There have been further responses to the reporting of The Liberal Democrats Do God, including misrepresentation.
Claire Mathys, one of the co-editors of The Liberal Democrats Do God, has responded by pointing out that Steve Webb did not in fact argue that ‘God must be a Liberal Democrat’ but rather that ‘God must be a liberal’ and that’s a ‘“liberal” with a small “l”’ which is ‘not the same as a Liberal Democrat (although Liberal Democrats are generally liberals)’:
…there are liberals on the Conservative and Labour benches too. A liberal in its broadest sense is someone who values freedom and is the opposite of authoritarian. It is the opposite of dictatorial rule. Steve argues that God is not a dictator who forces us to live and act in a certain way, and so we shouldn’t govern in that way either.
Gillan Scott makes a similar point, critiquing sensationalist headlines in the reporting of Webb’s remarks:
In one sense he is correct that God has given us freedom (or free will) and the Lib Dems value freedom too. But rather than saying God is a liberal, what this really means is that liberals care about the freedom that God gave us first. Liberals follow in God’s footsteps on this matter, not the other way round. Of course you could just as easily say that other parties care about freedom too, even if they might approach it from a different perspective. No one party has a monopoly on God’s values.
The distinction between the liberal God and the Liberal Democrat God is important for a couple of reasons. 1. Mathys and Scott are right that the book does not claim God is a Lib Dem; 2. the press can generate heat for a politician or party by claiming God is politically partisan (irrespective of what the politician actually said).
Rhetorically maintaining this distinction is crucial to this debate. For whatever reasons (and I may blog on these soon), the Bible and God are important for politicians to cite in support and they retain an implicit authority. But they can only be invoked in the vaguest way that supports liberal democracy and cultural heritage. Very few successful politicians would be so partisan as to claim God for their party. Not even Thatcher would go quite so far (though she would come close at times). Blair certainly didn’t. Some immediate reasons for this come to mind in addition to it being a problem for theological debates about salvation and God loving sinners: it could isolate potential voters and it and it would smack of theocracy/dictatorship (or just weird non-liberal thought) and not liberal democracy. In other words, things which are not expected of a parliamentary politician.
This partly explains why politicians can get a bad press on issues of God, religion and the Bible. First, they are liable to get a bad press whatever. Second, add God and they’re in danger of having the weird, non-liberal constructions of religion applied to them which allows the press to take the piss more. However, this is not to say the press are down on God, religion and the Bible. While there are a few high-profile atheists in the press, the dominant view (as a couple of forthcoming articles will show) generally involves positive rhetoric about God, religion and the Bible, and with assumptions shared with the political establishment that God, religion and the Bible ideally should be about (some form of) liberal democracy and tolerance. The press have little to say about anything unpalatable or too alien to these ideals. When they do, the discussion is typically about violence which is regularly categorised as ‘false religion’ and thereby allowing ‘true religion’ to remain liberal, tolerant and democratic.
I suspect the problem for politicians who want to speak openly about God, religion and the Bible is the perception that there is something wrong with too much belief in the strange illiberal, culturally odd or alien views we all know are really there somewhere in the Bible and Christianity but aren’t emphasised in political discourse or in the press. Former Eurovision Song Contest host, Terry Wogan, is one of the exceptions who says what a leading politician almost certainly couldn’t:
I always believed, in common with everybody else brought up in the Christian faith, that the God of the New Testament was one and the same as the God of the Old Testament. And the latter was as far removed from Liberal principles of personal freedom and self-determination as you can get. He operated more along the lines of a dictator, and not a benign one either. You toed that line, or you got fire and brimstone on the back of your neck, or a plague of locusts. He didn’t seem big on self-expression. You only had to turn around against his wishes and you were a pillar of salt.
Nowadays, according to Mr Webb, God takes a kindlier, liberal view: He probably is in two minds over fracking, and will listen to both sides of the debate on wind turbines and climate change. Although, as with Suarez, Langer and the Lib Dems, He will probably listen more closely to Sir David Attenborough on climate change.
And that’s the real problem if a politician says too much about God and the Bible. And we could add all the discussions of doctrine. Or the whole range of practices people get up to behind closed doors on a Sunday. Not that he would, but would it not be a problem for the Tories if Cameron were seen speaking in tongues?
Blair backed off for fear he’d be labelled a ‘nutter’ and Cameron could claim that his faith comes and goes like the signal for Magic FM in the Chilterns. For both the vague Bible and the vague God are regularly present. As Frank Field is reported to have said in the context of a discussion about Blair’s understanding of Anglicanism and politics: ‘the Church of England survived because it realises how much religion the English will take, which is not very much.’ This tension between enough God/Bible and too much God/Bible, and indeed a public God/Bible versus private God/Bible, is what a politician must negotiate. And there’s no guarantee they’ll be represented fairly…