But such acts of free expression are also an essential check on the power of these unelected moral leaders.  Criminalising political protest in places of worship is un-democratic and wrong.

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