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.