Having been pretty rude on twitter last night about David Cameron’s Easter Message to Christians, I though it would be fair to have a look at what some other politicians are saying about faith, including Miliband, Clegg, and Gove. They’re not all about Easter - some are more straightforwardly faith-and-politics-y. I will happily take a look at others, so link me up. On Cameron’s Easter message I can’t do better than either Steve Holmes on the problems of endorsing ‘faith’ and ‘values’ as eternally positive things, or this piece in the Spectator, though they politely call it, ‘Curiously sanitised,’ and I would lean, as I said on Twitter, towards, ‘Vacuous gubbins.’
This is the passage that really makes me snark, though:
I think about this as a person not just a politician. I’m hardly a model church-going, God-fearing Christian. Like so many others, I’m a bit hazy on the finer points of our faith. But even so, in the toughest of times, my faith has helped me move on and drive forward. It also gives me a gentle reminder every once in a while about what really matters and how to be a better person, father and citizen.
He’s so proud of being hazy about the finer points of his faith - and yet he says his faith is personally important to him. I don’t mind if there are things he’s not sure of, and I wouldn’t mind if I found myself disagreeing with aspects of his understanding and expression of Christianity, if I thought he was thinking seriously about it. But I seem to recall him using this line in previous years, and it is a spectacularly lazy approach to faith. He says it gives him a gentle reminder about what really matters, and how to be a better person - but if he’s serious about pursuing those things why isn’t he looking more deeply at the ideas, beliefs and morals that he says are important to him? Basically he’s telling me he’s not a serious person about his faith, that he doesn’t want to ask questions or rock his boat. But he wants me to take seriously the fact that he is a Christian and to make that a reason why I as a Christian should vote for him? Happy pandering, Mr Cameron, you have not sold yourself to me yet.
Here’s Ed Miliband in an interview for Premier Christianity:
My dad was Jewish, my mum is Jewish, and obviously I’m Jewish. What’s important for me is the word ‘respect’. Respect for different faiths, respect for people who aren’t religious. Respect, tolerance; I think that those are the important watchwords. I’m clearly not going to claim that I ‘do God’, but what I do think is important is that sense of respect. I have huge admiration for so many people in the Church and the work they do. I believe in social justice, a more equal, fairer society, and I see those values played out among so many people in the Christian community who worship God and spend so much of their time ensuring people have better lives; whether it’s food banks, or volunteering in the local community, or youth work, or all of those things that Christians in our country do.
This is not really about Easter, but faith and politics - but it’s still interesting. He’s very focused on the expression of faith in practice more than he is about concepts and articles of faith. He doesn’t seem concerned about questions like, ‘Does God exist?’ or ‘What do people get from their faith - why is it worth something to them?’ As a voter, I’m not particularly concerned about that, but I think that not having an interest in that (he may do, it might just be the interview) may lead him to understand less of why Christians do evangelism, and the position from which many of those most likely to be asking and disagreeing with him about issues like ‘their views being marginalised in the workplace,’ are coming.
Interestingly, he’s also the only one of the party leaders to talk about justice, in priority to compassion. The charity work he talks about he frames as being about not an expression of compassion but as a pursuit of justice, and that tells me something about what he thinks society should be like, and what government and citizens should be pursuing. It’s not just ‘caring for the less fortunate’ but actively seeking to improve their fortunes - and while Labour policy does seem to be ‘fix the economy in a similar way to the current government first’, he doesn’t explicitly say that here, which both Cameron and Clegg do.
The latter is a less blethering and less politicised variation onCameron’s theme of the virtue of faith and values, which does at least acknowledge the important of sacrifice and love to the Easter story, which is significantly further than Cameron gets than dealing with the challenges that lays down for the lives of people who claim Christianity. Like, the words are there.
I think the thing I appreciate about Clegg from the former piece is that he doesn’t pretend to believe - he is honest about why he goes to church, and also about his interest in but lack of personal faith. He seems more interested in the complexities of having faith than Cameron, and more interested in the impact of spirituality than Miliband. But, he is still the deputy prime minister, and there is still a requisite amount of politicking and defensive manoeuvring to be done (see economy, personal tax allowance), and his is still looking for an election, so he’s playing with the ideas of ’these tolerant Christians / Muslims are the real Christians / Muslims in pursuit of a fairly generic niceness.
And finally, today, we got Michael Gove defending Christianity in the Spectator. It is, by a significant distance the best written and most expressive piece, and one that acknowledges that Christianity is more than faith in a particular deity and some positive values. It is, frankly, remarkable for the fact that it makes me agree with some of Michael Gove’s arguments. But not all of them.
Even in the area where Christianity might be supposed to be vaguely relevant — moral reasoning — it’s casually assumed that Christian belief is an actively disabling factor. When Paxo asked Blair about his praying habits he prefaced his question by suggesting that the Prime Minister and the President found it easier to go to war in Iraq because their Christianity made them see everything narrowly in terms of good and evil, black and white, them and us.
Far from enlarging someone’s sympathy or providing a frame for ethical reflection, Christianity is seen as a mind-narrowing doctrine. Where once politicians who were considering matters of life and death might have been thought to be helped in their decision-making by Christian thinking — by reflecting on the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, by applying the subtle tests of just-war doctrine — now Christianity means the banal morality of the fairy tale and genuflection before a sky pixie’s simplicities.
How has it come to this?
When it comes to answering this question, Gove places the blame on external scepticism (which does play a part) and ignores the simultaneous existence of churches, schools (and indeed, politics) that often encourage people to see things in black and white and fail to encourage them to think deeply and with nuance about the complexities of faith (let alone Augustine and Aquinas). Michael Gove, whose education policies often looked like those of Mr Gradgrind, complaining that people are genuflecting to the stories they’ve been taught - both in support and in criticism of Christianity - is more than mildly hilarious.
So: I like that Premier Christianity have interviewed Clegg and Miliband. I hope there is also one with Cameron to come, because the interview format allows a small amount of editorialising.
I don’t really understand why they decided to give Cameron a platform for his Easter message, unless it came with an editorial that I haven’t seen. Is a government acknowledgement of Britain’s Christian heritage so vital to us as a church that we’ll desperately take whatever crumbs of endorsement are offered in this way?
The party leaders all want tolerance and for people to listen to each other. But what does this mean? I read Christian Smith’s book Lost in Transition earlier this year, which argues that we care about keeping order and avoiding offence more than we do about serious moral debate, and that this is what the US education system passes on to the next generation. The book references Wendell Berry, who once argued that toleration denies the community the use of your judgement, indicating that you don’t care enough about other people, or their views and morals to debate or to engage with them - except possibly if you think they’re dangerous you might declare them ‘wrong’ and seek to exclude them from society’s conversations. I’m not anti-tolerance, but I’d be in favour of that being less hollowly individualistic in a ‘You do you, and I’ll do me, and society will survive,’ kind of way. Society will do better if we actually pay serious attention to each other and our views as being of value.