Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Doing god?

If I were a vole of faith, which I'm not, I'd feel pretty let down by my political leaders: those who profess a strong faith (such as Blair and Bush) seemed to use God as a mute supporter for torture, surveillance, illegal wars and free-market capitalism. Their sins are enough to persuade any reasonable believer that secular states are infinitely preferable to religious ones.

The latest intervention is by David Cameron, who has released an 'Easter Message'. This is weird enough. Christmas is one of many winter festivals across the world and it's closely followed by the new year, so it seems reasonable that prominent citizens might have some kind of message at the year's end, even if none of us pay any attention. But Easter's a very specific event, and not one easily understood other than on a deeply theological level.

What does Call Me Dave say?

The prime minister, who held an Easter reception in Downing Street, quoted from the Gospel of Luke as he spoke of "we"  Christians.
"This is the time when, as Christians, we remember the life, sacrifice and living legacy of Christ. The New Testament tells us so much about the character of Jesus; a man of incomparable compassion, generosity, grace, humility and love. These are the values that Jesus embraced, and I believe these are values people of any faith, or no faith, can also share in, and admire.
"It is values like these that make our country what it is – a place which is tolerant, generous and caring. A nation which has an established faith, that together is most content when we are defined by what we are for, rather than defined by what we are against. In the book of Luke, we are told that Jesus said, 'Do to others as you would have them do to you' – advice that when followed makes for a happier, and better society for everyone."
He told the assembled guests that he welcomed a Christian "fightback". He said: "I think there's something of a fightback going on, and we should welcome that. The values of the Bible, the values of Christianity, are the values that we need."

I fear that Dave is developing messianic tendencies - always useful when one's administration is in difficulties. Whenever Blair didn't have any evidence, he referred to God and his conscience in place of empirical truth. In Dave's case, it's particularly cynical because he previously said this about his beliefs:
"As Boris Johnson once said, his religious faith is a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes. That sums up a lot of people in the Church of England. We are racked with doubts, but sort of fundamentally believe, but don't sort of wear it on our sleeves or make too much of it. I think that is sort of where I am."
I think we can assume from this that he's a lazy atheist or agnostic: not someone who's every given religion much thought, but a cultural Anglican who knows very well that his core voters wouldn't be very impressed by indifference. So he's recast uninterest as a classic English tolerance. 

So I think this original statement is rather deceptive, and his latest 'message' seems to by a cynical and dishonest attempt to import the Reaganite playbook into the UK. I could spend several paragraphs pointing out that tolerance and kindness is only one strand of Christianity - but instead, I'd advise you to visit any Northern Irish Presbyterian chapel, consult the actual Bible to familiarise yourself with certain rather unpleasant aspects to be found there, or read about the Crusades, the Reformation etc. etc. etc. (or read the Left Behind books). I could also point out that of all the positive characteristics Cameron lists as specifically Christian (which is pretty insulting: I'm caring, generous and tolerant, and so are many Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Jedi), none are terms which one could currently apply to his government. This is the administration which has cut state support for disabled children, for instance, yet continues to design new nuclear weapons at a cost of £80bn - not a policy sanctioned by the New Testament, as far as I remember.

But what really caught my eye in this statement is this talk of a 'fightback'. Against whom? Atheists are not burning Christians at the stake. Nor are Christians discriminated against by law: far from it. Anglican Bishops have permanent seats in the legislature. England and Scotland have Established churches (Wales, despite being traditionally very religious, disestablished the Church in Wales). Certainly leading scientists and intellectuals are more strident in defence of atheism, but in general, postmodernity seems to be a culture of religion. See for example, the way sub-contintental immigrants are now routinely described in terms of their religion rather than their other cultural or ethnic identities, bringing about confrontation. 

No, there's another, more disgusting reason why David Cameron has suddenly declared jihad upon we inoffensive atheists. Just as the Tories have been attempting to import the culture wars into British politics (whipping up 'morality' and 'identity' politics to disguise viciously sectarian economic policies), they've decided to extend this to the religious arena. 

Perhaps you're too young to remember the Reagan-Carter election of 1980. I was 5, but distinctly remember poring avidly over the newspapers as the campaign unfolded. The sitting Democratic President Carter was a peanut farmer from Georgia, and a practicing and ordained Baptist minister. He was (and is) a fundamentally decent, humane and thoughtful man who governed for all Americans and allowed his faith to inform his politics without directing it. He is, I think, one of the greatest politicians of the last century, though one whose Presidency was marooned and curtailed by events and the viciousness of his opponents. 

Ronald Reagan was a former actor, turncoat union leader, vacuous and vicious governor of California and a long-term machine politician, a cheery (and brilliant) communicatory who fronted for a sinister security and business network desperate to regain power after the Nixon disaster made Republicans damaged goods. Reagan was technically Christian, but wore his religious beliefs - if any - very lightly indeed, appearing in church only on official duties or - and this bit is important - when an election was in the offing. 

In 1980, the Cold War was at its height, characterised by the Republicans as the Godly against the Godless Atheists in Moscow. The 1970s had exposed (just like now) the total failure of American capitalism to generate good jobs for Americans - real wages peaked in 1975 and American workers have been getting poorer ever since. Reagan beat Carter with two messages: 'the shining city on the hill', which promised a brighter future without any explanation of how it would be achieved (credit/debt turned out to be the answer), in contrast to Carter's gloomy realism, and by harnessing the latent anger of core Republican voters - those who saw America as a religious crusade. 

Reagan's genius was to persuade voters that he - the non-practising man who preferred golf to god on a Sunday morning - was the true candidate of the religious electorate, rather than the Reverend Carter, who still preaches and teaches Sunday School. In doing so, Reagan unleashed the revolting elements active in American protestantism: bigotry, fraud, 'prosperity gospels', homophobia and so, with which he probably had no sympathy at all. As a political strategy, it was absolute genius: millions of men and women denied decent jobs, homes, a stake in society, were persuaded that only the Republicans stood between them and Atheist Communism. The fight against abortion, women's rights and a whole panoply of other causes rallied them round the flag and saved the party from irrelevance. Over the longer term, however, it's proved destructive. Moderates defected from the party and it was taken over by ageing extremists out of touch with the electorate - hence the current race for the Republican nomination and impending defeat. 

This is the politics which Cameron's confected Manichaean battle draws on. He knows that even the Daily Mail is hostile to his economic policies. He knows that it, the Telegraph and similar outlets want a more-or-less censorious and dominant Church of England, and that they think the world is in the throes of a religious war to the death. It's fertile territory, and he's making a grab for it - and just like Reagan, he doesn't even believe it. He's just cynically harnessing the fears of religious voters to garner votes. It may work in the short term - though I doubt it because British Christians (having a folk memory of the religious Civil War) are scared of extremes.

I imagine that ordinary decent believers would be horrified by this. Certainly there are plenty of religious bigots in this country, across all faiths, but I get the sense that most religious people are kind and tolerant people. The cynicism with which they're being encouraged to see the Conservative Party as Defenders of Faith against liberal atheism is breathtaking, especially as the party's neoliberalism runs counter to pretty much everything Jesus said about caring for one another and its leaders are as Godless as the rest of us. 


Alex said...

I really, really hope I'm right here but I just can't see fundamentalist Christianity as being an important voting demographic in this country in the way they are in America. Where are they all?

Sorry to flog a dead horse but is this the conservative answer to how you read Galloway's success?

The Plashing Vole said...

I think you're right. It's a core vote strategy, and might have a limited effect, but the Civil War terrified British people so much that religious Enthusiasm scared the majority away from strident sectarianism, other than in Northern Ireland. It is an attempt to generate a conservative version of Galloway's strategy, I think. They both have their roots in American identity politics.