April 24, 2020 - 10:47am

This week I released a podcast with Conservative MP Bim Afolami, one of the BBC’s MPs to watch in late 2019. He is a black politician and trustee of the Oxford Union, and our conversation ranged across free speech, identity politics and the polarisation of public life. We explored the idea, which I first came across via Michael Wear, that the withdrawal of stable, lifelong forms of belonging, identity and meaning, primarily religion, has left politics bearing too much emotional weight. Afolami said:

Human beings have a yearning for something transcendental, something that makes their existence have meaning beyond their immediate self. If you no longer have that in religion then logic would suggest, and history would suggest, that you’re going to have to find that in some other way.  
- Bim Afolami

Although, as Afolami admits, this is a hard trend to evidence — we are definitely in the realm of correlation rather than causation — it does chime with wider thinking. Scholars including Jonathan Haidt have suggested that part of the reason political polarisation has deepened is that it has become riven with “sacred values”, or indeed that these sacred values are playing a more central role in our politics. I was intrigued by one statement in particular in a 2016 lecture:

The sacred values of the Left and and Right grow out of the 19th-century conflict between labour and capital. This was filtered through the battle between communism and capitalism in the 20th century.
- Jonathan Haidt

Haidt believes that today’s Left and Right hold different things sacred: Anti-discrimination and the victim in the case of the Left, and freedom, or order, on the libertarian or authoritarian Right. Capital and labour, important though both are, don’t amount to a framework for meaning in the same way that anti-discrimination or freedom does.

Haidt is something of a sacred value sceptic. In a separate academic paper, he said that he was building “upon Berlin’s idea [that] the elevation or sacralization of a moral principle or symbol is a major cause of evil”, warning that a clash of sacred values in politics can easily become heightened because compromising on the sacred is by nature, profane.

I’m not quite so sceptical (I think the more important issue is what we hold sacred, than whether we have sacred values at all). But it is hard to disagree with Bim that the across the western world our “political questions have become less technocratic, more values based.” The sacred has found its way into politics.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield