Which God will the Coalition ‘do’?
When David Cameron dismissed all talk of Britain’s secularism as ‘exaggerated’, and dismissively said that such comment ‘misses the point’, he could hardly have expected to find himself swiftly at loggerheads with the Pope himself, who is of the undoubted opinion that the United Kingdom is not only increasingly godless, but subject to a rather ‘aggressive secularism’.
And by saying so His Holiness evidently does not believe that he ‘misses the point’.
But this is not some profound Church / State dichotomy, and neither is it a major Prime Minister / Pope disputation of ‘Cameron accuses Pope of exaggerating and missing the point’ mould. Yet it is an important disparity in perception between a Coalition which purports to ‘do God’ fervently and a Church which feels increasingly marginalised in a context which has become hostile to much Christian expression after 13 years of some quite insidious equality legislation.
Both Pope and Prime Minister acknowledge that the UK strives to be ‘a modern and multicultural society’, and neither would doubt that this is indeed a ‘challenging enterprise’.
But while David Cameron talks ecumenically of generalised ‘faith’ and a multi-faith ‘God’, Pope Benedict talks of the need to respect the ‘traditional values and cultural expressions’. He is acutely aware that Mary’s Dowry, now Protestant by law and multi-faith in expression, has turned away from her ‘traditional values and cultural expressions’; that under the premierships of two ostensibly professing Christians, we have seen Christianity relegated to the peripheries of public life.
Bishops of both the Church of England and the Church of Rome have expressed their concern at the hostile culture which seemingly has no tolerance of Christian orthodoxy.
By denying even the existence of ‘the more aggressive forms of secularism’, the Prime Minister may be dangerously blind to that which no longer values or even tolerates the Christian faith from which the liberties of this country and its traditions of liberal democracy have evolved.
The Pope reminded the assembled Commons, Lords and civic leaders in Westminster Hall that Britain has a ‘great history of anti-Catholicism’, but that it is also ‘a country with a great history of tolerance’.
But instead of building upon the benign Anglican via media, the historic anti-Catholicism has mutated into a wholesale malignant anti-Christianity: Richard Dawkins has become a letter-day Ian Paisley, and Christianity is now the faith which dare not speak its name.
So when Conservative Party Chairman Baroness Warsi says, on behalf the Coalition, that the new Government ‘understands’ faith and wanted religious groups to play a greater and more prominent role in Britain, what is it that they understand which the Roman Catholic Blair and Presbyterian Brown did not?
The vocabulary is the same as any religio-political pap used on Songs of Praise. The Baroness talks of ‘the positive power of faith’, and bends over backwards to proclaim that the Coalition ‘does God’. The Prime Minister said that the Pope’s visit provided a ‘unique opportunity’ to celebrate the work of all religious groups.
So, the Coalition is on the side of religion.
Baroness Warsi proclaimed that the country needs a government which ‘understands faith, which is comfortable with faith, and which, when necessary, is prepared to speak out about issues of faith’.
And she explained to the gathered bishops of the Church of England: "Under our plans, you will have more power, more responsibility, and more choice over how to get involved in your communities and over how to apply your skills. I don't just want to say to you that you have a lot to contribute to building the Big Society. I want to tell you that for me you are at the heart of society already and key to its future, and that this government will be on your side."
Her message was to all faiths, yet her audience consisted of Anglican bishops.
Will the 'more power' of which she speaks grant them once again the freedom to employ whomsoever they wish in their churches? Or will the inexorable equality agenda march on?
The Baroness criticised Labour’s approach to religious faith – that of ‘eccentricity’ practised by ‘oddities’ – but her observation that ‘behind every faith-based charity, they sensed the whiff of conversion and exclusivity’ is illuminating in the context of the forced closure of Catholic adoption agencies.
Will the Coalition redress this imbalance? Will it brush aside the equality legislation which equates Christian conversion with abuse, prayer with hatred and heterosexuality with homophobia?
Baroness Warsi says that ‘because of these prejudices’ Labour ‘didn't create policies to unleash the positive power of faith in our society’.
So will the Coalition repeal the legislation which legitimises these prejudices?
How otherwise will they ‘unleash the positive power of faith in our society’?
And yet what is this ‘faith’ that they seek to unleash?
Perhaps we already have the answer.
It will not be a robustly orthodox expression of any faith.
Except, perhaps Buddhism.
For in robust Buddhism lies an oxymoron.
The Coalition will do ‘moderate’ Islam, benign Hinduism, relaxed-about-the-Five-Ks Sikhism, liberal Judaism and Tablet Catholicism.
Because these are closest to David Cameron’s broad-church Anglicanism. He said just before the General Election that he does not drop to his knees and pray for guidance: "My own faith is there, it's not always the rock that perhaps it should be. I've a sort of fairly classic Church of England faith, a faith that grows hotter and colder by moments."
To admit any more runs the risk of being perceived as a ‘nutter’.
His understanding of the relationship between faith and society and between religion and politics is not always thought through – and he now has the additional tension of sharing power with an atheist – but Nick Clegg’s brand of atheism is not the offensively ‘aggressive’ type, but one which can marry a Roman Catholic, permit his children to be brought up in that faith and can ‘do God’ fairly because he does not approach faith ‘with a closed heart or a closed mind’.
Unlike the Unholy Trinity of the cerebral father Richard Dawkins, the androgynous son Stephen Fry , and the sylph spirit Peter Tatchell.
Britain's faith communities are indispensable to social progress. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ will not get big without them.
But Social Justice is not simply about praxis in the public sphere; it is not just about 'liberating' Christians to tackle the root causes of poverty and deprivation by providing (for example) children with good school places, getting alcohol and drug-dependent adults back into work, running sheltered housing for older people, or finding homes for children and teenagers who need fostering and adoption.
It is also about permitting the freedom of conscience and expression from which the praxis flows.
Labour's equality legislation violated the Christian ethos of the nation.
It will take a little more than ‘a fairly classic Church of England faith, a faith that grows hotter and colder by moments’, to reassert the nation’s Christian culture and traditions. One cannot confront aggressive, totalitarian, secularist intolerance by turning the other cheek.