It’s always something of a surprise when politicians in this country start talking about religion. In the US, the plausibility of a candidate’s faith is a fundamental tenet of their credibility, but on this side of the channel any ostentatious interaction between religion and politics seems to have become the reserve of the effortlessly absurd Nadine Dorries. So unfamiliar are we with religion at the very top that Tony Blair felt the need to keep his Catholicism on the quiet during his premiership, waiting until he left office to reveal it as though it were some peculiarity or eccentric oddity. So it is easy to see how David Cameron’s speech commemorating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible on Friday caught the headlines. His central message was this: “We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.” Bold and populist, playing to the Conservative right without any threat of following up hot air with policy; it was bread-and-butter Cameron.
Much of the speech is inconsequential and agreeable enough. However, there is one passage that made me baulk:
"…as Margaret Thatcher once said, “we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.” Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love. Pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities - these are the values we treasure
Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none. And I believe we should all stand up and defend them.
Those who oppose this usually make the case for secular neutrality. They argue that by saying we are a Christian country and standing up for Christian values we are somehow doing down other faiths…I think these arguments are profoundly wrong.”
There are two reasons to profoundly object to this point. The first is on grounds of belief, the second politics. In his comments about secular neutrality, Cameron gives a fundamental and knowing misrepresentation of secularist argument. It is true to say that some of the ideals we value in our society had their origins in Christian teaching, but on many others organised religion has long fallen well short. Even our own relatively liberal Church of England struggles to keep up with the standards of tolerance shared by the majority of British citizens, preferring instead to tear itself apart over gay priests and obfuscate on the question of female bishops. The values of modern liberal societies are more faithfully represented by humanism than by religion; if there is anything we “shouldn’t be afraid to admit,” then it is that. It is no coincidence that the most progressive and tolerant countries in the world are resolutely secular in their policy making; you only have to consider the oppression of women in theocratic Middle Eastern states or see a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination advocate denying abortions to rape victims to see how regressive the impact of religion on political thinking can be. Arguing for secular neutrality in government has nothing to do with doing down Christianity; it is about the desire to put progression ahead of intolerance, rationality ahead of dogma.
My second objection is perhaps the more pressing and visceral one. The Prime Minister talks of the value of compassion, of self-sacrifice, of love and humility, of the common good. Yet it is exactly the kind of unchecked free market economics so beloved by Conservative governments that does its level best to suck the last dregs of these values out of our society. Where is the compassion in allowing RBS to channel £1 billion of public money into staff bonuses while teachers’ pensions are squeezed dry? Where is the common good in relentlessly hounding benefits claimants while tax evasion and avoidance costs us up to 140 times more than benefit fraud? Where is the humility of riding with the huskies for a photo op while throwing in the Climate Change Act with the rest of the "red tape?" And where is the self-sacrifice in resolutely blocking a Robin Hood tax that could help tackle climate change and global poverty? The truth is that there are very few of the virtues Cameron extols to be found in his government. So before the Prime Minister chooses to give any further lectures on morality, he would do well to heed the advice of one of the biblical teachings he professed to be so fond of: “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”