By James Crossley
I’ve just finished writing a book on the Bible in contemporary English politics and then something potentially significant gets published: Jo Latham and Claire Mathys (eds.), Liberal Democrats Do God (London: LDCF, 2013). The publication of the book has been mentioned across the press and certain blogs, including critical comment, while elsewhere a fuller review appears to be imminent on return from a summer break.
Liberal Democrats Do God springs from the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum (LDCF) which ‘exists to be a Christian voice in the Liberal Democratic Party, and a voice of liberal democracy among Christians…LDCF is an Associated Organisation of the Liberal Democrat Party, and consist of party members, Councillors, MPs, and Peers, as well as Christians who are not members of the Liberal Democrat Party but who are sympathetic towards its values and wish to support the ministry of LDCF’ (from ‘About the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum’).
I am going to look at Liberal Democrats Do God in sections and focus particularly on the use of the Bible. I’ll start with the Introduction.
The Introduction by Steve Webb (Minister of State for Pensions) acknowledges how Labour and Conservatives can corner the market on political engagement and Christianity but now claims that there is a warm embrace courtesy of the Lib Dems:
The most fundamental reason why a Christians should feel at home in the Liberal Democrats is that the character of God, as revealed in the Christian Gospel, would suggest that God must be a liberal! This assertion will shock or offend some, but I believe that there is no other conclusion that can be drawn from a reading of the New Testament. The Gospel makes it clear that human beings have freedom. Jesus makes it clear that God does not seek slaves, but sons and daughters. And God gave us the most extraordinary freedom – the freedom to reject and crucify his Son. There must be something very precious about freedom, a value dear to the heart of every liberal.
This is not distinctively Lib Dem and it is the latest manifestation of what Yvonne Sherwood called the ‘Liberal Bible’ (i.e. the Bible is ‘really about’ freedom, tolerance, rights, justice, democracy etc.) which has been developing since the seventeenth-century. It is the same kind of Bible we find with Tony Blair and, in Webb’s formulation, particularly with Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher gave a number of speeches on the Bible which were, if nothing else, consistent with emerging Thatcherism. Even if Webb’s assertion will ‘shock or offend’ (particularly the political Right), perhaps it shouldn’t. For Thatcher, fundamental to the Bible was ‘the idea of personal moral responsibility’, the Ten Commandments were addressed ‘to individuals’, and ‘the teachings of the Bible…refer back to the individual in his relationships to others.’ Like Webb, Thatcher even saw the crucifixion as part of her take on individualism:
…from the beginning man has been endowed by God with the fundamental right to choose between good and evil…we were made in God’s own image and, therefore, we are expected to use all our own power of thought and judgement in exercising that choice…Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, when faced with His terrible choice and lonely vigil chose to lay down His life’ (italics original).
But Thatcher’s Bible is present elsewhere in Webb’s Introduction:
If the Almighty Creator of the universe does not impose his will on his creation, then we flawed individuals who are involved in the political process should be deeply cautious about using the power of the state to impose our will on others. Clearly there have to be frameworks and boundaries, and the state is right to impose those. But beyond this, our faith surely teaches us that we should be very wary of anything more coercive. Those who recognise in the Gospel a deep reverence for human freedom and self-determination will find a natural home in the Liberal Democrats.
Intentionally or unintentionally, these ideas also echo Thatcher’s interpretation of the Bible framed in terms of her opposition to socialism, Marxism, and Soviet Communism. Unlike some of the figures from the more politically radical tradition but in common with a Tory tradition, original sin was important. For Thatcher original sin and human imperfection were important, if only because of her dislike of the assumed opposite: ‘there is one heresy which it seems to me that some political doctrines embrace…the belief that Man is perfectable’. It is notable that this discussion was in the context of a criticism of socialism and the state, and the idea that if education, health and social welfare were correctly administered then ‘we shall have exorcised the Devil’. This, she claimed, is ‘bad theology’ and a failure: ‘we have expended vast efforts and huge sums of money on policies designed to make people better and happier. Have we really brought about a fundamental improvement in Man’s moral condition?’ This was not just part of Thatcher’s attack on the role of the state but also her perception of utopian thinking that, she argued, marked socialism and which she thought inevitably led to the suppression of the individual and, ultimately, the gulag. For Thatcher, the Bible (or ‘the Gospel’), and its apparent concerns for freedom and individualism, were part of the antidote to state-heavy thinking (like Webb, she still saw a role for the state, albeit limited). Needless to say, those biblical interpreters on the Left did not agree with this reading of freedom and the individual.
So there you have it. There is little point asking what most political users of the Bible think of those passages where God seems to want people to be slaves or predictions of an imminent theocracy, or indeed Abishag the Shunammite keeping the ageing David warm in his bed, Joshua’s conquest, posting parts of a chopped-up concubine, the cave of Adullam, smashing babies heads against rocks, labelling Gentiles ‘dogs’, condemning the rich to Hades, destroying idols, and the weeping and gnashing of teeth etc. What really matters is that the Bible is largely compatible with the latest manifestation of liberal democracy. And here Webb is one among many political interpreters, the most prominent and influential being Margaret Thatcher.
Definitely well-worth a read is Eliza Filby, ‘Margaret Thatcher: her unswerving faith shaped by her father’, Telegraph (April 14, 2013)