Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cameron’s bad faith

This is (some of) what David Cameron had to say about religion and secularism yesterday:

The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country. … Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities - these are the values we treasure.
Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none. And I believe we should all stand up and defend them.
Those who oppose this usually make the case for secular neutrality. They argue that by saying we are a Christian country and standing up for Christian values we are somehow doing down other faiths. And that the only way not to offend people is not to pass judgement on their behaviour.
I think these arguments are profoundly wrong.
…those who advocate secular neutrality in order to avoid passing judgement on the behaviour of others fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality or the role that faith can play in helping people to have a moral code. …for people who do have a faith, their faith can be a helpful prod in the right direction.
And whether inspired by faith or not – that direction, that moral code, matters.

And this adapted version illustrates how utterly wrong he is:

The Conservative Party has helped to shape the values which define our country. … Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities - these are the values we treasure.
Yes, they are Conservative values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every party and none. And I believe we should all stand up and defend them.
Those who oppose this usually make the case for secular neutrality. They argue that by saying we are a Conservative country and standing up for Conservative values we are somehow doing down other parties. And that the only way not to offend people is not to pass judgement on their behaviour.
I think these arguments are profoundly wrong.
…those who advocate secular neutrality in order to avoid passing judgement on the behaviour of others fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality or the role that party politics can play in helping people to have a moral code. …for people who do have a party, their party can be a helpful prod in the right direction.
And whether inspired by party politics or not – that direction, that moral code, matters.

Cameron’s abuse of the term “secular neutrality” is striking: it means religious neutrality, not – as he seems to think – moral neutrality. This isn’t a petty point about semantics, much as I enjoy those. I’m actually trying to take him at his word and offer some helpful advice (he’s a regular reader here, and he knows I’m a big fan).

The final sentence of the quote (in either version) is, I agree, the most important. But it’s crippled by the rest.

If what you’re trying to promote is a moral code, a set of values that most of us agree are pretty sound even if we often don’t live up to them, you do not do it by branding those values with a sectarian label that lots of people don’t accept.

Yes, he litters the speech with polite caveats that of course people who aren’t religious can be moral. But his central argument rests on the opposite (and false) assumption that you can’t steer clear of religion without also abandoning morality.

Christianity has been a huge factor in British history. It’s still a big presence, but it’s fallen a long way. In terms of what British people today believe and practise (or don’t), it’s hardly accurate or helpful to say we’re “a Christian country”. If he can’t think of a way to promote morality without talking about “Christian values”, he’s doomed to fail.

4 comments:

jams o donnell said...

I fund it crass and patronising...just like the man himself

Liam Murray said...

I have a few issues with this.
 
Can you credibly compare the bible and the Tory party? I have no great respect for either but for thousands of years the bible was at the centre of people’s lives. It wasn’t even a ‘set of beliefs’ or ‘values’ that people chose to subscribe to or reject, it was simply accepted as the truth of existence by millions of people. It inspired and provoked most of the art & architecture we still revere and it was cited explicitly as the basis for most law over that period. Many of us – me included – might now dismiss it as mythological nonsense but that doesn’t change those historical facts. Nothing remotely similar is true of the Tory party so whatever other objections there might be to Cameron’s speech I don’t think you can dismiss that paragraph that way.
 
On the ‘secular neutrality’ point I think you’re misrepresenting what Cameron said – he isn’t suggesting it means ‘moral neutrality’ at all, he’s explicitly referring to:
 
“those who advocate secular neutrality in order to avoid passing judgement on the behaviour of others“
 
In other words, secular neutrality is fine if it’s about respecting other religious traditions & customs but not if those traditions & customs offend our shared value system (whatever it’s based on). This isn’t a novel line of argument; it’s essentially the argument about moral relativism and whether or not we should sanction things like genital mutilation or domestic abuse because in some places they have religious or cultural roots. For me – and I suspect you – the answer is no.
 
On the ‘are we a Christian country?’ question I think we always tie ourselves in knots over this. If – as, to be fair you point out – it’s about what people ‘believe and practice today’ then yes, I agree it’s not really accurate or helpful to answer ‘yes’. However, if you’re talking about the country’s history and value system then it’s ridiculous to say we’re anything other than that. It’s still the established religion, the single biggest religion in the country (if you align all the different denominations) and within, say, the last century almost everyone would have willingly and sincerely described themselves as Christian.
 
I think because it’s Cameron saying these things that people are uneasy and I feel that too. We all know the whole Christian country / values thing often raised by the right is sometimes a proxy for ugly reactionary views and were that the case I’d be equally scornful. To be fair to Cameron I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.

Tom Freeman said...

Of course Christianity’s been more influential and over a longer period than the Tory party. I’m not saying that my adaptation’s obvious falseness shows that Cameron’s original is false too.

I’m saying that my version’s obvious bias and repulsiveness shows that Cameron’s is biased and is bound to repulse people too. And needlessly so. If he accepts that morality transcends religion, then bringing either religion in general or Christianity in particular into an appeal for better standards of behaviour is a terrible tactic.

Saying that those values he lists are Christian values doesn’t commend the values any more than they do themselves; what it really does is commend Christianity. And that’s fine if he wants to do that. But it polarises the whole discussion: it shuts a lot of people out and leaves him preaching to the converted.

On ‘secular neutrality’, there’s no sign in the speech that he conceives of it as anything other than moral and religious neutrality yoked together. And as for what it would leave us unable to condemn, he goes on to talk about the riots and bankers’ greed as much as multicultural-based relativism (on which I think you and I do agree).

And I also agree let’s not tie ourselves in knots on the ‘Christian country’ thing. Historically? Certainly. Nowadays? To a fair extent but not nearly enough to state it without heavy caveats. I don’t know how you’d draw the line, but I’d say we moved over it during the late 20th C.

Deb said...

For a succinct summary of conservative values, check this out by Charlie Allen, singing “Grandpa’s Recipe” http://www.charlieallenmusic.com/index.htm