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!
PS here is a presentation of the Bible in Conservative politics