I’ve always tended to reject the ‘ all religion is evil and stupid’ arguments emanating from hyper-rationalists of the left and right, not because I’m particularly religious myself, but because religion can perform many different social roles and functions. It can, for instance, be a force for reaction, tyranny and exploitation, but it can also inspire men and women to fight against oppression. If religion can reinforce hierarchies of wealth and power, most religions also contain arguments for equality and social justice.
Southern slaveowners once argued that the Bible justified slavery, while opponents of slavery argued that the Bible contained the opposite message. Religion has been used to justify the most extreme forms of violence, from the massacres carried out by crusaders in Jerusalem, to the crimes of Islamic State and Boko Haram or racist Buddhist monks calling for the extermination of Rohingya. Yet all religions contain traditions and texts that have been used to justify war and which also affirm peace and mercy.
At the most basic level, religion provides millions of people with a sense of meaning and consolation for the material conditions they may be forced to endure, and for the tragedy, suffering and inevitable loss that are intrinsic to the human predicament. Marx recognized these complexities when he famously observed that ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people’ – an observation that too often has been quoted only in relation to the last sentence.
In recent years religion has come to play a very different which I have very little sympathy for. In 2013 Nigel Farage declared that ‘ We need a much more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Yes, we’re open to different cultures but we have to defend our values.’
Such statements might seem a little outlandish coming from a teenage Nazi sympathiser who went onto become a bigot, a liar and a wealthy former stockbroker who only goes to church four or five times a year. Farage’s ‘faith’ has nothing to do with Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary or the Holy Ghost and everything to do with the construction of a national ‘identity’ that is supposedly being corroded and endangered by ‘multiculturalism’, immigration – and Islam.
The Boozy Bigot isn’t the only one to evoke our ‘Judaeo-Christian heritage’ in this context. Conservative to far-right politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have doing this for a number of years now. David Cameron made various high-profile references to Britain’s Christian identity during his catastrophic time in office. In 2015 he delivered a buttock-clenchingly embarrassing ‘Christmas message’ in which he oozed PR-driven pious drivel about how we must ‘celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace’, and reminded the nation that ‘ As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope.
This ‘message’ was embarrassing, not only because of the patent insincerity and self-importance of the messenger himself, but also because the two governments that Cameron presided over did nothing – absolutely nothing – to uphold any of the values that he associated with the ‘ Prince of Peace.’
The same can be said of the woman who has taken his place, who regaled the nation with an ‘Easter message’ yesterday whose brazen indifference to reality is something that we more commonly associate with Donald Trump. Staring into the autocue with a lifeless stare that was easily outshone by her silver necklace, May told us of her ‘sense’ that the country was ‘coming together’ after the Brexit debate.
Her listless demeanor suggested she could already hear the mocking laughter croaking from millions of throats, but still she went on, robotically reciting clichés about our ‘proud history and bright future’ and the ‘opportunities’ awaiting us outside the EU. And then, because it was Easter, and a time for reflection, she reflected on our shared ‘values’ and neatly morphed them into an Anne of Green Gables vision of the simple, goodhearted girl she must once have been before she grew up to become the UK’s answer to Cruella de Vil:
‘ This Easter I think of those values that we share – values that I learnt in my own childhood, growing up in a vicarage. Values of compassion, community, citizenship. The sense of obligation we have to one another. These are values we all hold in common, and values that are visibly lived out everyday by Christians, as well as by people of other faiths or none.’
It’s worth pausing here to remember that the woman who said this presides – as her equally Christian successor did – over a government that forces sick and dying people to work; that is driving the NHS to the wall so that it can sell if off; that has cut funding to social care and the mentally-ill; that drives doctors to suicide and forces nurses into debt; that has driven more than a million people to rely on foodbanks; that makes poor and disabled people pay for having a spare room in their house; that sells truckloads of weapons to any scumbag dictator that needs them.
Yet she still has the incredible gall to speak of ‘those who go out of their way to visit the sick or bereaved, providing comfort and guidance to many in our country at some of the most difficult moments in their lives.’
At least Thatcher, when she spoke about religion, observed that the good Samaritan had to be rich in order to be charitable. That observation is pretty crass in its own way – and it also ignored the widow who gives her last penny – but at least it had a certain ideological continuity.
In May’s case, the values that she invokes are so glaringly at odds with what her government is actually doing that one can’t help but wonder what part of her Christian education taught the vicarage girl that Jesus would be ok with deporting a nearly-blind migrant on hunger strike, blocking child refugees from entering the country, selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, or using EU nationals as hostages.
As for ‘our obligations to one another’ – May’s transition from Remain politician to celebrating our ‘opportunities’ outside the European Union suggests that she has no obligations to anything except her own career. Her government is choking the life out of the society that she praises, and transforming the UK into something as callous, mean-spirited and cruel as the Tory Party itself.
If May actually believes what she says, then she is a deluded fool. If she doesn’t believe it, then she is a fraud and a hypocrite – on a Biblical scale. But the crux of her ‘Easter message’ is the invocation of Christianity as a marker of cultural and national identity that is somehow under threat, and a country where pious Christians are forced to say ‘Cadbury’s’ instead of ‘Easter’ and whisper a faith that dare not speak its name.
May, like Cameron and Farage before her, is worried about this, and tells us, as they did, that ‘ we should be confident about the role that Christianity has to play in the lives of people in our country. And we should treasure the strong tradition that we have in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech. We must continue to ensure that people feel able to speak about their faith, and that absolutely includes their faith in Christ.’
To which one can only say, fine, let Christians be Christian, even though they already are. But when politicians like May talk about their ‘faith in Christ’ it can’t help but have the distinctly hollow ring, not of a churchbell tolling on a village green that is forever England, but of whitened sepulchres blowing down a barren windswept street named Tory Propaganda Road.