Nick Clegg: "I don't believe in God"
Nick Clegg, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, is an atheist. Or perhaps an agnostic. It's difficult to say. But on Simon Mayo's programme yesterday, he gave a single-word answer to the question, "Do you believe in God?" And the answer was "No".
Rowan Williams was quick to welcome his honesty and openness; but it wasn't long before Mr Clegg felt the need to elaborate a little on his answer: he has "enormous respect for people who have religious faith", his wife is Catholic and his children are being brought up Catholic. He then used a curious expression -- "I am not an active believer" -- to describe his non-belief, almost implying that he was possibly an "inactive believer" rather than an active non-believer. Such are the awkward moments raised for British politicians when they answer direct questions about religious faith. Tony Blair was advised to keep schtum when asked about religion lest he be seen as a "nutter" (God forbid), and one can see why from a strictly political perspective. Whichever answer one gives to that question, it will alienate some section of the electorate.
There have been, and are, atheists in British politics, and some have been leaders of political parties (Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock to name but two). There are also outspoken atheists in the parliamentary ranks of the Lib Dems (Evan Harris is a member of the National Secular Society). But the politics of personal revelation are extremely unpredictable in the UK.
I suspect, with hindsight, Nick Clegg regrets answering such a deceptively simple question so directly. His political advisers may wish that he had said something like, "I am a politician and a party leader, and I am running for office as Prime Minister, not Archbishop. So I want to keep my focus on what we need to do to change this country for the better, and leave other questions to the theologians and philosophers."
This is a variation on the answer currently being given by Mitt Romney, the Mormon presidential candidate, when asked about the difference betweem Christianity and Mormonism. Governor Romney sidesteps the theological debate by saying, "I am running for Commader-in-Chief, not Pastor-in-Chief". Mind you, even then, he looks shifty and uncertain.