In January Professor James Crossley gave a talk on Religion and the Bible in Contemporary Politics.
The 1960s were crucial to the understanding of religion in politics – British politics that is. It is then that Britain started to see a serious decline in church attendance which has carried through to the present day. But this decline was not accompanied by an equal decline in religious affiliation as nostalgia for a religious past persisted. At this time there were 4 distinct understandings of the bible:
1. The cultural bible – seen as something of a work of literature, part of the British heritage.
2. The liberal bible – seen as a source of democracy, tolerance and the rule of law.
3. The radical bible – seen as a source of socialism in the radical tradition (Tony Benn wrote a lot about the bible in this context at this time).
4. The neoliberal bible – used to highlight all that is good for right thinking people (examples given of some American bible in this vein were: The team bible for girls, The team bible for boys, The team bible for soldiers, etc.).
Margaret Thatcher was a conservative revolutionary who rediscovers her Methodism. She starts talking about ‘freedom’ and ‘individuality’ with reference to biblical texts and their applicability to the country in terms of entrepreneurialism, a minimal state, free will and such like. She sees the good in Judaism and how it supports the entrepreneur, how Jews support each other and the fact they are not reliant on the welfare state. Later on in her career though, she saw it as a failing that her policies had not made people more charitable, i.e. in the sense of giving, as opposed to judging others leniently.
Tony Blair inherits Thatcher’s template of individualism and non-reliance on the welfare state. Many of Blair’s speeches had subtle references to biblical learning that went unnoticed by Blair’s PR guru Alistair Campbell. Blair was unable to see religion as a bad thing: there were good Muslims and bad Muslims but only good religion. His speech at one Labour Party Conference had many allusions to the bible. The press didn’t pick up on them but it’s expected that many of his supporters would have done. Blair believed the origins of Islam show a picture of a good religion with democratic values.
David Cameron talks about the bible as though it’s everything we like; Michael Gove also. In 2012 the government sends a bible to every school in Britain probably knowing people wouldn’t read it, but liking the image it creates.
The main exponents of the Radical Bible were outside mainstream politics, people like Peter Tatchell, the Occupy movement, Russell Brand and through his influence, Ed Miliband (to a lesser extent).
Corbyn doesn’t reveal himself as a true Christian, but he did reference the good Samaritan in his leadership speech where he talked about ‘not walking by’. This reference is well worn by other politicians including Cameron, who also believes that ‘true Islam’ is peaceful, tolerant and non-violent.
American politics is different, there are over 200 million Christians, so religion is very important and affiliation to it is openly demonstrated. In English politics though there does seem to be a need for politicians to defer to a higher authority, however subtly, for the state to function.