I'll start this post with my usual disclaimer before my rare forays into politics: I have no brief for any one political party, and deliberately remain independent of them. I am open to voting in the future for any of the main three parties in this country, if their policies are persuasive to me. But I also think that the Christian gospel often calls for political comment. So here goes.
Education Secretary Michael Gove has penned an extraordinary article in which he sings the praises of China's education system, and calls for a "cultural revolution" and a "Long March", "like Chairman Mao". The use of Mao's bloody Cultural Revolution as a paradigm for what Gove wants to do to the UK's schools is baffling and grotesque. Bizarrely, the media have allowed this to pass almost unchallenged, with the only reaction coming from journalists with Chinese connections, like this scathing piece from Sonny Leong. When compared to the treatment recently dished out to the Bishop of Lewes when he made an unfortunate reference to the Second World War, this seems downright odd.
I don't wish to suggest that Mr Gove plans mass murder or torture of his opponents, but this article does reveal that he has at least one thing in common with the Communist dictator that he seems to admire: they are both ideologues.
Mid-twentieth century China was perhaps the ultimate expression of an ideology-driven state. Freed from the constraints of religion, tradition, or even law, the communist state was answerable only to its own self-determined ideology. Everything was subject to the rule of the pure idea, the precepts of Marxism as interpreted by Mao. Rarely can the means have been so subjugated to the justification of the end. In the name of his ideas, Mao and his co-revolutionists sent tens of thousands to poverty, humiliation, torture and death. All was deemed acceptable because the Cultural Revolution would purge society of capitalist thinking.
Ideology is interesting at the level of debate. But ideologues in power are terrifying, because there is nothing more important to them than their own precious theories and goals. This why capitalist societies have usually been better places to live, even though their government is often morally ambiguous - pragmatists make better rulers.
But, still, in a democratic society, ideologues are attracted to power, the instrument that can translate their theories into reality. We see this at every level of every organisation. Even the church has its fair share of people who are full of bright ideas which they are convinced will be the solution to everything. At this level, ideology is unlikely to result in evil, but what it might do is foul up the smooth running of things, as the ideologue is unlikely to stop to consider whether their idea is likely to work in practice.
Some have suggested that Gove's comments result from ignorance of the historical facts. He may not be the oldest of our politicians, but it is inconceivable that a man of his education and intelligence, a lively media commentator before his elevation to David Cameron's front bench, is not aware of the murderous connotations of the "Cultural Revolution" reference. The only possible conclusion is that he thinks that it doesn't matter very much. He believes that his clever idea is more important than the offence and pain caused, and that it is acceptable for British politicians to draw inspiration from one of the most reviled figures of recent history. He is, in short, the classic ideologue.
This frightens the life out of me. It may seem odd for some that a priest should argue against ideology, but although religion often flirts with ideology, ideology and belief are not the same. Nor is pragmatism necessarily value-free. In this brilliant article, political theorist Philip Blond argues powerfully that what our society needs is a tolerant religious establishment that acts as a bulwark against totalitarian state power and against religious extremism. Christianity, properly understood and not turned into fundamentalism, connects us with a set of values that derive from God, and protect us from human-made ideologies. Christianity also fosters tolerance and freedom of thought, both of which are irritants to ideology.
I would love us to once again recognise that we are a Christian country (although I would never put the Church in charge of the country - that would be as dangerous as anything). I would love it for lots of reasons, but one of them is that we would be less at the mercy of ideologues and their all-consuming ideas. Some people have been telling us that we now have a Government that understands that. Judging by Gove's comments, the jury is still out.