Friday, 13 June 2014

We still don't do God

A humble college lecturer by the name of Dave Brat has just made big political news in America by defeating House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, in a Republican primary. Brat took an extreme line on immigration and rode a wave of tea-party anger against the Washington establishment.
We know Dave Brat is humble because he said so. Asked what he attributed his success to, he replied, 'What do I attribute it to? I attribute it to God. I am utterly humbled and thankful. I’m a believer. So I’m humbled that God gave us this win… God acts through people, and God acted through the people on my behalf.'

This kind of religious talk apparently goes down well in conservative circles in Virginia. But even in more northern, more coastal, and more cosmopolitan regions of America, some level of religious faith seems to be a basic requirement for political life, whereas here in Britain the leaders of two of our three major parties currently call themselves atheists, and members of parliament can survive whole careers without having to commit themselves one way or another.

It was Tony Blair’s press secretary Alastair Campbell who famously said, ‘We don’t do God.’ Far from being a statement of unbelief, this was an attempt to establish a kind of religious ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. If people felt Blair might be dodgy on religion, the fear was that he had too much of it rather than too little. When he was interviewed at length by Jeremy Paxman during the build-up to the Iraq war, one of Blair's most uncomfortable moments was when Paxman asked him whether he and Bush prayed together.

BLAIR: No, we don't pray together Jeremy, no.
PAXMAN: Why do you smile?
BLAIR: Because – why do you ask me the question?

Imagine an American president acting so coy and being made to look so shifty in response to a simple question about religious practice! What Paxman had done, of course, was to evoke an image of inappropriate intimacy between our Prime Minister and the American President, while implying that Blair’s determination to invade Iraq might be based on something other than a rational calculation of costs and benefits. These were the subtexts that made Blair squirm. We really don’t do God.   

Blair’s predecessor, John Major, once went so far as to speak nostalgically of an England of warm beer and village cricket and ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist,’ but he was only quoting Orwell. In one of her more grotesquely unctuous moments, Margaret Thatcher recited a 1912 prayer, which she inaccurately attributed to St Francis of Assisi, about replacing doubt with faith and despair with hope, but she was more in her element berating Anglican bishops for being soft on the poor and praying for the souls of dead Argentinian soldiers. No one really thought she’d got religion.

And no one really thinks David Cameron has got it either, even though he announced over Easter that 'we should 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.’

Is it just me, or does that ‘frankly’ sound like an awkward clearing of the throat before the scary reference to evangelism? And isn’t there just a hint of embarrassment in the way the indefinite article holds ‘faith’ at arm’s length? And what’s the sentence really about anyway, but getting Tory-like stuff done in the world and having a presence on the international stage, with some vague nod to religion in the middle? But in this country, where we don’t do God, it’s as close to a ringing declaration of belief as a Prime Minister can get.  

And who can doubt that Cameron’s religious revival has been inspired by the surge of support for the UK Independence Party? For the benefit of American readers, I should explain that UKIP is a bit like the tea party, though there are fewer cattle-ranchers armed with assault weapons among its members and more old maids bicycling through the morning mist.

Their leader Nigel Farage has called for a ‘more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage’. I’m not sure bluff, beer-soaked Nige would spot a Judaeo-Christian if it bit him in the leg, but I think he might recognise Dave Brat as the kind of bloke he could have a pint with – as long as Dave stuck to the immigration issue and didn’t go on about God. 


  1. I remember Dennis Potter, in a lecture, telling a story about wanting to put a certain television executive at a disadvantage. 'How should I do this?' he asked a colleague. 'Ask him what he believes in,' was the reply, but Potter said he couldn't bring himself to be so cruel. Such a question doesn't work with our leaders, of course, who have all sorts of stuff ready to spout in response to inquiries about their political beliefs. But a question about religious beliefs and practices is more like to cause embarrassment, as Paxman cannily foresaw. I recall first hearing his question and thinking, 'What IS he on about? What has this got to do with anything?' Then realizing, quite quickly, that he'd known how to put Blair on a spot, to get to that 'Are you too close to Bush?' question in a way that got Blair on the hop. You are quite right, then, to hear embarrassment in Cameron's allusions to religion, though perhaps there's also something rather innocent about his use of 'evangelical': 'Just what kind of Anglican are you, then, Dave?' someone should ask him, just for fun...

  2. Yes, Phil, I should think Dave is most comfortable with the kind of cleric who avoids anything remotely like bible-thumping and doesn’t mind being addressed as Padre. I like the Dennis Potter story. Some questions are too near the knuckle. As a young school teacher, I once asked an older colleague, ‘Are you happy in your work?’ In my own schooldays a music teacher had asked me the same question and I took it to be nothing more than a slightly jokey conversation filler. But it created such awkwardness when I asked it, such shuffling, sideways-looking embarrassment, that I learned not to ask it again.