Cameron in the court of King James
The prime minister's speech on the King James Bible ticks every reactionary box going, argues James Turley
On December 16, an assortment of the British religious establishment gathered in Christ Church cathedral, Oxford, to commemorate the 400th year of the authorised version of the Bible, popularly known as the King James version. The guest of honour was none other than David Cameron - by his own admission a “committed” but only “vaguely practising” Anglican.
Cameron’s intervention was, unsurprisingly, directed at certain of his present political priorities; it contained material, as David Edgar noted in a piece for The Guardian, recycled almost word for word from his attack on multiculturalism at Munich, as well as cheeky attacks on the summer riots and hypocritical prods at the amorality of City excess. It was, in short, an outpouring of quite old-fashioned Tory stupidities.
Cameron makes three claims for the continuing relevance of the KJV - firstly, that it had an enormous influence on the development of the modern English language; secondly, that the shape and the practice of British politics is deeply indebted to the Good Book, “from human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy”; and finally, that Britain is a ‘Christian’ nation, and “should not be afraid to say so”.
The first claim has more than a grain of truth to it, but contains a telling historiographical error. The English language, in the middle ages, was hardly a unified and regulated whole like its modern descendent - scholars of medieval English literature confront a great variety of regional dialects and unpredictable, sometimes ephemeral, changes in the language. But English translation of the Bible didhave a unifying effect on the lexicon and morphology of the English language.
As to the claim of a ‘Christian’ character to British politics, it is true enough, but in not the same way that Cameron implies. Religion, as a social phenomenon, is one stage among many upon which the social drama is played out. It is clearly enough a means of oppression and a veil for exploitation; it may also attempt to directly alleviate the effects of exploitation and oppression; finally, it may become a form of political opposition.
In all societies with major religions, the story is much the same. In Britain, the established church happens to be Christian, and so do its predominant rivals; but, for all the difference the particular phenomenal content of Christianity makes, it may as well be Zoroastrian. Moreover, with the accelerated pace of social transformation characteristic of capitalism, religion increasingly plays a simply reactionary role, and becomes separated from oppositional politics.
Finally, Cameron argues that the King James Bible is relevant because Britain is a “Christian nation”. Some have simply disputed this as a factual statement - an increasing number of Britons do not identify as religious at all. This is the line taken by the liberal-secular British Humanist Association, in a statement condemning Cameron’s speech:
“Although Christianity has undoubtedly had a sometimes positive influence on the cultural and social development of Britain, it is far from being the only influence. Many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces have shaped our society for the better and Christianity has often had ill effects. So, on the factual level the prime minister’s remarks are simply bizarre.”
Actually, Cameron has the better of things on this particular point; Christianity’s ill effects on British society do not make Britain any less Christian, as far as they go. The tendential increase of atheism and agnosticism is encouraging, to be sure, but the British state remains officially religious; its functions, as well as its pomp and pageantry, are sacralised in the name of the Christian god. The problem, in other words, is not that Cameron claims that Britain is Christian when it is not; but rather that Britain is in important respects Christian, and that this represents an obstacle to leftwing politics.
Religion, then, is an instrument of more ‘earthly’ forms of politics rather than a determining force in them. We need to ask: what exactly is Cameron attempting to do with his speech?
There are, firstly, those parts of Christian dogma that have most consistently irked far-left critics of religion - the “render unto Caesar” attitude of passive toleration of oppression in this life, in anticipation of eternal reward in the next. It has to be said that Cameron rather emphasises (indeed, over-emphasises) the role of religion in historical struggles against oppression; but it must nonetheless be noted that any ruling class politician standing, as Cameron does, on a programme of generalised social devastation has a substantial vested interest in his opponents ‘turning the other cheek’, and assuming the moral high ground in lieu of conducting uncompromising struggle against them.
Other matters, however, are more pertinent. David Edgar is right to pick up on the homology with Cameron’s attacks on multiculturalism, though Edgar’s uncritical attitude to the latter means he does not say much worthwhile on the subject. The specific phenomenon of chauvinist anti-multiculturalism, so beloved of contemporary rightwing demagogues, is often interpreted simply as being a paper-thin excuse for attacks on minorities (specifically, in this period, Muslims); but it has a wider significance brought out nicely by the occasion of the King James anniversary.
This is the idea that there is a distinct British national character which is unchanged at least since 1688 (and, in some versions, goes back to a crudely mythologised era of Anglo-Saxon ‘liberty’ preceding even the Norman conquest). Upon the King James Bible, Cameron pegs an organicist myth of British tolerance, liberty and so forth, without attention to the gore-flecked underside of this nation’s history. He cites the religious inspiration of campaigners against the slave trade; but not the religious apologetics for slavery that cheered it on in the first place. This whitewashed Tory view of history can only be reinforced by the eternal verities of religious doctrine.
Finally, there is the small matter that Cameron veils with vacuous guff about ‘morality’ throughout his speech - the characteristic Tory obsession with petty social authoritarianism. His may ostensibly be a religion of tolerance and justice, but the recurrent reference to the summer rioters as exemplary of the moral decay of “these last few generations” gives the lie to the ‘liberal’ Christianity he claims to espouse. His attitude, and the attitude of his government, after the August disturbances were not exactly reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount; rather they suggested some familiarity with the zero-tolerance approach of the prophet Elisha to recalcitrant youngsters:
“And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.”
In this, as in most things, the obscene counterpart to Cameron’s ‘nice guy’ image is the odious countenance of education secretary Michael Gove. After the riots, he announced plans to slacken rules governing the use of physical force in school discipline. Of course, the Tories have always been titillated by corporal punishment; but in this case, it really was remarkable to see a 21st century politician suggest that street unrest was down to the lack of “male authority figures” in schools. To redress the balance, Gove suggested recruiting former soldiers to teaching roles, adding a faintly comical homoerotic touch to a truly repulsive policy suggestion.
Gove’s patriarchal arguments happened to be secular in this case; but the Bible (hardly uniquely among religious texts) is fairly swamped with proclamations of the inferiority of women, of the necessity of their subordination to men, from the Garden of Eden onwards. To justify morality in religious terms - even in the cowardly, pseudo-liberal religious terms favoured by David Cameron’s Oxford address - is, in the last analysis, to defend ‘family values’. Countless generations of women have found out, the hard way, what religious morality truly means for their sex.
Fight for secularism
The whole drift of Gove’s flagship policies - from the open invitation to all schools to become academies, to the promotion of ‘free schools’ - has in fact been to undermine what miserable concessions to secularism presently exist in the education system.
Both the academy system (which he inherited from Tony Blair) and free schools (which he did not) amount to an invitation to reactionary religious organisations to take over education provision on an ever-increasing scale. The BHA notes that Christian-fundamentalist free schools are planned in Sheffield, Newark-on-Trent, Bedford, Barnsley and many other places.
The current period remains a period of reaction; David Cameron’s assertion of Britain’s ‘Christian’ heritage has hardly come out of the blue, and it is an identifiable point in a longer-term trend away from secularism. It has become customary for Britons, and Europeans more generally, to sneer at the overt and quite insane fundamentalist lobby in the United States. In this country in particular, we should be very aware that similar forces already exist - and they are growing. As the Tories proceed to hack the welfare state to death, the power of religious organisations is very likely to increase.
The encroachment of such organisations on different areas of social life - education, welfare, official ideology - is conceived by the clerical apparatus as a kind of battle for the nation’s soul. In fact, they are quite right to think of it in those terms. The left, however, equally needs to join the battle - and fight for secularism, for the complete separation of church and state, the confiscation of church property not related to worship, an end to all public subsidies (including ‘charity’ tax breaks) for religious schools.
Secularism is not a side issue for socialists, but a key front in the battle for democracy. No wonder David Cameron is so keen to oppose it.
2. The Guardian December 18.
4. 2 Kings 2:xxiii-xxiv (quoted here, naturally, from the King James version).
5. The Guardian September 1.