Religion, morals and the flight from rigorous thought

Last Friday David Cameron, the Prime Minister, gave a speech on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, which got a sprinkling of coverage in the weekend press.  In it he sought the help of Christianity and church leaders in helping to restore the country’s lost moral values, as evidenced by the summer riots, and Banking and MP’s expenses scandals.

My point isn’t to criticise this speech – I just don’t know where to begin – but to ask what such a speech says about modern politics.  In terms of intellectual rigour it wasn’t even trying.  But many people, and especially those of conservative instinct, will agree with its sentiments.  A nostalgia for higher moral values in the past; linking the country’s identity to the Christian faith; the feeling that s stronger standing of religious faith amongst other people will improve the country’s way of life.  The speech was no attempt to lead public opinion; it was following it.  Some commentators pointed out the political conventional wisdom against “doing God” – but this was not doing God, it was doing a warm fuzzy glow around the idea of religious faith and moral values.  As such it has not damaged Mr Cameron’s  standing.

Such lack of acuity in a senior political leader is something relatively new in Britain, I think.  It brings to mind Roy Jenkins’s remark about Tony Blair, in many way Mr Cameron’s role model, that he was “not a First Class intellect”.  Very clever, but I bit fuzzy.  It is impossible to imagine William Gladstone producing a speech like this one, or Margaret Thatcher, come to that.

This is a matter for regret.  Surely our political leadership should aspire to, well, leadership? – and try seriously to argue their cause and persuade the country about their vision for the way forward.  Even people who do not agree might see the force of the logic.  Instead we get a few half-baked ideas designed appeal to supporters’ prejudices.

And as for improving the standards of behaviour on our estates and boardrooms alike, this is just hot air.  Bad behaviour in these places, or their ancient equivalents, is absolutely nothing new, and does not correlate to a lack of religious standards – it has been known to permeate religious establishments.  And high moral standards have been the excuse for the infliction of much cruelty and injustice (think of the treatment that used to be meted out to unmarried mothers) in a way that, ironically, contradicts what Jesus Christ himself taught.  Religions don’t offer clear moral guidance, they offer a menu from which adherents pick and choose, and then claim the authority of heaven (think of the 9/11 bombers, West Bank settlers, Apartheid Boars, and so on).

Behaviour is a real enough problem.  But our Prime Minister just leads a national whinge.  He should aspire to more.

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3 thoughts on “Religion, morals and the flight from rigorous thought”

  1. I read Camerons speech, and I thought he was pretty much right about everything. He is actually making a difficult and subtle point rather well. It is this – there cannot be value free leadership. Values do not come from force of logic, but from conviction. And conviction comes from … God knows where?

    We will never know what history would look like if politicians hadn’t had Christianity on board – as conviction or PR or both – but the stories of Stalin and Hitler are not promising.

    Christianity is not a set of intellectual propositions but a set of ideals which are none the less real for all their fuzziness, and none the less influential because christians often ignore them.

    1. Hmmm….not what I picked up from the speech, though I might be doing him an injustice. As I wrote in my original piece it felt more like a carefully tuned appeal to prejudices. The only interesting bit to me was his suggestion that espousing the country’s Christian heritage was more helpful to people of other religions than an impartial secularism. There may be something in that – and it isn’t what many “Christian values” types suggest.

      I think Mr Cameron is quite clear on where values come from – they are taught by one generation to the next, or by societies’ institutions to the general public – hence it is a legitimate topic for political discourse. But where is this going? There are certain values that we all need to hold in common to make an advanced society work (actually any society, but I digress) – a respect for fellow citizens, and a respect for the law in particular. But I’m not sure that it is the particular job of organised religions to promote these values, and I don’t see how appealing to the country’s Christian character is at all helpful. Instead we need to try a bit harder to understand why youths on the estates, bankers, and others we think as lacking values behave in the way they do. For me Christianity is about forgiveness, love and redemption, not about “values” and strict moral codes of behaviour…the role which so many assign it. And I’m not sure that reading or not of the King James bible has anything to with the way people behave, given people’s infinite capacity to pick and choose the bits they take seriously and the bits they don’t.

  2. I think you are looking for Christian values from an open-minded reading of the New Testament, rather than finding out what they are teaching at Sunday schools.

    David Cameron is certainly being fuzzy in talking about them in connection with the King James bible – the ones he is referring to are really from the old testament. Maybe the ‘we are proud of our Jewish values’ didn’t sound so good.

    Where do love and generosity come from? Can we find out from the estate kids and the bankers? Maybe…

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