Faith in faith and valuing values? Reflecting on David Cameron’s Easter message

The Prime Minister has issued an ‘Easter message’, which makes for interesting reading. It has rather less (that is, no) reference to cross, resurrection, or indeed the name of Jesus than I suppose is normal in Easter messages; The claim that ‘Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children’ might raise more than a few eyebrows; Easter always used to be all about ‘the death of death in the death of Christ’ (to borrow what is possibly John Owen’s only truly memorable line). My friend Danny Webster has blogged on this, and I pretty much agree with everything he says.

I cannot imagine any positive reception for this piece; Mr Cameron has (once again) proved himself simply tone-deaf to the concerns of the Christian community (I am told he is similarly blind to the concerns of the Muslim community). I say that not as a complaint – I do not have any right to demand a Prime Minister who is interested in my faith commitment – but as a matter of surprise; if I were running for office in a democracy, and there was a group of organisations that claimed the serious allegiance of about 7-8% of the voters, I would either make sure I understood how to speak to them, or at least had people around me to check my words and give me advice.

He draws attention to the enshrining in law of the 0.7% of GDP overseas aid budget and to the modern slavery bill, two good things for which his administration does deserve credit; I suspect churches that are involved in foodbanks and debt counselling services (which most of us are, one way or another) might struggle more with the claim ‘I am proud that despite the pressure on public spending, we made clear choices to help the … most vulnerable in society’.

That said, I find the piece interesting and worthy of comment because it displays a particular type of common contemporary liberal piety, which is not only wrong but positively dangerous. He starts with a recognition that is valuable, and deserves to be remembered more often: ‘As Prime Minister, I’m in no doubt about the matter: the values of the Christian faith are the values on which our nation was built.’ Yes; absolutely. He then moves on to defend the importance of faith in British society: ‘I’m an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country … I’m a big believer in the power of faith to forge a better society.’

He then makes a point which I agree with entirely, but which I interpret rather differently: strong faith makes people act. Mr Cameron says ‘…faith is a massive inspiration for millions of people to go out and make a positive difference.’ OK, but I want to think about the word ‘positive’, or at least to suggest that ‘faith’ is also an inspiration for other people – fewer, I hope – to go out and make a very negative difference.

Then we turn to that wonderful contemporary idea, ‘values’: ‘in the end we are all guided by the lights of our own reason … this government has consistently taken decisions which are based on fundamental principles and beliefs.’ Well, yes; as Danny said, ‘everything we do is based on some sort of fundamental principle and belief’. And that includes the bad things as well as the good things.

I think that celebrating ‘faith’ and valuing ‘values’ is dangerous. Strong faith makes people act, and if their faith is deformed, so will their action be. The Anglicans who condemned Elizabeth Gaunt to be burnt alive for being a Baptist were people of faith, acting according to their values; the German Christians who supported the rise of Hitler were people of faith, acting according to their values; the members of Westborough Baptist Church who picket funerals with their homophobic ‘God hates fags’ posters are people of faith, acting according to their values. (I criticise my own tradition; other faith traditions are, obviously, not immune.) ‘Values’ are not necessarily good; some are, but some are not. Faith is a powerful motivator to action, but that makes it particularly dangerous if it is misplaced.

Faith well-placed will inspire heroic and sacrificial action. When Mr Cameron says ‘[a]cross the country, we have tens of thousands of fantastic faith-based charities. Every day they’re performing minor miracles in local communities.’ I know that he is right; I know many people who work for these charities, and some of the visionaries who have started them; I know in some cases just how much they risked to follow the calling of God they discerned; I certainly know how much many people have given up to do wonderful work in national and local organisations. But all this good comes not because they had ‘faith’, but because of who they had faith in; not because they had ‘values’ but because of the values they had.

David Cameron is far from the only contemporary liberal who attempts to negotiate the challenge of faith traditions by praising the concept of ‘faith’. This is not just wrong; it is dangerous. We must discriminate between ‘people of faith’, on the basis of our own ‘values’: faith makes people peculiarly activist, and so either makes them great forces for good, or actively evil. There are serious, and divisive, moral decisions to be made here. Pretending that we can have faith in ‘faith’ and that we can value ‘values’ is a craven and foolish evasion of the problem.

2 Comments

  1. Ian Paul
    Apr 2, 2015

    Thanks for this Steve. You are quite calm about this compared with Danny!

    The slight difficulty is that to complain that Cameron doesn’t understand Easter, when he is saying something more positive than the atheist lobby, can look a bit, well, ungrateful…

  2. Annie Weatherly-Barton
    Apr 3, 2015

    Such a good piece Steve. Well said! Let me be truly honest — whether it offends or not — Cameron doesn’t understand Easter nor does he understand the true message of Jesus.

    This is the key sentence for me.
    ‘I think that celebrating ‘faith’ and valuing ‘values’ is dangerous. Strong faith makes people act, and if their faith is deformed, so will their action be.’

    Absolutely spot on Steve. A little while ago I responded to a piece in the Guardian. This was a piece where IDS was talking about his, err um, err um, “Christian Faith”. I posted my thoughts and gave two extracts from the Bible:
    Amos 5:7 – 17 :
    10There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
    and detest the one who tells the truth.
    11You levy a straw tax on the poor
    and impose a tax on their grain.
    Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
    you will not live in them;
    though you have planted lush vineyards,
    you will not drink their wine.
    12For I know how many are your offenses
    and how great your sins.
    There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
    13Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
    for the times are evil.

    Matthew: 25: 31 -46
    “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
    44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
    45“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

    Amazingly, I had 3 responses from commenters. They all told me they were “atheists” and never thought they would agree with a Christian. They felt that what I had said was “absolutely right!” They “respected” me for my faith and true understanding.

    To me a lot of these professions of faith is just “playing to the gallery”. Meaningless, trite and savage. It has no place in the centrality of the Easter Message. Cameron’s “message” is nothing more or less than an “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal!”

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