Saturday, December 17, 2011

David Cameron's 'Christian country' comments

David Cameron is now on record as saying "Britain is a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so".

He said this in a speech marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. He went on to say “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today."

Now I am partisan, as this post from a few days ago shows, so it’s interesting to see what David Cameron said and what did he possibly meant by the phrase, a ‘Christian country’.

The phrase ‘Christian country’ seems to crop up regularly, among people bemoaning the state of things, but what does it mean? It’s usually one of those ‘hark back to the past’ phrases, when we recall the ‘good old days’.

So, this would be the Christian country that got rich off the back of the transatlantic trade in human livestock. Eventually, yes we finally stopped selling fellow humans as chattels, but we weren’t done with exploitation. We were a solidly ‘Christian country’ during the Industrial Revolution, which crowded the poor into cities of slums, where most of them died of cholera and typhus. We were a ‘Christian country’ of workhouses, prostitution, gin palaces and opium dens.

Or maybe you’re thinking about the ‘Christian country’ of the twentieth century. The ‘Christian country’ that conscripted teenagers, gave them six weeks training in Ireland, shipped them to France and sent them over the top into the bloody mist of the Somme, where only 1 in 4 kids made it back alive. The ‘Christian country’ that authorised the military to open fire on civilians protesting the working conditions down the South Wales coal mines. The ‘Christian country’ that operated a political Empire for the first half of the century and then repeatedly stitched up the developing world through economic imperialism for the second half.

I’m just saying, our nation’s history ain’t particularly glorious or enlightened and I’m not sure I want my faith to be tainted by association with it. In fact, many of the best examples of British Christians, from Wilberforce, to Barnardo, to Booth, spent their time as outsiders to the prevailing culture of this ‘Christian country’, regarded as annoying, or awkward, or cranks.

But apparently, emphasising our Christian-ness as a country will prevent "moral collapse". David said: "Whether you look at the riots last summer, the financial crash and the expenses scandal, or the ongoing terrorist threat from Islamist extremists around the world, one thing is clear: moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn't going to cut it anymore."

Well, yeah, much as it pains me to agree with a tory leader, I would agree with that. To an extent.

I’m a bit concerned by the phrase ‘moral neutrality’ – I’m not sure what he’s criticising there. It looks to me like a sop to the vocal Christians who believe we would fix everything in society if we just banned abortion and stopped the gays having sex with each other.

But you don’t need to be a Christian to make an ethical distinction between behaviour that is right and wrong. In fact, David knows that – he said being a Christian wasn’t a "necessary nor sufficient condition for morality" but having a faith could be a "helpful prod in the right direction". So we’re a ‘Christian country’, but that’s no guarantee that people who call themselves Christians will do the right thing. Good to know.

He also said: “just as our language and culture is steeped in the Bible, so too is our politics.” I’m sorry, what? I have to disagree with that statement.

What reading of the Bible justifies the persecution of the vulnerable, the widening of the gaps between the haves and have-nots, the granting of favours to the rich and powerful, and the general acquiescence to the amoral profiteering of the markets?

David Cameron’s politics are not “steeped in the Bible”. They have never been seen near the Bible. (Unless he’s reading the list of Israelite kings who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” and has got the wrong end of the stick.)

Okay, I’m in danger of editorialising there, but either living a Christian faith is a radical departure from ‘normal’, acquisitive, selfish human behaviour, or it isn’t. You either love your neighbour or you don’t.

He does say: "The absence of any real accountability, or moral code, allowed some bankers and politicians to behave with scant regard for the rest of society.” That’s a very interesting thing for him to say, considering he has done sod all to challenge that behaviour.

David’s government are just about the only European government to oppose the institution of the financial transactions tax (‘Robin Hood tax’), he has refused to crack down on bankers bonuses, and he has supported the head of his tax division who cut numerous shady deals with financial institutions so they could get off paying tax.

Maybe he thinks a semi-stern telling off will solve the problem. He gets to wag the finger at the banks in the confines of a church and so they’ll all listen to him and sort themselves out – do the decent thing, and all that. No, David, maybe you’ll have to man up and fill that vacuum of “real accountability” and get tough with the city boys who keep screwing everyone over.

To do that you would need a clear sense of right and wrong. The problem is David wants it both ways – he wants a free market system and he wants morality. But markets and morality are incompatible. Markets follow the money, and mammon is amoral. You have to apply your morality to the market – make the market serve your purpose – for the market to deliver any social good. That’s why a planned economy brought about the NHS and affordable housing for millions, and also why market economies have made housing unaffordable and turned our health system into a postcode lottery.

So, he wants a nice moral system, but he isn’t willing to impose anything to make it so. Cameron’s comments about faith indicate his levels of confusion.

“Let me be clear: I am not in any way saying that to have another faith – or no faith – is somehow wrong. I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have a religion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger.”

So, basically, we’re a Christian country where “many” people aren’t Christians. Not sure how that works, but okay.

He described himself as a "committed but vaguely practising Church of England Christian", or to put it another way, a ‘committed and uncommitted’ Christian. Which explains why he wants everyone to do the right thing, but is too scared to make them.

And finally, he admitted he was "full of doubts and, like many, constantly grappling with the difficult questions when it comes to some of the big theological issues". Presumably that includes big issues like how to live out Christian values you’re only vaguely committed to, and practice politics that are ‘steeped’ in a Bible he’s blatantly never read.

Good luck with that, David.

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