Baroness Warsi, Conservative party chairman, is warning that what she calls militant secularisation is taking hold of societies, and argues that Christian values need to be placed at the heart of society. In doing so, she is following a growing trend in the politics of the British right; it’s implicit in Cameron’s comments about “soft liberalism” following last summer’s riots.
Britain is, by and large, a secular society (in my view, pleasingly so). Yet we have seen an increasingly powerful campaign to reassert what are presented as Christian values. We have free schools, building on New Labour’s promotion of faith schools (and Blair’s refusal to rule out the teaching of creationism); at the heart of the coalition’s Ideology Central, the Department of Work and Pensions we have Philippa Stroud – a woman who notoriously belongs to a church that preaches that women must obey their husbands, and that gay people can be “cured” by prayer – as Special Adviser to the Secretary of State (having failed to secure a seat in Parliament). Before the 2010 election, the Financial Times ran an important piece on the entryism of militant fundamentalist Christianity into the Conservative Party which, among other things, correctly predicted recent attempts to tighten abortion law. More recently we have had the extraodinary spectacle of George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, arguing in the context of a debate in the House of Lords about stripping the most vulnerable in society of their benefits that Government debt was the greater evil. Carey’s inability to understand the parable of the good Samaritan is of course all of a piece with the terrible mess the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s got themselves over Occupy LSX and Christ’s ejection of the moneylenders from the temple (it became rapidly clear that the moneylenders were the overseers of this particular temple) – and it has to be said that Carey would be a strong contender for the title of stupidest Archbishop in the See of Canterbury’s thousand-year history – but it does appear that organised Christianity is no stranger to moral and intellectual confusion.
At the same time, we’re being told – especially by the media – of the evils of militant Islam, and not the smallest irony of this situation is that the drive to Christianity is apparently being led by one of the most powerful Muslim women in public life.
What is the origin of this? And what does it mean?
We are living through the collapse of one of the grand narratives of our time. Market capitalism is in a state of disintegration that can easily appear to be terminal. It threatens the interests of the wealthy and powerful – and, unlike the 1930’s, total war and Keynes are not on hand to bail capitalism out. There is a desperate need for another narrative which will reinforce existing power structures, and fundamentalist Christianity offers some potent examples.
Above all it provides a diversion from the economic and social forces at work – in particular, as inequality and unemployment soar it offers a convenient diversion from economic reality into moral and personal issues. Your job may have disappeared, your house may be on the verge of dispossession, but at least you can blame and demonise those less virtuous than yourself – women, gays, atheists, the allegedly workshy, those who have sex a lot and enjoy it. It provides a diversion. One of the most remarkable examples of how a political establishment has persuaded large number of people to campaign against their own economic and political interests is the Tea Party in the US, bankrolled by billionaires and fuelled by moral indignation, cheap religion, myths about hard work bringing wealth and a belief that big government was the instrument of Satan.
But I think there is another key political problem at work here – what looks like a growing flight from reason in political discourse. Increasingly there is a tendency for political debate to become a contest in which the winner is a politician who can make the biggest lie stick – again, the debate on benefits for the disabled illustrates this, through what appeared to be the deliberate briefing by the DWP of myths about Disability Living Allowance and the entitlement to Motability vehicles in particular. Baroness Warsi’s comments certainly seem to draw heavily on tabloid myth – only the discredited old chestnut about Winterval is missing and, as so often with statements by senior Coalition Ministers, the shade of Theresa May’s cat looms large.
There is, as I have described before, a crisis of social and political legitimacy in Britain. But it has nothing to do with a collapse of Christian values – real or imagined. It is about a political class that increasingly represents only one view of society, and which is an active collaborator in a form of politics that looks increasingly like organised kleptocracy. Taking away benefits from the poorest and most vulnerable in society while shoving the subsidy down the maw of failed banks – that’s what moral breakdown looks like.