How not to do “politics & spirituality

“Politics-and-spirituality” is surely a marriage made both in heaven and on earth, because politics can be shallow without the depth of spirituality, and spirituality powerless without political expression. Rather than write about how this combination might live and work well together, I’m going to write about something which I have more experience of: how not to do it.

I will rule out from the start politics-and-spirituality, or at least politics/religion, combinations like militant Islamism and the American Religious Right. It’s easy to spot what is wrong with politics-and- spirituality versions such as those. I want to focus on combinations which look far more acceptable.

The pitfalls are different in different traditions (Christian, Buddhist, etc) and they are not usually found in writing, so they are difficult to reference and footnote, and much more likely to appear in practice; and they may appear there only partially, as tendencies. So I am not going to be quoting chapter and verse as to where these pitfalls have been manifested, merely reporting on some impressions I have gained from various efforts in this area.

I want to emphasise right away that I am completely in sympathy with the aspirations of politics-and-spirituality and the reasons why it is attractive to people who are thoughtful, sensitive, and also want to get something done in the world. In particular, I have been impressed by, and to a limited extent worked with, ideas from Michael Lerner (Jewish), Starhawk (neopagan), and Thomas Berry (Catholic tradition). There have also been some interesting recent contributions in this area on the website of Perspectiva http://www.systems-souls-society.com/blog and in a publication from the Royal Society of Arts in 2014: ‘Spiritualise’ by Jonathan Rowson https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/spiritualise-report.pdf

So just a few notes on six problems -

Problem 1 is doing politics badly because you are trying to do it spiritually, hence saying things so carefully, quietly, and non-aggressively as to practically guarantee they won’t be heard. It’s like Alexei Sayle used to define alternative comedy: “it isn’t funny”. This is alternative politics: it isn’t effective.

Problem 2 is having a big dualistic religious narrative running. This requires an enemy, and for the enemy to be totally bad, leaving the opportunity for yourself (the spiritual one, and colleagues) to be totally good. ‘They’ are selling armaments to bad governments, I am or we are protesting. Often justified, but this only really works where things really are sufficiently “black and white”. Once we get into competing considerations where it is necessary to strike a balance, find a compromise, do deals, find a lesser evil, etc, that sort of politics doesn’t work — and that is most of the time.

Problem 3 is to think that actions with a political intention necessarily change the world. This leads to a politics consisting of personal lifestyle actions (e.g. recycling) and going on demonstrations. These things are worthwhile, but they don’t by themselves add up to anything like a strategy for transformational change. An extreme version of this, amongst some neopagans, is the idea of change being brought about through the effects of ritual magic — the most celebrated instance being the ‘magical Battle of Britain’ supposedly fought on occult planes to ward off the Nazis, and more recently, the attempt to ‘bind’ Donald Trump from doing bad actions. Ritual can powerfully focus intentionality, but the idea that it acts directly on the world is fanciful.

Problem 4 is relying entirely on your own religious tradition. No doubt Buddhists have important things to say about the understanding of greed, and Jews about community, but that doesn’t mean that politics only stays spiritual if it keeps away from specifically political, economic, and structural understandings of, for example, capitalism. Some engagement with ideas from outside religious traditions is necessary, as the practitioners of Christian-Marxist dialogue in the 1960s understood very well.

Problem 5 is having such high, pure and utopian, standards and values that you can’t co-operate with anyone else or engage with mainstream debates or the issues which concern other people.

Problem 6 is to put forward religious arguments which other people outside your particular tradition automatically don’t think apply to them. Yes you may find usury contrary to your religion, but why should it bother the rest of us? Arguments about politics are always going to be more persuasive if they speak to concerns or values which lots of people have (and not simply the adherents of one particular interpretation of one particular religion). On the other hand, of course, where an interpretation is widespread and a religion is big (e.g. Catholic social teaching), appealing to that tradition may get a hearing for something which at least goes beyond a standard political audience.

My conclusion overall is not to give up seeking the holy grail of politics-and-spirituality, but to be very careful where you look.

Victor Anderson


Victor is a Research Fellow in the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), member of Green House think-tank, and was a Green politician for three years in the London Assembly.

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