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The public sector at prayer

The government’s fiercely secularist agenda has turned very few Christians into Tory voters. Damian Thompson asks
why the Churches have kept faith in New Labour

3 March 2010

12:00 AM

3 March 2010

12:00 AM

The government’s fiercely secularist agenda has turned very few Christians into Tory voters. Damian Thompson asks
why the Churches have kept faith in New Labour

Gordon Brown’s Cabinet is the least Christian in British history. Its members sneer at the Churches’ teachings about sexuality. They bully faith schools with relish, making them talk to primary schoolchildren about sexual intercourse. They are just about to force Catholic schools to advise teenage girls on where to procure an abortion. They want to compel religious institutions to employ people whose beliefs run entirely counter to the values of those institutions. They favour ‘assisted dying’ and are surreptitiously working to enshrine it as a legal right. This is hard-edged, doctrinaire secularism of a variety that even Tony Blair couldn’t stomach. Admittedly, his government didn’t ‘do’ God, but this lot want to do Him in.

Britain’s Christians, you might expect, would be deserting Labour in droves. Not so. According to an opinion poll last month commissioned by the think tank Theos, support for the Tories among Christians had crept up by only two points since the last general election. In contrast, ‘unbelievers’ — that is, people who say they have no religious faith and who probably agree with Harriet Harman on abortion, gay marriage and the delusional nature of faith — had moved 13 points in the Tory direction.

It’s true that, among the 62 per cent of respondents who identify as Christians, Cameron had 40 per cent of the vote, as opposed to Labour’s 30. He also scored higher among strongly committed Christians (42 per cent) — but then so did Labour (33 per cent). However you read them, these figures are broadly in line with the general electorate.

So, Dave, all those meetings with bishops, all that eager nodding while Rowan Williams groaned on about climate change, all that targeting of Britain’s fast-growing black-led congregations, has achieved very little. I doubt that it will win the Tories a single extra seat. As for Labour’s mean-spirited harassment of the Churches, they basically got away with it.


In perhaps the most revealing poll question of all, Christians were asked: ‘Which of the political parties do you think has been most friendly towards the Christian faith over recent years?’ The answers are startling: 21 per cent said the Conservatives, 20 per cent said Labour. In other words, even though Christians favoured the Tories over Labour by roughly the same margin as everyone else, they didn’t see any real difference in the parties’ friendliness towards the Christian faith.

You can’t help wondering whether these Christians have picked up a newspaper over the past five years. In its third term, Labour has deployed the weapons of publicly funded multiculturalism against the public symbols of Christianity — not any other faith — with a persistence that would do credit to a bureaucrat in the Saudi Arabian religious police. Ed Balls went on the Today programme last week to discuss an amendment to the education bill that very grudgingly gives faith schools the right to outline their own teachings to pupils, but nothing more: Catholics, for example, must provide ‘non-judgmental’ advice on where to ‘access’ condoms and abortions. The odour of state-mandated re-education hangs heavy in the air. But the Christians who responded to the Theos poll either cannot smell it or don’t find it much more objectionable than the Conservatives’ attitudes towards their faith.

This is pretty baffling, on the face of it. Secularists agree that David Cameron has ‘decontaminated’ the Conservative brand: hence the big shift in their voting intentions. But Christians who don’t already vote for them either believe that the Tories are still the nasty party or, even if they concede that they have changed, aren’t impressed enough to vote for them.

Why? It’s dangerous to extrapolate from a small sample, but the responses won’t surprise anyone who has encountered Christian leaders, employees and activists over the past five years. And I use those secular terms deliberately, as do they: at every level, committed Christians increasingly behave as if they worked for the public sector or a politicised charity. The typical Anglican and Catholic parish is dominated by clergy and lay assistants or volunteers configured into ‘teams’. These teams, like those in Whitehall, local government, charities and the human resources departments of the private sector, are non-judgmental about issues of personal morality but quick to hand out judgments regarding, say, Fairtrade coffee.

Church leaders have been left of centre for decades. But we’re no longer talking about unreconstructed socialists: during the boom years they acknowledged some of the benefits of free markets and shifted their focus from economic to environmental radicalism. The one doctrine that was left completely unchallenged, however, was the importance of ‘resources’ to fund ‘outreach and mission’. For which, read centrally allocated funds earmarked for the micromanagement of behaviour.

Sound familiar? Just as New Labour abandoned Clause Four in favour of sanctimonious control-freakery, so mainstream British Churches replaced the Ten Commandments with Levitical instructions about recycling. In the process, a new sacred language emerged. The diocese of Clifton — one of a stretch of southern Catholic dioceses whose right-on wittering would have tested the parodic skills of Peter Simple — has issued draft guidelines entitled Called to be a People of Hope. So dense is the jargon about ‘structures’, ‘consultation’ and ‘engagement’, however, that it’s not immediately clear what Clifton is hoping for.

The answer, predictably, is more ‘resources’. Both Anglican and Catholic dioceses have been spraying money at their teams with the enthusiasm of a priest dousing the faithful with holy water at the Asperges. Moreover, the mainstream Churches have been so wedded to the idea that it is their role to support the ultimate guarantor of ‘social justice’ — the state — that they have offered only muted opposition to the government’s anti-Christian legislation, and sometimes no opposition at all: the silence from the Catholic Education Service in the face of Ed Balls’s sex education plans suggest that its director, Oona Stannard, is suffering from a nasty case of Stockholm syndrome.

There is a glimmer of hope, however. The English and Welsh Catholic bishops this week issued a pre-election briefing, Choosing the Common Good, in which they asked themselves for the first time whether they had been ‘seduced by the myth that social problems are for the government to deal with’. Bishop Malcolm McMahon, who holds the bishops’ education brief, has welcomed Michael Gove’s free schools as a possible way of reinvigorating Catholic education. But his enthusiasm is not shared by the CES, which remains scandalously close to Balls on issues such as selection. A similar tension is observable in the Church of England where — despite the increasingly anti-Labour sentiments of individual bishops such as Lord Carey and Michael Nazir-Ali — Gordon Brown’s promise to spend more money than the Tories still earns him the Anglican equivalent of a plenary indulgence.

There’s a paradox here. The disproportionate number of evangelical Christians among the new Conservative intake could produce some legislation — for example, to lower the abortion limit — that is genuinely in line with traditional Christianity. But, just as these new Tory MPs won’t have been elected by newly won over Christian supporters, so they shouldn’t look to Church functionaries for much more than nominal and strictly non-partisan support for ‘family life’. The Church of England was first described as
‘the Conservative party at prayer’ by Maude Royden, a suffragette who intended to draw attention to its obsolescent attitudes. A better description of the bureau-cracy that has seized control of the mainstream denominations today would be the public sector at prayer. And one thing it’s not praying for is a change of government.


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