Cameron, Christianity and Christmas.

Posted on December 23, 2011


Last Friday, in Oxford, the Prime Minister gave a speech to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible. He began that speech with the following words:

 I know there are some who will question why I am giving this speech. And if they happen to know that I’m setting out my views today in a former home of the current Archbishop of Canterbury and in front of many great theologians and church leaders they really will think I have entered the lions’ den.

(AP Photo/Matt Dunham) (Credit: AP)

His use of the expression ‘lions’ den’ is significant. Most of us will now be familiar with the ire that religion, ‘theologians and church leaders,’ as well as those generally who constitute the faithful of religion, draw from the media and other public figures alike. It would surely not be unfair to claim that Christianity generally receives a far harsher treatment at their hands than other faiths. Statements made by religious leaders on social and economic affairs are generally treated as either reactionary or of the woolly left, and thereby unworthy of serious attention.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, provided the following comment on the speech when approached by the BBC.

Mr Cameron’s promotion of faith for other people when his own is so wishy-washy is typical of a politician who thinks religion is a useful means of social control. But you cannot force people to believe what they have reasoned to be untrue. Nor will they be convinced that religion is the only route to morality.

The Prime Minister certainly did confess that he does not have a faith as sure and certain as that held by many other Christians. He describes himself as ‘a committed – but I have to say vaguely practising – Church of England Christian’. If, however, Mr. Sanderson had read further into the speech he would not have found religion directly or indirectly trumpeted as a form of useful control. In fact he would have found Mr Cameron approving the plural reality of modern-day Britain, including those who could be described as ‘non-believers’.

It is tempting to respond to the statements of Mr. Sanderson et al. by bemoaning attitudes prevailing amongst policy-makers and commentators, with a focus upon their constant efforts to ignore, belittle or exclude the voices of faiths and faith leaders. It is also tempting to ‘fisk’ the Prime Minister’s speech and criticise his failure to argue in stronger terms for Christian involvement in the public sphere. It is, however, probably better –and better in keeping with the spirit of the season – to highlight positive points.

It is, indeed, refreshing to hear a senior politician not only acknowledge the immense contribution Christianity has made to the development of the nation and its beloved institutions, but also encourage maintenance of that contribution. The Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, gave a lecture at the Thomas More Institute earlier this month which spoke to Pope Benedict XVI’s words – uttered in Westminster Hall over  year ago now –, ‘Faith in God is not a problem to be solved, but a vital part of the national conversation’. If the Prime Minister was not present at the lecture it is comforting to know that he shares sentiments expressed at it. In his speech Mr. Cameron said:

To me, Christianity, faith, religion, the Church and the Bible are all inherently involved in politics because so many political questions are moral questions. So I don’t think we should be shy or frightened of this.

In the coming year there will certainly be many issues of moral and political importance that the government will have to address: the effects of rising unemployment and homelessness; issues of social and moral disengagement such as were apparent in the August riots; and so on. The economic and budgetary situation means that even if the government so desired, it lacks the means to tackle the issues alone and ‘from on high’. The involvement of groups and organisations at other levels will have to be called upon for working out solutions. The Prime Minister’s speech suggests he at least is not averse to faith-based organisations contributing, or to the voices of religion being raised in public debates.

His stated support for that hearing to be given religious voices is very much to be welcomed. As Mr. Cameron himself notes, it is essential for the stability of society that there be voices capable of stating what is right and what is wrong. The values upon which Great Britain is founded come from the stable moral thinking of Christianity. Christian voices, alongside those of other faiths, must continue to make themselves heard in the public square so as to keep those values grounded. This Prime Minister seems to recognise that, and so, on a positive seasonal note, we wish him tidings of joy.