Why does Cameron get Christianity so wrong?

Was Cameron’s Easter message actually Christian?

David Cameron is, perhaps, a better politician than he is a theologian. Throughout his incumbency, he has repeatedly affirmed his belief in Christianity’s role in the public sphere. In order to do this, he utilises Christian rhetoric in order to frame his policies. And yet both his policies and his framing have come under fire from significant portions of the various Churches. The problems inherent in his theology were made particularly explicit in the Prime Minister’s Easter message, which has garnered a fair amount of controversy: some Christians object that he misappropriates Christianity against the spirit of its approach to social justice. The Guardian recently published an editorial this effect, whereas other commentators have objected to his understanding of Christianity’s central message. But why, exactly, does Cameron get Christianity so wrong? The answer lies in a number of conflicting theological positions which Cameron seeks to hold in tension.

Cameron’s address presents an attempt to court the religious vote by maintaining that religion – specifically Christian religion – is relevant in the public sphere today. Britain is traditionally a culturally Christian nation, but it is losing this explicit cultural character. In affirming that “the values of the Christian faith are the values on which our nation was built”, Cameron attempts to make this character explicit once again.

In tension with this, Cameron is also dedicated to the secular-Liberal cosmopolitanism which constitutes the dominant force in British culture today. Under this, individual religions or ideologies occupy a ‘private’ inner space, governing individuals as individuals within a larger, ostensibly neutral, ‘public’ space. Attempting to negotiate this, he offers the concession that many will “understandably feel that… talking about faith isolates those who have no faith”, and that “celebrating Easter somehow marginalises other religions.” Despite this, he attempts to salvage faith, claiming to be “an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country”. In order to reconcile this tension, the faith which he salvages is one of “values… that we can all celebrate and share” abstracted from their original specific traditional contexts. Consequently, his endorsement does not involve an endorsement of a given faith tradition over others, which would break with his commitment to secular cosmopolitanism.

This tension is approached in the context of a devotion to Liberalism. The defining feature of this ideology is the rejection of positive notions of the Good. Instead, ethics is a matter of securing negative freedoms: the ability for individuals to exercise their autonomy and choice unconstrained by external factors. Under this worldview, the role of the government is merely to protect these freedoms. Consequently, the regimes of taxation and institutional structures required to sustain projects such as the welfare state risk extending the role of government to infringe on these freedoms. The possibility of this notion of freedom is predicated on an idea of the human subject as possessing a kind of voluntaristic autonomy where the actions of the individual are ultimately enabled by the subject themselves, rather than being dependent upon external factors.

This third element goes hand in hand with secularism. Theologian John Milbank in his book, Theology and Social Theory, argues that Liberal ideology is predicated on notion of natura pura: a realm of ‘pure nature’ in which politics operates, standing in opposition to the realm of grace in which God’s agency operates. Milbank argues that this arose during the middle ages in the context of power struggles between the Pope, and the ‘earthly’ authority of the emperor. It was later employed by the secular authorities which supported Protestant Churches against the Papacy. Under this notion, the agency of human beings (who exist in the realm of nature) is not derivative of God’s. Consequently, ethics must be conceived without notions of God or similar positive Goods – that is, without the affirmation of some particular religious framework over another. We arrive at Liberal ethics, oriented towards negative freedoms. This leads to institutional secularism: the Church, embodying God’s temporal power, must be absent as He is.

Cameron cannot thus endorse a truly public, autonomous Christianity, which presents its social framework (the Church) as a fundamental structure of the social sphere beyond the individual. Hence his model of faith: faith is something which provides support and a general directive for action, in an individual, private context. He states that he is “hardly a model church-going, God-fearing Christian”. Faith provides emotional support, enabling him to “move on and drive forward”, and also provides nebulous moral guidance in the form of “a gentle reminder every once in a while about what really matters and how to be a better person, father and citizen”.

Cameron’s Christianity can be public only so long as it is framed within a discourse that is ultimately secular. Christianity becomes relevant to society within an overarching framework that is ultimately indifferent to particular convictions including it. Hence he presents it as a set of values which “are not the exclusive preserve of one faith or religion”, but rather “something… everyone in our country believes”. Their significance is divorced from any wider explicitly ‘ethical’ framework, defined by any particular notion of the Good beyond indeterminate notions of “good community” and “positive difference”. Consequently, Christianity ceases to play a role in society as Christianity.

Furthermore, in order to enable this secularisation of Christianity, the faith itself must be interpreted in line with a notion of human subjectivity as natura pura. This requires a new hermeneutic, which he provides:

Firstly, he figures Christian values as being “the belief of trying to lift people up rather than count people out”. This is a current Conservative soundbite, channelled in contexts such as ‘lifting people out of unemployment’ (and back into work), and ‘lifting people out of tax’. This rhetoric channels common Judaeo-Christian themes of liberation from ‘evil’. Furthermore, these themes are often associated with edification. This soundbite equivocates edification with independence from the government, both in the sense of dependence upon service provision, and also from interference (taxation). Standing in opposition to this is the state of being ‘counted out’ – lacking the autonomy into which the Conservatives claim to aim to lift people. Christian values, for Cameron, are ones of ‘edifying’ individuals in this manner.

This association of edification and autonomy implies a hierarchy between autonomous and dependent individuals. Furthermore, such a hierarchy implies that there are in fact such autonomous individuals. Such a hierarchy can only be based on the valuation of autonomy in itself as the good. Thus the devaluation of the dependent must be because their existence as dependents necessitates the operation of the government as a body which restricts negative freedoms.

Secondly, he claims that “Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children”. Under this reading, the Easter myth is about God being a responsible agent and helping out His children at his own expense. Cameron endorses Christian values as the foundation for society, and thus their expression in society. He conceives of this as follows: we humans should take responsibility and cease to expect the government to step in on our behalf, and should be fiscally responsible, doing good to our children as God did to us.

The problem is that this is an unconvincing reading of the Easter message when conceived within its wider theological context. Christianity, and consequently the Easter message is founded on a positive notion of the Good: right relationship with God. We cannot interpret Christianity properly without adopting some such positive notion. This universal Good defies secular indifference and its shadow, Liberal ethics. Formal autonomy itself no longer being the Good, dependence ceases to be an evil as the infringements upon autonomy which it justifies ceases to be privations of the Good. Furthermore, the wider Christian framework rejects the notion of autonomy which underpins Liberal ethics: all creation is contingent upon God’s will, and everything we secure we do through God’s help. The Easter myth itself reinforces this message: Christ’s sacrifice is necessitated by our inability to attain salvation by our own power.

Cameron’s Christianity fails to reconcile its theological tensions. His vision of Christianity is one vitiated of its cultural identity. Furthermore, he loses the proper character of its narratives as he attempts to reconcile it with his secular Liberalism. If he wants to take Christianity seriously, he has to allow it to have its own voice. This involves allowing it to make its own positive ethical claims. However, this involves risking offending non-Christians as well as challenging the suppositions behind his own political position, and perhaps this is something he cannot, as a politician, afford to do.

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