I am an atheist, although up to the age of 13 I was largely educated by priests (the two are probably connected). I was brought up to a hot, sweet Anglo-Catholicism which I now utterly reject but which did mean that I absorbed an awful lot of scripture at an impressionable age.
Sometimes it comes in handy, most of all when David Cameron, in his Christmas message, decides he’s going to talk about Christianity and the Big Society. He writes:
“There are those millions who keep on strengthening our society too – being good neighbours, running clubs and voluntary associations, playing their part in countless small ways to help build what I call the big society.
“Many of these people are Christians who live out to the letter that verse in Acts, that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’. These people put their faith into action and we can all be grateful for what they do.”
Note the tone – the casual reference to the Acts of the Apostles as “Acts” as if he were engaged in an informal chat with the churchwarden. The English at prayer in a public-school-prefect kind of way.
This is not the place to repeat the list of ways in which the kind of society that Cameron’s party is building is so utterly incompatible with the revolutionary message of the historical Christ who, we are told, threw moneylenders out of the temple and whose teachings laid the basis for much the ethical Socialist tradition in Britain and elsewhere – except perhaps to note in passing Samuel Butler’s comment about stout country churchgoers who would have been as reluctant to see Christianity practised as doubted.
The real issue is ideological – Cameron channelling the Bible to support a vision of a Big Society in which social improvement is about the benevolence of the privileged, rather than about recognising the rights of people expressed through collective action. It’s about praising food banks as expressions of charity, rather than as the expression of economic failure; about describing poverty as the individual failure of people to work hard and strive, rather than the collective failure of an economic system that serves a wealthy minority. Above all it is an attempt to take a broken, failing system outside the realm of political debate. These are classic Tory themes; no such thing as society, there is no alternative.
It’s a classic piece of hypocrisy; most of all because the Tories are implementing a programme that they did not dare put to an electorate at an election they didn’t win. But it also shows that it’s not just the economics of the 1870s that the Tories want to return to; it’s a politics in which electorates are trumped by ideology. And whether you call that ideology neoliberalism or the will of God makes little difference; it’s anti-democratic and it’s shot through with dishonesty and hypocrisy.