A Christian Statesman in Ireland

John Bruton’s book "Faith in Politics" demonstrates the former Irish Prime Minister’s wide-ranging knowledge of history and politics, as well as a deep and perceptive Christian faith.

Former Irish Taoiseach (or Prime Minister), John Bruton, has published a collection of his lectures, columns, and book reviews titled Faith in Politics, on Irish politics and history, economics, the environment, the European Union, world politics, and religion.

Bruton was elected to Dáil Éireann (the Irish parliament) in 1969 at the age of 22 as a member of the Fine Gael party. He served in various ministries in coalition governments of his own party and the Labour party from 1973 to 1977, 1981-1982, and 1982 to 1987; and was Taoiseach in the ideologically diverse Rainbow coalition of Fine Gael, Labour, and the Democratic Left from 1994 to 1997.

That government contributed immensely to the achievement of economic stability in Ireland, as well as to the negotiations that would culminate in the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland a year after they left office.

But while Bruton’s Fine Gael party increased its number of Dáil seats in the 1997 national election, their coalition partners, the Labour party, declined significantly. That allowed the opposition Fianna Fáil party to return and remain in power for fourteen years during which Ireland experienced the celebrated Celtic Tiger boom based on government extravagance and banking irresponsibility, and a subsequent economic collapse.

Bruton withdrew from leadership of Fine Gael in 2001 and retired from the Dáil Éireann in 2004

Since leaving the Dáil, he served as the European Ambassador to the United States. He had been an Irish Representative to the convention which helped draft the proposed European Constitution, as well as a Vice President of the European People’s (Christian Democrat) Party

Christian Democracy was the name given to the revitalized popular Catholic parties that had existed in several countries like Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands earlier in the century, but which had been suppressed by the Nazis, the Fascists, and their allies.

The Christian Democrats were central to the successful rejuvenation of democratic politics in a Western Europe torn asunder by the Second World War and threatened with absorption by the Bolshevik Empire that had gained control of Eastern Europe.

These continental parties, committed to democracy and Catholicism, had been partly inspired by the example of Daniel O’Connell and his development in the first half of the nineteenth century in Ireland of non-violent mass participation politics.

Her neutrality in the Second World War spared Ireland the need to restore her democratic institutions, unlike so many other countries that had fallen to the Nazis. Therefore she did not experience the continental Christian Democratic revival. Indeed, Irish governmental preoccupation, at least verbally, with the partition of the island of Ireland inhibited her interest in wider European wide efforts, like NATO.

Another factor deterring close Irish ties with the continent, paradoxically, was their close economic and social ties to Great Britain, despite the ostensible grievance about the “occupied six counties” of Northern Ireland.

Only after entry of both Britain and Ireland into the Common Market and its evolution as the European Union, with a democratically elected parliament, did Irish politicians become involved with continental parties.

Historically more conservative, Fine Gael readily identified with the European Christian Democrats (later called the European People’s Party).

Bruton’s book reflects a moderate conservative perspective, espousing Christian Democratic moral and social values, and a commitment to European unity.

He examines the many difficulties facing the world, Europe, and Ireland: governmental indebtedness, aging populations, increasing difficulty in meeting welfare state commitments, inadequacy of education for so many, potential food and fuel shortages, economic inequality consequent on excessive compensation for executives and celebrity, and the effect on society and families of the preoccupation with material improvement.

Discussing all of his analyses would require a review of book length. But attention should be directed to the central place he gives to religion.

Convinced that “Faith was one of the great gifts afforded” to his generation, Bruton is convinced that belief in God, eternal life, and the Redemption are “as important to the living of a good life now, in twenty-first century Ireland, as they ever were at any time.”,

In his eyes, unlike “science and material progress”, which are only means to an end, faith answers difficult questions like “Why are we here” and “What is the meaning of my life”. Noting that the “whole concept of human rights has a Christian root”, he insists faith gives a basis “for respecting the human rights of all other peoples”, including the “right to life from conception to natural death”.

Bruton reputes those who attribute declining Irish academic performance, especially in reading and math, to time spent in schools on faith formation. He notes that a similar amount of time devoted to faith formation in the past had not interfered with academic performance.

Convinced that the ability of a society to deal with social and economic problems depends on a sense of solidarity and trust that can only come from a shared ethos or belief system based on religious beliefs or heritage, he champions the continued inclusion of faith formation in schools and the ready presence of religion in the public square.

In support of his position he alludes to such diverse authorities as G. K.Chesteron, who noted that a person no longer believing in God readily “believes in anything”, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who, lamenting the twentieth century displacement of “ought” with “want”, “choose”, and “feel”, insisted that religion provided the virtues needed “if our global civilization is to survive”.

Bruton must be uncomfortable in contemporary Ireland where the government, headed by his own party, the Irish branch of the Christian Democrats, withdrew the Irish ambassador to the Holy See for a few years, allowed abortion in the case of threatened maternal suicide, achieved referendum approval of same-sex marriage, and has moved to minimize faith formation in favor of “neutral” comparative religion in school curricula.

Faith in Politics: A collection of essays on politics, economics, history and religion
by John Bruton
Dublin: Currach Press, 2015
Hardcover; 267 pages

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About John P. McCarthy 5 Articles
John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical, Kevin O'Higgins: Builder of the Irish State, among other books, as well as articles and reviews in Crisis, Modern Age, Intercollegiate Review, and other publications.