David Cameron ‘doing God’

Alastair Campbell’s intervention has become famous. Asked, in the course of an interview with Vanity Fair, something that touched on his personal faith, the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair hesitated, and Campbell lent across to refuse the question with the line ‘We don’t do God.’ Blair’s faith was clearly genuine, if kept quiet; the same was true of his successor Gordon Brown. David Cameron’s announcement in a speech yesterday that he is a ‘committed … Church of England Christian’ makes him (at least – I know nothing either way of John Major) the third premier in a row to find some importance in a personal Christian faith; that seems remarkable enough to bear some analysis, but that is not my point here. In his speech yesterday, part of a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, the Prime Minister went further than any of his predecessors for some while in asserting that faith was more than a personal matter to him, but was a political compass. He asserted that our culture and politics are incomprehensible apart from a recognition of the Christian heritage of the country, and – most controversially – that the shared values that should guide British politics and society into the future are distinctively Christian. His first point is relatively uncontroversial; the National Secular Society may not get it, but outside such tiny and extreme fringe groups, the central place of the King James Bible (and the plays of Shakespeare) in creating the cadences of English is undoubted. The Prime Minister wandered through fine art and music, and it is true that without a fairly thorough knowledge of the Biblical narrative (& the stories of the saints, incidentally) there is much that cannot be understood; the specific influence of the KJV is found in literature particularly, of course. (I have written elsewhere on the dark side of this: the KJV was key in making the language of Oxford ‘normal’ and the language of Fife – King James VI’s own native cadence – a ‘dialect’; appropriately, perhaps, in a celebratory event, the Prime Minister did not touch on this aspect in his speech.) The second point wanders towards the controversial: ‘[t]he Bible runs through our political history in a way that is not often recognised.’ The Prime Minister cited examples: the concept of a limited, constitutional monarchy; universal human rights; the welfare state; and a commitment to aid and development beyond our borders. (He wavers into what Richard Dawkins calls ‘faith in faith’ a bit on the last: Jewish Care, Islamic Relief, and Muslim Aid, excellent organisations though they no doubt are, do not, as far as I know, find much of their inspiration in the King James Bible…) I suspect that on each of the examples cited Cameron is simply right, but I am conscious that there is some historical debate to be had in one case or another. Further, even if he is right, the fact that we originally came to belief in a constitutional monarchy (say) through a consideration of the Biblical narrative does not mean that no other robust defence of the position is available. It does establish a burden of proof, however. There is a classic form of European liberal atheism which adopts a series of distinctively Christian ethical – and even philosophical – commitments and asserts that they are in some way ‘obvious’; only a little knowledge of history shows that they are not. It has not generally been obvious to human beings that infanticide is a bad idea, let alone that limited government is a good one. A constitutional monarchy is a very odd idea in human politics, and empirically is significantly intertwined with Christianity; if the position can be defended robustly from a naturalistic philosophical position, that requires demonstration. (Not least because it happens that pretty much every confessionally atheist state in history has been repressively totalitarian…) The Prime Minister moved to his third point via a recollection of the importance of faith-based groups and individuals in ‘the big society’ (he chose not to use the phrase), and an acknowledgement that, whatever might be happening in Britain, faith is becoming more, not less, important and prevalent globally. Mr Cameron makes the choice to welcome that as a positive thing. The headline seen everywhere this morning, ‘Britain is a Christian country,’ comes from this part of the speech. The argument goes like this, as far as I can reconstruct it: every strong society is built on an unwavering commitment to certain shared values; the values which have shaped, and which should continue to shape, British society are distinctively Christian, although their worth can...

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Mike Higton on Dawkins

Over nearly twenty years (I’m feeling old…), my friend Mike Higton has taught me, by precept and example, more about how to do theology than all but two, perhaps three, others. One of the lessons I regret never having quite learned from him, despite seeing it modeled repeatedly in his life, writing and conversation, is a truly respectful and patient listening to those with whom I disagree profoundly. On his blog, Mike has been giving just such respectful and patient listening to Richard Dawkins’s God Delusion. Does the book deserve such attention? Perhaps not, but an ethic of loving our enemies might demand that we give such a book that which it does not deserve. And Mike’s generosity is amply repaid with an endlessly fascinating series of reflections, which wander across almost every issue in Christian doctrine. There are times in my life, I think when I am simply exhausted, when I find it very easy to envy the abilities of others. Sometimes I live better, and exercise with gratitude the particular abilities, such as they are, that God has been pleased to grant to me. Someone like Mike is very easy to envy,...

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