David Cameron ‘doing God’

Posted on December 17, 2011

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Alastair Campbell’s intervention has become famous. Asked, in the course of an interview with Vanity Fair, something that touched on his personal faith, the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair hesitated, and Campbell lent across to refuse the question with the line ‘We don’t do God.’

Blair’s faith was clearly genuine, if kept quiet; the same was true of his successor Gordon Brown. David Cameron’s announcement in a speech yesterday that he is a ‘committed … Church of England Christian’ makes him (at least – I know nothing either way of John Major) the third premier in a row to find some importance in a personal Christian faith; that seems remarkable enough to bear some analysis, but that is not my point here.

In his speech yesterday, part of a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, the Prime Minister went further than any of his predecessors for some while in asserting that faith was more than a personal matter to him, but was a political compass. He asserted that our culture and politics are incomprehensible apart from a recognition of the Christian heritage of the country, and – most controversially – that the shared values that should guide British politics and society into the future are distinctively Christian.

His first point is relatively uncontroversial; the National Secular Society may not get it, but outside such tiny and extreme fringe groups, the central place of the King James Bible (and the plays of Shakespeare) in creating the cadences of English is undoubted. The Prime Minister wandered through fine art and music, and it is true that without a fairly thorough knowledge of the Biblical narrative (& the stories of the saints, incidentally) there is much that cannot be understood; the specific influence of the KJV is found in literature particularly, of course.

(I have written elsewhere on the dark side of this: the KJV was key in making the language of Oxford ‘normal’ and the language of Fife – King James VI’s own native cadence – a ‘dialect’; appropriately, perhaps, in a celebratory event, the Prime Minister did not touch on this aspect in his speech.)

The second point wanders towards the controversial: ‘[t]he Bible runs through our political history in a way that is not often recognised.’ The Prime Minister cited examples: the concept of a limited, constitutional monarchy; universal human rights; the welfare state; and a commitment to aid and development beyond our borders. (He wavers into what Richard Dawkins calls ‘faith in faith’ a bit on the last: Jewish Care, Islamic Relief, and Muslim Aid, excellent organisations though they no doubt are, do not, as far as I know, find much of their inspiration in the King James Bible…)

I suspect that on each of the examples cited Cameron is simply right, but I am conscious that there is some historical debate to be had in one case or another. Further, even if he is right, the fact that we originally came to belief in a constitutional monarchy (say) through a consideration of the Biblical narrative does not mean that no other robust defence of the position is available.

It does establish a burden of proof, however. There is a classic form of European liberal atheism which adopts a series of distinctively Christian ethical – and even philosophical – commitments and asserts that they are in some way ‘obvious’; only a little knowledge of history shows that they are not. It has not generally been obvious to human beings that infanticide is a bad idea, let alone that limited government is a good one. A constitutional monarchy is a very odd idea in human politics, and empirically is significantly intertwined with Christianity; if the position can be defended robustly from a naturalistic philosophical position, that requires demonstration. (Not least because it happens that pretty much every confessionally atheist state in history has been repressively totalitarian…)

The Prime Minister moved to his third point via a recollection of the importance of faith-based groups and individuals in ‘the big society’ (he chose not to use the phrase), and an acknowledgement that, whatever might be happening in Britain, faith is becoming more, not less, important and prevalent globally. Mr Cameron makes the choice to welcome that as a positive thing. The headline seen everywhere this morning, ‘Britain is a Christian country,’ comes from this part of the speech.

The argument goes like this, as far as I can reconstruct it: every strong society is built on an unwavering commitment to certain shared values; the values which have shaped, and which should continue to shape, British society are distinctively Christian, although their worth can be recognised by others; therefore a public commitment to Christian values is important and appropriate.

In the course of this, he makes the case that tolerance of others is a distinctively Christian value, and so that a Christian society is actually better placed to navigate the modern phenomenon of pluralism. He compares ‘Christian’ Britain with ‘secular’ France on this point, not unfairly (it would be totally unworthy to suggest that the choice of this example was motivated by current political spats within Europe…). Of course, lauding ‘tolerance’ as a Christian virtue in an Anglican cathedral is at least slightly ironic (the CoE has not been the most oppressive Christian church in history, but it probably makes the top five…); even so, the point is right, and warms this Baptist heart.

The remainder of his argument is that faith is a motor for ethics. Reflecting on the banking crisis and the summer riots, he comments ‘moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it anymore.’ Well, yes, but this assumes that any ‘moral compass’ is a good ‘moral compass,’ and that is patently ridiculous. Suicide bombing was perfected, and made famous as a tactic, by an avowedly secular humanist organisation (the Tamil Tigers), but these days it is more likely to be deployed by religious believers. When we remember 9/11, we might long for an apathetic ‘passive tolerance’! (And Christians are equally capable of such brutality, as we all know.) I have argued before on this blog that the reality of committed belief is that it inspires to action, and that the moral value of committed belief is entirely dependent on the quality of action that it inspires.

So I do not believe that we can simply praise faith, even Christian faith, as the Prime Minister did yesterday. If we believed that the general situation of the world was largely positive, we might even commend the apathy that is (generally) characteristic of the non-religious: better to do nothing than to risk doing harm. But that idea seems genuinely incredible; the world we presently encounter needs urgently to be changed, and in multiple ways. Committed faith will change the world, for good or ill; we need not faith in faith, but an ability to judge healing faith from toxic faith (which distinction itself assumes we are agreed on what good outcomes look like).

So I think the situation is more complex than David Cameron imagines; but he has at least recognised that faith plays a vital part in shaping the deep commitments of a culture. Will that recognition change government policy? I suppose not, immediately, but the more often it is aired in public, the better the chance it might.

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