The headline stood out on the front page of the broadsheet: “Cameron puts God back into politics”. The newspaper’s editor followed-up with the editorial: “How refreshing to have a PM who does ‘do God’”. The regeneration is about to begin, the answer to the degenerate state of British politics is God!
However, it is not any old god of which Cameron speaks – it is the Christian God, the God that is represented in England by the established Church of England, over which, as one of her or his many privileges, presides the monarch of the day. More than this, Cameron says that the British (presumably including the Scots, Welsh and Irish, all of whom have religious traditions significantly different to that of Anglicanism) should be “unashamedly evangelical about their Christian faith”.
I seem to recall that the Church of England set aside the 1990’s as a post-Thatcher “decade of evangelism” (the link between the two may not be as immediately obvious to the reader as it is to me as I think and write). The positive results, if any, of this era have yet to be established. So too, the United Kingdom (to include the people of all the nations entitled to a British passport) has had a significant history of evangelism through its many Non-conformist Christian churches and traditions.
As a former ordained minister in the Baptist Church tradition (in Australia as well as the UK), I was a part of that history and do not take too kindly to any abrogation of this tradition – by any one proponent of the state church, a politician, the editor of a newspaper, or anyone else.
David Cameron cites his personal experience of the “healing power” of religion and insists that Christianity could “transform the ‘spiritual’, ‘physical’ and ‘moral’ state of Britain, even the world”. When did a British Prime Minister, Tory or otherwise, ever make such a bold statement based on personal experience? David Cameron: sage or fool? Discuss.
Now, in many ways it is refreshing to hear a voice for the Christian religion proclaiming the move out of the pew and into the world at large – with the distinct aim of changing the world. However, Mr Cameron is not very explicit about which world he wishes to change.
There are many “worlds” that require changing, including, in the view of many, the world of the Christian Church itself (and not just the child abusers in the Roman Catholic Church). David Cameron might need to be careful about what he is suggesting or wishing for, or opening himself to. There is a saying in the Old Testament: “Every prudent man dealeth with knowledge: but a fool layeth open his folly” (Proverbs chapter 13, verse 16). Based only on his personal experience, David Cameron’s view could be cited as arrogance based on the unreasonable certainty that he has the answer to the question of what will heal the “diseased state” of Britain and, indeed, the world.
Of course, if a statement such as that uttered by Cameron stands up to scrutiny, then the “transforming power” of Christianity needs to start at the personal level. From the evidence of Mr Cameron’s often-frenzied and insulting performances at Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQT), his turnabouts on policy promises, his government’s squeeze on the poor and powerless in the UK, and his apparently scant recognition that the UK has become a multi-cultural and, therefore, multi-religious community (all of which have answers to moral questions), it would appear that this transformation is a work only in progress.
Indeed, proportionately speaking, larger numbers of those in the UK whose adherence to such religious traditions as Islam, Judaism and Sikhism, amongst others, attend their respective weekly worship sessions at a Mosque, Synagogue or Gurdwara, and with greater regularity, than those who profess to be Christians and attend a church service (and, therefore, are available to be personally influenced by Christianity). The latter has dipped into single figures.
For many citizens of the UK, the only time when they are to be seen inside a Christian church building is for a christening/baptism, wedding or funeral – hardly a regular feature of the normal and everyday life of the British population! I rather suspect that there are many amongst the British population who encourage others, including their politicians, to “do God” – as long as they do not have to “do God” themselves!
Further, is Mr Cameron unaware of the fact that Christianity has been present in these isles since the times of the Romans and that the Christian evangelist, St Patrick, continues to be a celebrated figure in at least one major denomination of the Christian faith, the Roman Catholic Church, as well as being commemorated in Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran church circles?
Cameron is also of the opinion that a decline in the influence of Christianity results in depriving the British of “a vital source of morality”. David Cameron also appears to be singularly unaware that morality has many sources – from humanists, athiests and “brights” – thinking non-believers – to those who are “religious” but do not believe in a God, for example, Buddhists, as well as those ordinary people who actually make the world a better place by their efforts and the conviction that to be a part of this world is to strive to make the world a better place in which to live.
Furthermore, is Mr Cameron aware that religions per se, especially the monotheistic religions that claim their ancestry from the biblical figure of Abraham – Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity – teach essentially the same moral code? Have the two non-Christian religions in this trilogy nothing to say or add to the moral fabric of British society? Is it any wonder that the Conservative Party has difficulty in appealing to a constituency other than the white, middle classes of England – despite Cameron’s intention not to “do down” other religious faiths?
Of course, David Cameron’s words on this subject have elicited the usual positive responses from the leaders of the Church of England. Even those who have been strong in criticising his government’s economic policies have stated that his words are “striking” and have signalled a new “willingness to espouse faith”. One has to question where these church leaders, and their pre-Henry VIII predecessors, have been during the decline of Christianity in the British Isles as implied by Cameron.
So too, it is eminently understandable that Mr Cameron finds “the greatest peace”, and perhaps the most sublime expression of his faith, at a sung Eucharist service of the Anglican church. His faith would appear to exact feelings rather than actions – an antidote, perhaps, to his experiences at PMQT!
Now, I do not wish to give the impression that I want to send rain on David Cameron’s religious parade. Indeed, I would want to encourage any faith that leads to an enhancement of human life and experience – anything that brings dignity, justice, well-being, harmony and security to ordinary people.
But I am also aware that, in the wake of disputes (with the bishops of the established church as well as opposition parties) over his governments cuts to welfare; his affront to conservative Christianity with the institutionalisation of gay marriage; his previous failure to champion the cause(s) of Christianity; the challenge of the fundamentally “ordinary Englishness” of UKIP, as well as his personal uncertainties about what faith is and how it should be expressed (for example, he has said: “faith is like FM in the Chilterns” – it periodically fades and reappears), his current comments may well be seen as an olive branch to the Christian churches and traditional Tory voters. After all, an election is just over a year away.
There is more than a hint of the Republican religious right in the USA, not to mention the Tea Party, in the methodology of David Cameron. A politician’s modus operandi is never to be taken on faith – Cameron’s or that of anyone else. That is the purpose of the party manifesto and the scrutiny that comes with its publication. When a politician starts to bring God and personal faith into the political debate, the question needs to be asked: Cui bono? Who benefits?
So too, I wish I could be more confident that David Cameron is really being serious when he says that the British need to be “more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to peoples’ lives”. There are many and divergent ways involved in “making a difference”. It is also to be considered that politicians can make a negative difference in peoples’ lives!
For many, myself included, the government of which David Cameron the Prime Minister has been “out there making a difference”, but the difference has been in making life more difficult for the ordinary people of Britain, whilst enhancing the lives of those in positions of power, affluence and influence. His politics, if not his Christian faith, have had a divisive influence. To what extent and in what direction, therefore, has his faith influenced his politics and their practical ramifications?
The philosopher, Daniel C. Dennett, has said: “politicians who still practice religion can be elected if they prove themselves worthy in other regards, but few would advertise their religious affiliation – or affliction, as the politically incorrect insist on calling it. It is considered as rude to draw attention to the religion of somebody as it is to comment in public about his sexuality or whether she has been divorced”. Judging by the frequency of his television appearances, David Cameron has no qualms about soliciting attention.
With respect to him being “worthy in other regards”, that will be decided by the British electorate and, in due course, by history.
David Cameron considers himself to be “a rather classic Anglican” – as would, no doubt, most of those who wear the Old Etonian tie. I will leave the reader to ponder at the mysterious workings, magical solutions, momentous decisions and magnificent decrees, not to mention the monumental cock-ups, this might lead to.