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Real Faith is Bad Politics

Besides the expected recital of the government’s achievements, Cameron addresses two more philosophical questions. First, he says that it is wrong for people – and he mentions in particular those in the Church – to criticize his government’s policies as ‘amoral’, just because they disagree with them. This is a fair point. There is a stereotype, which has wide appeal not just popularly but also, especially, to intellectuals, according to which socialist-leaning policies stem from altruism and more business and market-friendly ones from self-interest. But supporters of the market can reply, with Cameron, that they too aim to bring the social goods which those on the left value. And their policies, by promoting a flourishing economy, will bring them more swiftly and surely. They also might reply – though it is unlikely that Cameron would either dare, or perhaps even wish to – that there are different visions of a good society. One vision might favour competition, diversity, plenty of freedom to succeed or to fail and even allow luck, good or bad, to play an important role. Another vision might prefer a more equal distribution of wealth, more protection from chance, more restrictions but fewer dangers. Neither vision is more moral than the other (nor, despite what some in the Churches say, more Christian).

The second of the philosophical points is about faith, an appropriate subject for the audience and the occasion, but one which causes Cameron obvious embarrassment. He is, he says ‘an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country’. As he recognizes, ‘others argue that celebrating Easter somehow marginalises other religions’. But his reply – the ‘key point’, we are told – is that ‘the values of Easter and the Christian religion – compassion, forgiveness, kindness, hard work and responsibility – are values we can all celebrate and share.’ Cameron talks as if there could be faith which isn’t any faith in particular, or at least, as if all faiths come down to much the same thing, a set of moral values which will be accepted by almost everyone. And, indeed, he seems proud to confess that his own personal faith is of this sort. He tell us that he is ‘hardly a model church-going, God-fearing Christian’, but that, ‘in the toughest of times, my faith has helped me move on’ and that it also gives him a ‘gentle reminder’ from time to time about ‘what really matters’.

This faith, almost entirely devoid of content or obligations, is a convenient one for a politician, who wants to win the respect of the God-fearing, without alienating any particular group of them – Protestants, Catholics, Muslims or Jews – and without putting off any non-believers except for the most rabid of atheists. It bears a strange similarity to the ancient pagan attitude to religion, where it was usual to welcome foreign gods into the pantheon, and religious piety, accepted morality and the political order were all closely linked. It has little, however, to do with the idea of faith as it has developed in the three religions that have dominated Western culture since antiquity, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each of these religions demands an exclusive faith. Although the three religions all have much in common, from Biblical stories and prophets to the central principles of monotheism, the demands of one faith are not compatible with those of any of the others.

To return to Easter. It is a Christian celebration. It has no place in Islam, nor in Judaism – and, indeed, it is easy to give the story of the Passion an anti-Jewish resonance. The fact that Easter is a national holiday in the UK and other European countries is a result of their Christian heritage. Its celebration does, therefore, in a certain way ‘marginalise’ those who belong to other religions, but, it can reasonably be argued, that is what one should expect if one is living in a country which has a long and deep Christian history. A militant secularist might want the UK to dissociate its national holidays from the Christian calendar. There would be a lot to say against such a view, but at least it takes faith seriously.

*John Marenbon is a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and specialises in the history of philosophy. He is the author of Populism and Democracy: Politics in the Public Interest (2011).

Professor John Marenbon FBA

Professor John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Academy and Honorary Professor of Medieval Philosophy in Cambridge. His recent publications include Medieval Philosophy. A Very Short Introduction (2016). For Politeia he has written Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities (2018), co-published with New Direction, and Back to School! Preparation, Not Cancellation (2020) co-authored with Louise Moelwyn-Hughes and Dominic Sullivan.

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