Why The Churches Are Wrong To Back Geldof

29 Jun 2005

A version of this article by Tom Miers appeared in The Scotsman on 29th June

Because government action is coercive, it has no intrinsic moral value.

This is a truth that has periodically been forgotten by church leaders over the centuries, to their great detriment. They appear to be making the same mistake again.

The ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign is all about government action, but Britain’s religious leaders have supported it wholesale. They should know that robbing Peter to pay Paul provides no-one with the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

The demands of Make Poverty History come under three headings. Under the banner of ‘Trade Justice’ they urge governments to erect trade barriers to protect African economies, and governments to nationalise utility companies. Under ‘Drop The Debt’ Western governments must tax their citizens to forgive debts run up by third world governments. ‘More And Better Aid’ requires yet more government taxes and redistribution. Only in advocating lower trade barriers in the West is there a nod to voluntary solutions.

The intellectual weakness of the campaign is well documented and should put off even the most enthusiastic prelate. Aid props up corrupt dictators and protection stifles economic progress. Europe, North America and the Far East did not learn the secrets of prosperity from outside aid, but from internal reform. In Egypt, for example, there is more ‘dead’ capital lying fallow for want of secure property rights than the entire amount of foreign investment into that country ever – including the Aswan Dam and the Suez canal.

The bishops and ministers of Britain should know all this. But it is perhaps no surprise that they ignore it. More serious is that they seem so confused about their own mission.

One of the central themes of the Gospels is that Christ urges us to follow the right path through our own volition. He did not try to force us to do good. Nor did He exhort the Roman authorities to force us. Moreover he confounded many who were expecting the Messiah to lead a political revival of the Jews by explicitly eschewing politics and drawing a clear distinction between the affairs of government and those of individual conscience. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21).

Since then, Christian leaders have repeatedly forgotten this by straying into politics. It is as if their failure to persuade us to tempts them endlessly to use force instead. The Eastern emperors tried to create a theocratic heaven-on-earth. In the West, the Popes meddled endlessly in temporal politics, eventually abasing themselves wholly in material corruption and venality.

The result was the Reformation, and then the Enlightenment, with secular led efforts to separate church from state forever. You would have thought that the bishops would have learnt from this.

But today two pop stars, who aren’t even British voters or taxpayers, are telling our government to take our money to give to their favourite cause.

You would have thought that such a prospectus deserves at least a little sceptical moral scrutiny by religious thinkers. How would British taxpayers otherwise spend this money? On feeding their families, perhaps, or on their own charitable priorities? Should Gordon Brown really decide how much money we should each donate and to whom? Does Tony Blair have the moral authority to pronounce which evil is a ‘scar on the conscience on the world’ and use his temporal power to make us act accordingly?

Of course not. Our prime minister may behave like some latter day Constantine. But the truth is that the world has no conscience. Only individuals do. And it the churches’ job to persuade us, as individuals, to do the right thing, whether it is giving to Africa, or helping closer to home. Either way, it must be of our own volition.

Sometimes governments must act, in the interests of their citizens. But this is nothing to do with morality, and the churches should have no truck with getting government to do their work for them. Their influence over the people is waning fast, but we’ve tried theocracy before, and it is not the answer.