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Political activists who behave like zealots will do no good at all

30 April 2017

2:51 PM

30 April 2017

2:51 PM

The election debate so far has included a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing over whether religion has a place in politics and whether religious politicians have to spend significant portions of interviews talking about their views on what other people get up to in bed. But one striking feature of all political debate is how many of its participants behave like religious zealots without even realising it. 

Media vicar Reverend Richard Coles yesterday tweeted that he’d spoken to a friend who planned to switch from Labour to the Conservative, rather than the Lib Dems, as Coles might have expected. The replies to this message were rather instructive. A number of people thought this voter simply could not exist. Another said in threatening tones that they hoped this friend would never need the NHS, which allowed Coles to explain that his pal was in fact an NHS consultant. This led to more people wondering whether this friend was real, suggesting they probably did a lot of private work on the side, or accusing them point blank of being ‘self-serving’.

As a man of the cloth, Coles is probably quite used to being told that his friends don’t exist. But what he will also be quite acquainted with is the certainty that some of his fellow worshippers feel about those who do not share their faith. It is quite common for fervently religious people to believe that others are either in some way a bit depraved or walking in the darkness, waiting for their eyes to be opened to the Truth. There is rarely a possibility that non-believers may have thought things through for themselves – and certainly no possibility that they might have given it a darn sight more thought than the religious person hectoring them. 


The same certainty afflicts some in politics; often those who worship their political ideology as though it were an infallible God – and who believe, as some religious people do, that their beliefs mark them out as somehow superior to others. Ideological idolatry means you don’t want to listen to non-believers: you need only tell them how they are wrong, possibly even politically sinful, and how what you believe is The Truth. Not listening also has the benefit of being much easier: you won’t encounter any points that make you question your own assumptions or at least sharpen your argument.

It can also lead to the same sort of behaviour that involves people invoking their religion to justify bad behaviour. People who are too caught up in ideological idolatry can launch ‘just wars’ on small scales: in his book ‘Power Trip’, Damian McBride describes elegantly what happens when nothing, not even your colleagues’ dignity, is as important as your political faction winning. Every day, ‘just wars’ are waged on social media, with people thinking that the ideological sinfulness of the politician in question is so great that it justifies abusive behaviour.

Now, I’ve spent enough time in the Church (I spent a year working for one after graduating) to know that the annoyingly fervent people who put everyone else off are louder than they are numerous. But they and their political imitators do a great disservice to the beliefs they advertise. They do not listen, they are swift to judge, and worst of all, they cannot imagine that there might be another way of thinking that is at least worth examining, even if you ultimately disagree with it. 

Neither religious nor political zealots of this ilk do much good when they are proclaiming their faith in public, which is perhaps why door-to-door evangelists have such a bad name, and Labour candidates in 2015 found some of their activists seemed to look down on the voters whose homes they visited. Coles’s friend has a few weeks in which to change his mind about his vote: but it’s unlikely that zealots telling him how bad and wrong he is are going to be the ones who convert him.


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