David Cameron’s Latest Bible

There has been a lot of reporting of David Cameron’s recent use of the Bible and his praise of Christianity. Nothing in what Cameron says is new in English political uses of the Bible, though Cameron’s emphasis has slightly changed. I have discussed these uses before on this blog (scroll below and there are a few posts) and won’t repeat them in any detail but a summary of Cameron’s latest views might help.

Definitions of the “Bible” and “Christianity” continue to be so vague and vacuous that lots of people who do not identify as “Christian” can accept the basic assumptions of what is Good: “Crucially, the Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility and love are shared by people of every faith and none – and we should be confident in standing up to defend them.” What are the results of this Christianity? Again, very positive and very vague (though Cameron later mentioned a few Tory policies and his opposition to slavery): “Christianity can also inspire a stronger belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives, and improve the spiritual, physical and moral state of our country, and even the world.” Who, in the abstract, wouldn’t want that? That Cameron also references a figure (Jesus) who is presented as wandering around preaching the kingdom of God coming with power, condemning the rich to Hades, calling Gentiles “dogs”, discussing the details of Sabbath and purity law, and taking the whip to money changers, is, in one sense, beside the point. Such contents must be largely ignored or 2000 years of its reception must be boiled down to a pithy core if the Bible is to be the reference point for political argument. Predictably, one of the (or perhaps the) most commonly cited biblical verses is used and, as ever, as a King James Version-ism: “The heart of Christianity is to ‘love thy neighbour’ and millions do really live that out“. All of this could have come from any number of politicians over the past 40 years.

The KJVism is important because Cameron’s Bible and Cameron’s Christianity is, of course, English and part of an English or cultural heritage. As he also claimed, “Easter is not just a time for Christians across our country to reflect, but a time for our whole country to reflect on what Christianity brings to Britain“. The Bible as the book for British or English democracy is tied in with this Cultural Bible. Cameron wrote about “being more confident about our status as a Christian country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgement on those with no faith at all” and that Britain is apparently not a “secular country”, citing “the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths” as his example.

Again, this is absolutely standard stuff for British politicians, certainly over the past 40 years. It is not remotely new, as some sections of the press claim, though the press claiming a politician is remarkable for using the Bible or citing Christianity is becoming part of the reception of a politician using the Bible or citing Christianity. When Gordon Brown quoted the Bible he too was presented as doing something remarkable. As was Tony Blair. And so on.

Cameron’s Bible is also the latest manifestation of Thatcher’s Bible. Thatcher was the most explicit and influential political user of the Bible among political leaders over the last 40 years. In her main speeches on the Bible and politics, Thatcher’s Bible added to the Liberal Bible a strong emphasis on what is now called neoliberalism, including the prioritising of charitable giving and support over the role of the state and welfare. She saw her Bible as driving her politics (that her politics perfectly cohered with her understanding of the Bible is another, albeit related, issue). And a softer version of this is found in Cameron’s claim that “Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago; I just want to see more of it”. Cameron continues by citing what he sees as Big Society Christian types across the UK, including Alpha courses in prisons. The specifics of the Alpha Course and conversion are not mentioned explicitly and there certainly is no discussion about speaking in tongues or charisma. Nor is there mention of the sorts of things Nicky Gumbel gets up to. All of this would be far too weird for a politician to discuss. Instead, Cameron’s Alpha gives “offenders” a “new life inside and outside prison”. And that’s it. But notice: it is a non-state organisation doing what might otherwise be deemed the work of the state. Cameron also goes on to praise soup kitchens and homeless shelters run by churches, the “same spirit” shown during the recent storms where churches and vicars played their part in helping victims through shelter, food and funds.

As mentioned, Cameron is not as blunt as Thatcher; she used the Bible and Christianity to fight the welfare state which was in some ways, she argued, an outworking of Communism. Nevertheless, Cameron has not come out so strongly with the charitable aspect of Thatcher’s Bible until now. Why? The reasons are, I think, fairly clear. Not only has Nigel Farage been trying to woo Tory Christians, but it comes after Cameron’s government has been heavily criticised for not providing sufficient help during the storms and flooding until the Tory heartlands were hit and the sustained criticisms (not least by church leaders) over food banks in the UK after what are euphemistically called “welfare reforms”.

The Bible continues to functions as an implicit authority for English politicians but beneath the vagueness and the praise of church groups is a serious political agenda: the continuation of the critique of the role of the state in welfare provision. Cameron has used the vague and agreeable nature of a common (but entirely anachronistic) understanding of what the Bible really means in an attempt to provide an argument which on the surface would be broadly agreeable. Who doesn’t think charity and helping people is a good thing? And this is why Cameron has to focus on the importance of “religious” motivations, no matter how confused he gets in making sure that all sorts of believers and non-believers also share these views. The underlying logic is something like this: a motivated member of society like you can make sure people do not go hungry so who needs the welfare state! Maybe food banks are a good thing! Why blame the government if you don’t really need it! And the Bible and nice Christians – and non-Christians, and the rest who love our heritage – should agree!

James Crossley

PS here is a presentation of the Bible in Conservative politics


Jesus and Brian Conference – KCL

A conference exploring the Historical Jesus and his Times, via Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Friday 20 June to Sunday 22 June 2014
Edmond J Safra Lecture Theatre, King’s College London

Full details are available here.

Papers listed are:

Professor Joan E. Taylor (King’s College London): Welcome Address and Introduction: ‘The Historical Brian

Professor Martin Goodman (University of Oxford): ‘The Life of Brian and the Politics of First-Century Judea’

Professor George Brooke (University of Manchester): ‘Brian as a Teacher of Righteousness’

Conversation with mystery guests featuring Revd. Canon Professor Richard Burridge

Professor Bill Telford (Durham University): ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the Jesus Film

Professor Philip Davies and Prof. James Crossley (University of Sheffield): ‘Monty Python’s Life of Jesus

Dr Helen Bond (University of Edinburgh): ‘You’ll Probably Get Away With Crucifixion: How Brian (and Jesus) Ended Up on a Roman Cross

Dr Aaron Rosen (King’s College London): ‘Laughing at Brian, Laughing at Christ: Some Reflections on Film and Modern Art

Professor Steve Mason (University of Aberdeen): ‘What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us? Brian and Josephus on Anti-Roman Sentiment

Professor Paula Fredriksen (Boston University): ‘Are you a Virgin? Biblical Exegesis and the Invention of Tradition’

Professor James Dunn (Durham University): ‘Brian, Judaism and the Law’

Dr Guy Stiebel (Hebrew University of Jerusalem): ‘Romani Ite Domun: Identity and Expressions of Resistance in Judaea’

Katie Turner (King’s College London): ‘The Shoe is the Sign“:The Costuming of the Life of Brian and the Clothing of First-Century Judaeans

Professor Amy-Jill Levine (Vanderbilt University): ‘Beards for Sale: The Uncut Version of Brian, Gender and Sexuality

Professor Bart Ehrman (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill): ‘The Life of Brian and the Apocalyptic Jesus

Professor Adele Reinhartz (University of Ontario): ‘Hook-nosed Heebies: Brian, Jesus, and Jewish Identity

Revd. Canon Professor Richard Burridge (King’s College London): ‘The Church of England’s Life of Python–Or, What the Bishop Saw’

Dr David Tollerton (University of Exeter): ‘Blasphemy! On Free Speech Then and Now







Biblical Studies Online podcasts: Reception and Tony Benn

Biblical Studies Online has started a podcast series on iTunes, details of which are available here. It will cover numerous areas in biblical studies and there will be interviews with biblical scholars. The first podcast is on reception history and biblical studies.

In the second podcast I discuss the late Tony Benn on religion and the Radical Bible. It’s about 15 mins long (for a much longer presentation on Benn, the Radical Bible, the Labour movement etc see here) and is now available on iTunes. Here is the outline: “In this podcast James Crossley (University of Sheffield) looks at the former Labour MP Tony Benn and his views on religion and the Bible. In particular, it looks at how Benn understood the Bible as part of a British and English socialist tradition.

Here is a short Channel 4 video of Tony Benn in which he summarises his views on Jesus and Christianity.

Bible, Critical Theory and Reception 2014: Bristol

The Bible, Critical Theory and Reception seminar
Bristol, 16-17th September, 2014

“Lyons Country”, yesterday

The fourth annual seminar will be dedicated to some of the latest developments in biblical studies. Building on the success of the Bible and Critical Theory seminar and journal in the southern hemisphere, this approximate northern hemisphere equivalent will welcome papers in the general areas of critical theory, cultural studies and reception history. Reception history is broadly understood to include the use, influence and receptions of biblical texts in all aspects of culture (e.g. film, pop music, literature, politics etc.). This two-day seminar will be held in Bristol, 16-17th September, 2014. The seminar will be free of charge, though accommodation will have to be found privately. Further details (including confirmed speakers, times, locations, and accommodation tips) will be made available on the Sheffield Biblical Studies blog and the BCTRS Facebook page in due course.

Anyone interested in presenting a paper (typically in a 30 minute slot), or would like any other further information, should contact James Crossley and/or John Lyons. Paper proposals should include a title and abstract (c. 250 words). Postgraduate students are warmly invited to offer paper proposals. The deadline for participation and call for papers is 1st August, 2014.

Audios: The Bible in English Politics (Benn, Thatcher, Blair)

The following three audios (mp3) are full length lectures are from the William Temple Association lecture series (Jan./Feb. 2014).

Lecture 1: The Bible in Contemporary English Politics; or, Tony Benn and the decline of the Radical Bible. This looks at the assumptions of what the Bible ‘really means’ in English (and broader) political discourse and the decline of politically radical interpretation of the Bible in English politics with particular reference to Tony Benn.

Lecture 2: Margaret Thatcher’s Religion. This is, incidentally, a bit different from a previous lecture on Thatcher’s Bible, though with some overlap towards the end (on her biblical exegesis). It looks at Thatcher’s Methodist upbringing, her ‘rediscovery’ of Methodism in the 1970s, the Cold War and her understanding of Marxism in to religion, her understanding of Judaism, her conflicts with the CofE, and her biblical exegesis.

Lecture 3: Tony Blair and the End of the Radical Bible. This lecture looks at how Blair developed Thatcher’s Bible and her understanding of religion during the war on terror. It will further look at Blair’s reinterpretation of Labour’s more radical heritage to now concern liberal interventionism. Blair represents the final victory of Thatcher’s Bible in parliamentary politics.

James Crossley

Thatcher and the Bible: Audio Lecture

Below is a lecture given on 17th January 2014 at the University of Edinburgh. It’s on Margaret Thatcher, her use of the Bible and how a modified form Thatcher’s Bible became the Bible of English politics. The mp3 version is available in the sidebar or here.

Woolwich and What Politicians Think Religion Is

Contrary to what the Woolwich murderer infamously said to the camera, Boris Johnson suggested that “it is completely wrong to blame this killing on the religion of Islam and it is also equally wrong to link this murder to the actions of British foreign policy.” Others placed the emphasis elsewhere. David Cameron called the murder “a betrayal of Islam…There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act.” Tommy Robinson (formerly of EDL fame) claimed, however, that “This is Islam. That’s what we’ve seen today… Our next generation are being taught through schools that Islam is a religion of peace. It’s not. It never has been. What you saw today is Islam.

These sorts of views are typical of popular views relating to Islam, religion and violence over the past decade. But if we want to understand motivations and causes, they are also of minimal, if any, use. To argue who has the “true” and “false” insight into what religion or Islam is also, presumably unintentionally, to argue using the insider language of the religious believer. If we want to analyse the causes of September 11, July 7, or the murder on the streets of Woolwich, it is not as if we can boil down Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or whatever religion or ideology, to a pure essence that is ‘peaceful’ or ‘violent’. Violence and peace are to be found throughout the history of Islam (or Christianity, Judaism, and so on) in different contexts and different times. This should be no great surprise for the simple reason of the complexity of societies and historical change.

This much should be obvious. Yet it is clear that statements about “true” and “false” religion are regularly invoked, not least by political leaders. But such statements can be useful if we want to understand something about the ideological assumptions of the speaker. Typically, the distinction between “true” and “false” Islam is generally code for compatibility (true) or incompatibility (false) with liberal democracy. But this too is problematic and we can see why when we look at one of the most high profile users of the language of “true” and “false” Islam/Christianity/religion: Tony Blair.

From September 11 onward, Blair’s use of this true-false binary became increasingly pronounced. In his speech to Parliament on the eve of the Iraq war, Blair argued that one of the “two begetters of chaos” is “extreme terrorist groups who profess a perverted and false view of Islam” (the other was “tyrannical regimes with weapons of mass destruction”). According to his political autobiography, Blair understood the “war on terror” to be an ideological battle: “the mores and modus vivendi of religious fanaticism versus those of an enlightened, secular system of government that in the West, at least, incorporated belief in liberty, equality and democracy.” Whether this was a fair assessment or not, it is a binary that sums up Blair’s view of “true” and “false” religion. Describing what he assumed to be the pure origins of Islam, Blair uses particularly modern terms such as “tolerant” and “progressive”. However, he also argues that Islam has since become tainted and that these extremists see the West as invaders of Muslim countries whereas “probably the majority” of Muslims “wish to be in alliance with the West against terrorism.” Clearly, then, “true” and “false” Islam is judged on its compatibility with a Blairite view of the world. With this in mind, is it just coincidence that Blair’s view of a purer original Islam legitimately invaded a dictatorship in a certain part of the Middle East? For Blair claimed that “as Islam expanded far beyond Mecca and Medina, it was often looked upon as a liberator, even by some of the Christian communities such as the Nestorians in Iraq”.

The rhetorical use of what Christianity truly “is” can be seen in a similar way. For instance, in a speech on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, David Cameron claimed that Britain is a Christian nation. This does not mean, of course, that Britain is a Christian nation in the sense we should all go to church, sing hymns, pray to God, fast, deal with heretics appropriately, convert non-believers, or anything else that the less pious might find worrying. Rather, Cameron’s Christian nation with the King James Bible at its heart is curiously close to liberal democracy and with anything incompatible removed. According to Cameron, the Bible and our Christian heritage have provided everything from “human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy”, as well as “the first forms of welfare provision”. They also apparently provide “the foundations for protest and for the evolution of our freedom” and “the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights, a foundation that has seen the Bible at the forefront of the emergence of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women.” And just for good measure, these are values that speak to us all, “to people of every faith and none”. This anachronistic definition could, of course, equally be a secular definition given of the modern nation state. Put another way, it is unlikely that Cameron  would have included discussion of the book of Joshua, the Psalmist’s interest in smashing babies heads against rocks, Jesus labeling Gentiles ‘dogs’, condemning the rich to Hades, destroying idols, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, or indeed using the King James Bible itself to convert heathens. “True” Christianity is presumably does not involve endorsement of these sorts of things.

Blair and Cameron believe that religion (or “true” religion) is a mysterious force for the liberal democratic good. The flip side of this might be represented by Richard Dawkins who believes that religion is a mysterious malevolent force, not only in relation to liberal democracy but human history more generally. Four days after September 11, Dawkins gave “religion” as his primary explanation for the attacks on the Twin Towers and as “the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place.” While certain views of Islam obviously played a role in September 11 and continue to do so in the Middle East and North Africa, it is not so easy to cite “religion” as effectively the only factor. For a start, what, precisely, is this “religion thing” that causes all sorts of violence? Why have plenty of other Muslims not engaged in violence? Why was this not so much of a widespread problem (say) 50 years ago? And what do we make of Muslims who still do not foreground their religious identity? We might also list some of the standard reasons given for the rise of what is commonly labelled “Islamic fundamentalism” which include: the void created by the decline of secular nationalism in North Africa and the Middle East; American involvement in Saudi Arabia (the homeland of the majority of the September 11 killers); exposure to Wahhabism; sanctions on Iraq; Palestine; the petro-crash; the rise of slums and population growth; and the support given to various dictators. Boiling down what has happened in the Middle East and September 11 to “religion” does not remotely do justice to the complexity of the situation.

We will no doubt hear more about the complex range of reasons behind the Woolwich murder and no doubt we should accept that ideological motivations played an important part. But if or when we hear politicians or analysts use the language of “true” or “false” religion or claim that “religion” causes violence or that “religion” is really all about peace, then know that such statements are not such obvious truisms as speakers and writers would have us believe as they mask much more than they reveal. We will not begin to understand violence, including violence done in association with understandings of what religion is, if we insist that this or that manifestation is “true”, “false”, or that what we call “religion” is the only real cause.