Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Book review: Liberal Democrats do God

As well as Lord Bonkers' fireside chat, the new Liberator contains my review of this book from the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Somehow I suspect it will annoy infidels like me as much as believers.

Orange Skies

Liberal Democrats Do God
Edited by Jo Latham and Claire Mathys
Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, 2013, £6.99 (available from the LDCF website)

This book gained some notoriety on its publication when the press alleged that Steve Webb’s introduction claimed that God was a Liberal Democrat. My first reaction to this was to be impressed that He had managed to find a coherent philosophy behind the party’s changing policy positions, but I suppose that is omnipotence for you. It soon turned out that Steve had merely claimed that god was a liberal – I am not sure if that makes any more sense, but it was deemed less controversial.

But churches and political parties do have much in common. They offer company to the odd and the awkward, and give you the chance to belong to an institution that existed before you were born and will endure long after your death. Viewed in this light, the Second Coming of Christ has much in common with the Liberal revival or the realignment of the left. So, having belonged to a political party for 35 years, I cannot find it in me to make fun of others’ religious beliefs. This is despite the fact that I long ago worked out that I was a High Church atheist – I love church music and buildings, but that does not mean any of the beliefs they are connected with are true.

Tim Farron would not agree with me. In pages he sets out to prove the existence of God – a task that would have made even St Thomas Aquinas hesitate. What Tim comes up with is the chumminess with slight sinister undertones that you hear in charismatic young preachers who tour university Christian Union groups at the start of term: “Christianity is therefore intellectually plausible and, given that the consequences of Christianity being true are pretty massive, you owe it yourself to check it out for yourself.”

This emphasises that the God these Liberal Democrats are doing is very much the Christian God. Other faiths do not get a look in, which is a little strange in modern Britain – there are plenty of new temples in Leicester, for instance, but few of them are Christian. For the most part, the book is a ragbag of good causes and it is not clear how much God has to do with any of them. Alan Beith writes in favour of restorative justice, and his support for it may well flow from his personal faith, but there are plenty of atheists who support it too and plenty of Christians who are in favour of retribution.

Equally, I turned first to Duncan Hames’ chapter on environmentalism, because I feel something like the Christian concept of stewardship is badly needed in modern Britian. But the chapter is short and, when you think about it, every acre that was despoiled in the Industrial Revolution or afterwards was owned or sold by an aristocrat who insisted his children and servants when to church every Sunday.

There are some notable omissions. There is nothing on the Establishment of the Church of England (which I favour on the grounds that it keeps the church quiet) or on faith schools. It is easy to despise the latter when they demand more and more outward signs of religious observance from parents, but their critics should sometimes stop to ask themselves why they are often so much more popular than schools run by the local authority.

The chapter that got most media attention (once Steve Webb’s to sign up God had foundered) was the one by Greg Mulholland, in which he suggests that the party is in danger of driving out religious believers because of its ‘moral conformity’. He does put his finger on the tendency of political groupings to turn on people who hold views that differ from those of its most members, but I am not convinced religious believers are any more its victims than anyone else. Take the way Greg introduces his concerns, describing an incident from the last general election:
When I was knocking at one house I had called at a few minutes before, and started chanting at me. A rhyme about being a Catholic and about where I could shove my rosary beads. I have never been on the receiving end of discriminatory hate before and it is, even for a thick-skinned politician, a really unpleasant experience.
Surely bigotry is most often encountered in clashes between different religious groups? Again, it seems unfair to pin it on atheists.

What is at the heart of Greg’s chapter is the demand that political beliefs that are derived from religious convictions must somehow be above criticism. I do not think this is a legitimate move in debate, if only because it ties in with the sort of arguments that begin “As a….” These try to imply that you cannot criticise someone’s opinions without insulting his or her gender, ethnicity of sexual orientation and turn politics into a form of Top Trumps. More than that, if people hold just the views on social questions that you would expect them to hold in view of their backgrounds, then the suspicion is that, far from being deeply held, these views have been acquired in childhood and never properly examined. Which is why, to return to the parallel between churches and political parties, it is hard to take the likes of Will Straw and Euan Blair entirely seriously.

Let’s end on my favourite chapter. Andrew Stunell, in a pleasingly eccentric contribution, praises our secular society and celebrates the work of the Holy Spirit through history. So maybe I should thank God I’m an atheist?

Jonathan Calder

1 comment:

Gareth Aubrey said...

If we actually turned on people who held view that differed from those of most of our members, we'd barely have any MPs left...