From the editor's desk
Faith that makes a difference24 April 2014
It was easy to see last weekend why politicians are not eager to “do God” – to use a phrase made famous by Tony Blair’s former adviser Alastair Campbell. The Prime Minister wrote what he may have thought was an uncontroversial piece in the Church Times, urging his fellow Christians to be “more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives”.
David Cameron, a lifelong Anglican, was promptly assailed for being “divisive” by a monstrous regiment of public figures, led by the president of the British Humanist Association, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, in a joint letter to The Daily Telegraph. Most of all, they challenged the description of Britain as a “Christian country”. As there is no agreed definition of this expression, the dispute cannot be resolved. All the evidence suggests that members of non-Christian faiths – the group the letter writers implied would be most offended by Mr Cameron’s words - actually favour the special status of the Church of England. They see it as a defence against the secularising tendencies Mr Cameron’s critics were advocating. For the letter writers to suggest otherwise was disingenuous.
More woundingly, perhaps, Mr Cameron was widely assumed to be using religion for political purposes, appealing to disillusioned Tory voters who might be tempted to vote for Ukip in the forthcoming local and European elections.
Given public cynicism about politicians, that allegation may stick. But the more fundamental criticism of his words is that they are contradicted by his deeds. His Government has been roundly condemned by church leaders, including the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster, for its harsh treatment of welfare benefit claimants and the consequent growth of charity food banks. The response to these protests has been dismissive.
The Anglican and Catholic Churches both made reasonable submissions against the legal recognition of gay marriage but received no reasonable reply; nor were Church-backed petitions acknowledged. The Conservative Party has been shepherding public opinion in an anti-immigrant direction, for which Cardinal Vincent Nichols has rebuked them.
There are positive things the Government has done with regard to faith, for which Mr Cameron and his ministers deserve credit. So while his Christian convictions may be sincere, their effect on his actions seems to come and go. Where is the “faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives”? Where are the poor, the vulnerable, the disabled, in his priorities? He needs to listen to what leaders of religious opinion have to say on issues relevant to the common good, poverty especially.
As Pope Benedict XVI said in Westminster Hall in 2010, “the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation”. That would be better than “doing God”, and does not at all depend on Britain being a “Christian country”.
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