Christian Meddling in National Governance


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    The Bishop of Chichester preached before the King and made a great flattering sermon which I did not like, that clergy should meddle in matters of state.
    Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), Diary


    The papacy has never been reticent in using its temporal power for political purposes. In the twelfth century Pope Hadrian IV encouraged Henry II of England to annex Ireland and authorised him to do so in the bull Laudabiliter. His successor Pope Alexander III threatened to excommunicate anyone who failed to help Henry. At other times the Church used its power to subvert the king's authority. Innocent III, a pope who claimed to be placed midway between God and man, set the pace on human rights by declaring Magna Carta, the great charter of English rights and liberties drawn up in 1215, to be void. He declared it to be contrary to the moral law and excommunicated anyone who maintained its pretensions. Virtually all English-speaking peoples have thus been automatically excommunicated for the last eight centuries.

    Throughout the fourteenth century there was widespread concern about the appointment of disloyal foreign priests to parishes throughout England. Major political disruptions seem to have been avoided only because a small proportion of them bothered to leave their home countries for their new English parishes, and of those who did few spoke English. Even so, the influence of the Church was divisive. Edward II was deposed in 1327 after bishops had promoted the idea of his deposition in their sermons. He was murdered later the same year, reputedly by having a red-hot iron inserted through his insufficiently devout anus. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Walter Reynolds, acclaimed Edward's replacement by his more popular son Edward III with the words vox populi vox Dei "The voice of the people is the voice of God". God was squarely on the side of the new king. In 1346 Thomas Bradwardine, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, preached in celebration of Edward's victories at Neville's Cross and Crécy.

    Thefifteenth century Pope Alexander VI evidently had no doubt that the world was his to allocate as he chose. In his bull Inter caetetera divina of 1493, he authorised the division of the world into two parts, carving it up from pole to pole between rival Roman Catholic colonialists. The world was split by a line of longitude drawn 100 leagues west of the Azores. Territory to the west of this line was allocated to Spain, and to the east of it to Portugal. The line was redrawn further west the following year. This division largely explains why, to this day, Spanish is spoken in the western part of South America and Portuguese in the eastern part. The same bull called for the subjugation of the native peoples of the Americas and their lands.

    The Church also felt itself qualified to interfere in politics nearer home. Pope Pius V openly encouraged sedition against Queen Elizabeth I of England, and funded an uprising against her to the tune of 12,000 crowns. In his bull Regnans in excelsis of 1570, Pius excommunicated and purported to depose her as Queen, and instructed her Lords and subjects not to obey her on pain of excommunication. A copy was nailed to the door of the Bishop of London's palace on 2 nd June. It was the Christian equivalent of an Islamic fatwah: Pius called upon English Roman Catholics to "send out of this world that wicked woman". By doing this he made traitors out of previously loyal English Catholics. The consequence was the conviction and execution of many Roman Catholics for treason. Such executions had been unknown before the Pope's bull, but became common after it, when priests and Jesuits were trained at Douai specifically to meet a martyr's death in England. Pope Gregory XIII confirmed that it was the duty of Roman Catholics to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, and gave personal support to a number of attempts on her life. More seditious plots were hatched, and more Roman Catholics were tried, found guilty and executed for treason. Sixtus V promised Philip II of Spain financial backing for his planned invasion of England. In the eighteenth century, Pope Innocent XIII recognised the Old Pretender as James III of England, and offered him 10,000 ducats if he could return Britain to the Roman Catholic fold.

    Religious societies often plotted and schemed against governments of which they did not approve. The Jesuits in particular were famous for undermining rulers who were not sufficiently sympathetic to their cause, and for developing theological arguments to justify murder. They were expelled from Portugal in 1759 for fraudulent activities in Portuguese colonies and for plotting assassinations. Five years later the Jesuit Order was dissolved by royal decree in France, and another three years later it was suppressed in Spain and its colonies. Abuses continued and the European powers succeeded in pressing Pope Clement XIV to dissolve the movement altogether, which he did in 1773 in the bull Dominus ac redemptor.

    If secular powers failed to support the Church, then the Church was usually willing to revise its ideas about secular powers being appointed by God, and do its best to overthrow the secular power in favour of a more compliant one. A Spanish decree of 1812 abolishing clerical immunity was the trigger for South American revolution led by the priesthood. Rebel armies were led by officers who were also priests. Spain had been able to control its colonial lands with only a token military force for 300 years because of the influence of a supportive Church. Now the Church changed sides because its own interests were threatened, and the Spanish Empire in South America collapsed as a result. Any priests who retained their allegiance to the Crown were not merely traitors but heretics.

    One might have thought that modern democracies would make the distinction between religion and politics, but this is not so. Irish priests routinely instruct their congregations how to think and how to vote. Matters on which they feel qualified to give instruction vary from constitutional reform* to abortion, contraception and divorce*. In other countries it is not so easy since the advent of democracy. In Italy the Church was defeated in a referendum on divorce, and in Portugal it lost credibility by opposing abortion even in the most extreme circumstances*. Poland enjoyed few liberties under Soviet domination after World War II, but one of the most important of them was the right of women to free and legal abortions. Immediately after the implementation of democracy in 1990, the Roman Catholic Church pressed to have the Senate declare it illegal again. Since Roman Catholics massively dominated the Senate, it had an easy success. It also managed to get religious teaching reinstated in schools, despite the fact that this was unconstitutional*. The 1929 Lateran Treaty between fascist Italy and the Vatican is still in force. In 2008 July Giovanni Ferrara, the Rome prosecutor, invoked it against a popular comedienne, Sabrina Guzzanti. Addressing a rally on the Piazza Navona in Rome, she had joked in reference to Benedict XVI's homophobia that the the pope would go to Hell and be tormented by homosexual demons. She faced prosecution for the offence of "offending the honour of the sacred and inviolable person" of Benedict XVI, a criminal offence carrying a prison term of up to five years*. Under the Lateran Treaty insulting the Pope carries the same penalty as insulting the Italian President.

    Even as its political influence wanes, the Roman Church manages to subvert the democratic process. A referendum in Italy in 2005 sought to overturn Catholic supported legislation introduced the previous year to limit fertility treatment. When it became apparent that the referendum would succeed, the Church realised that by having its supporters refrain from voting at all it could ensure that a quorum would not be achieved, and the majority view of voters defeated. The Italian bishops, supported by Pope Benedict XVI, encouraged their supporters to abstain, so ensuring that a qurum was not achieved. Restrictive legislation banning stem-call research, prohibiting egg and sperm donation, and limiting a range of medical services consequently stayed on the statute books, penalising infertile and homosexual couples and giving Italian embryos more legal rghts than Italian fetuses. Italy retains its position as one of the world's most restrictive nations on fertility treatments and out of step with the rest of Europe.

    In political matters Roman Catholics are still enjoined to put their religion first. Pope Leo XIII made the position clear. The chief preoccupation of Roman Catholics must be how best to serve the interests of Catholicism. Roman Catholics are obliged to support those who pledge themselves to the Catholic cause and never to those who are hostile to it. In other words Catholics must return a bloc vote for Catholic political candidates.

    Evangelical Churches are adept political practitioners in the USA, where the shepherding of white evangelists into the republican camp was one of the most spectacular political trends since the 1980s. The new Christian right promotes constitutional amendments to ban abortion and stem-cell research, and to permit school prayers. It supported the SDI ("star-wars") initiative and guerrilla warfare against left-wing states, and opposed pornography, equal rights legislation, and homosexuality*. Billy Graham, one of the few well-known right-wing evangelists not tainted by sex and corruption, enjoyed powerful influence with a long series of American presidents. He assured President Truman that dropping a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki was the judgement of God, and he urged Eisenhower to support the Cold War on the grounds that communism was controlled by the supernatural power of evil. Under the Nixon Administration John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, who were both Christian Scientists (and both later to be convicted criminals), steered legislation through Congress that enabled Christian Scientists to avoid liability for the suffering and death of their children when they denied medical attention to them*.

    In the USA Christian belief is strongly correlated with many other beliefs including patriotism, the right to bear arms, anti-intellectualism, opposition to abortion and sex-education, and denial of scientific discoveries such as elolution and climate change.

    The state of Utah is often difficult to distinguish from the Mormon Church. The governor, the congressmen, the Supreme Court, and the heads of the main universities in Utah are all Mormons, as is almost all of the legislature, and as are most of the law enforcement officers. Non-Mormons have long held that Joseph Smith, the founder of the sect, was more than a little eccentric. In recent times some Mormons have become suspicious as well. A number of Mormon historians, who might have been in a position to authenticate or reveal new documents, have met suspicious deaths in Salt Lake City. It is a curious fact that the murder enquiries made little progress in such a God-fearing state.

    Evangelical interference in politics is now becoming more common in England, perhaps reflecting the spectacular success of their American cousins*. In much of Europe Christianity is still so closely intertwined with politics that hardly anyone finds it odd that a successful political party should call itself the Christian Democratic party.

    Cartoon from Guardians of Liberty, 1943 by Bishop Alma Bridwell White, Illustrations by Rev. Branford Clarke. Published by the Pillar of Fire Church in Zarephath, NJ, USA
    The cartoon represents Protestant fears of Catholic rule in america.


    Elsewhere around the world, other Churches have been responsible for interference in politics. The Greek Orthodox Church for example, under Archbishop Makarios, was behind the terrorist campaign in Cyprus that arguably led to that island's present difficulties. A Methodist, General Sitiveni Rabuka, led the coup in Fiji in 1987. Once in power, the Methodists behaved much like earlier Christian theocracies. They showed little interest in restoring democracy, and disenfranchised those who did not share either their religion or their race. One of their chief concerns was the strict enforcement of Sunday observance.


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    §. "Reason Restores Faith to Straying Irish Party", The Independent, 4 th June 1988.

    §. "Wrath of Pulpit May Defeat Divorce Lobby", The Observer, 22 nd June 1986.

    §. "Believe it or Not", The Economist, p 54, 18 th April 1987.

    §. "Polish Senate Makes Abortion Illegal", The Independent, p 11, 2 nd October 1990.

    §. The Rome prosecutor's attempts to mount a prosecution against Sabrina Guzzanti for her joke about the pope was widely reported around the western worls. See for example

    §. "Praise the Lord and Pass the Loot", The Economist, pp 25-30, 16 th May 1987.

    §. "They Loved Their Child; They Also Loved God", The Independent, 30 th May 1990.

    §. "The Evangelicals Marching as to War", The Independent, 20 th April 1988.


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