Dear Tories, please leave religion to the religious


When the bishops of the Church of England dare to intervene in politics, as they did a few weeks ago in their 52-page pre-election letter to the nation, Conservatives were among the first to condemn.

Now in the opening skirmishes of this election, they seem to be attempting to capture the high ground of moral rectitude for themselves.

How else to explain the latest sallies of David Cameron, Michael Gove, even Boris Johnson?

In a tight, unpredictable election, the religious vote, even if proportionately small, begins to count.

Apart from an occasional outlying stalwart churchwarden here or there, the Church of England has for decades understood it is no longer the Tory party at prayer.

It would be so much easier now for the Conservatives if they did not consider themselves to be the Church of England at war.

They must envy the atheist Ed Miliband, who is rather beloved of the bishops and their flock at the moment.

To admit the reason why so many admire the Labour leader however is a little difficult for the Conservatives, as they would then have to admit the most uncomfortable word of all to their lexicon, the word that begins with "p" and ends with a "why".

Bishops, church men and church women, lay and ordained, do not much care about whether Boris believes capitalism is moral, or whether David Cameron and Michael Gove get on their knees in church each week.

They do care about the thousands upon thousands of suffering, angry, hard-working but lowly-paid men and and women who have endured the humiliation of having to turn up at food banks, heartbreakingly vulnerable in their need for "charity", to feed their children and other dependents.

They care about the injustice of the so-called "bedroom tax".

They care that in courts up and down the land each week, poverty-stricken people are going to jail for fare evasion, petty theft of food and other easily detectable and punishable crimes while so few seem to pay a price for what is happening so much higher up the food chain, in the name of tax evasion and more.

They don't believe that the petty criminals should escape justice, but don't understand how others can, unless justice is no longer what it was when made in the name of the Bible.

Even Boris Johnson has been getting in on the act, outlining the "moral case" for capitalism. Where is his moral case for capturing and jailing corrupt capitalists?

Michael Gove writes in The Spectator this week in defence of Christians and Christianity in Britain. Unbelievably, he challenges the legitimate interrogations that top interviewers such as Jeremy Paxman subject top people to. These are people who are perhaps more used to unquestioning deference but seriously, Michael? Are you really saying Paxo has no right to ask these necessary questions in the manner he wishes to ask them? Good God indeed. Perhaps the next step should be to jail journalists who dare to ask questions in manner the interviewee deems to find rude.

Gove writes: "To call yourself a Christian in contemporary Britain is to invite pity, condescension or cool dismissal. In a culture that prizes sophistication, non-judgementalism, irony and detachment, it is to declare yourself intolerant, naive, superstitious and backward."

Gove's caricatures of Christian stereotypes are also outlandish. "If we're Roman Catholic we're accessories to child abuse, if we're Anglo-Catholics we're homophobic bigots curiously attached to velvet and lace, if we're liberal Anglicans we're pointless hand-wringing conscience-hawkers, and if we're evangelicals we're creepy obsessives who are uncomfortable with anyone enjoying anything more louche than a slice of Battenberg."

Actually, in my admittedly limited experience of writing about religion for nearly three decades in a secular, capitalist environment (including a period with Gove himself as my news editor – and before you ask he was the nicest news editor ever, a perfect gentleman), these caricatures are most often used by Christians against each other, when they are doing their "how these Christians love one another" bit.

In addition, Gove really should be aware that absolutely nobody at all considers Anglo-Catholics to be homophobic. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In my experience, non-Christians by and large respect and cherish people of the Christian faith. When there is a lack of respect, there is often one chief reason alone – it is because they simply do not understand how intelligent people can believe what we believe. The gospel has become increasingly incredible in our secular age.

Gove is right in some respects: "The reality of Christian mission in today's churches is a story of thousands of quiet kindnesses. In many of our most disadvantaged communities it is the churches that provide warmth, food, friendship and support for individuals who have fallen on the worst of times. The homeless, those in the grip of alcoholism or drug addiction, individuals with undiagnosed mental health problems and those overwhelmed by multiple crises are all helped – in innumerable ways – by Christians."

He lists more: churches provide debt counselling, marriage guidance, childcare, English language lessons, after-school clubs, food banks, emergency accommodation and, sometimes most importantly of all, someone to listen.

This is the politician who 18 months ago was accused of "insulting" people who use food banks by implying they were responsible for their plight. "It's often as a result of some decisions that have been taken by those families which mean that they are not best able to manage their finances," he said.

He writes from the heart with admirable rhetoric that is brilliantly informed. But his voice inadvertently echoes the confusion around the Conservative camp about why so many are angry.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the Easter message of his leader, David Cameron. "As Prime Minister, I'm in no doubt about the matter: the values of the Christian faith are the values on which our nation was built," he writes in Premier Christianity magazine. He places himself as an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country. "And for me, the key point is this: the values of Easter and the Christian religion – compassion, forgiveness, kindness, hard work and responsibility – are values that we can all celebrate and share."

He then goes on to use his faith to justify the austerity measures. "More fundamentally, the core of our recovery programme – dealing with the deficit to restore confidence in our economy – is based on enduring ideas and principles: hard work, fair play, rewarding people for doing the right thing, and securing a better future for our children."

Perhaps inadvertently echoing one popular evangelical worship song, he writes: "I hope everyone can share in the belief of trying to lift people up rather than count people out."

The comments that follow on the magazine's website reflect some of the consternation the article provoked in some Christians.

"Well that give me no inclination to vote Conservative," wrote one reader. "He obviously has no idea what the Christian faith means and has completely missed the point of Easter. It's not about coping with change – it's more about Jesus dying to give us a radical new start!"

A more dismissive argument is made by Madeleine Teahan in the Catholic Herald. "The prime minister's attempt to woo Christians ahead of the general election is cynical and flawed," she writes.

"David Cameron has written us an Easter message where he makes his 'belief in the importance of Christianity absolutely clear'. I wasn't quite sure what this meant so I read on. Did he mean he will be making his belief in Christianity clear or making clear his belief in its importance?"

Articulating her confusion about what his Easter message to Christians actually meant, she cites his view of what is "at the heart of the Christian message": "It's the principle around which the Easter celebration is built. Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children. And today, that message matters more than ever."

She writes: "I'm really glad he cleared this up and I'm looking forward to hearing more about this during the Paschal Triduum. For 28 years I have been labouring under a serious misapprehension. What's ironic here is that the prime minister, through trying to convey he is not afraid to call himself Christian, has actually communicated that he seems terrified to identify as one."

She concludes: "To be quite frank, a Cameron rendition of Abba's I Believe in Angels, would have contained more theological conviction than this embarrassing attempt at an Easter message."

The Church of England itself, meanwhile, got straight to the heart of the matter as it has become so much better at doing recently under the headship of Justin Welby, who is, like Cameron, an Old Etonian.

In a prayer published in a study guide accompanying the 52-page election letter, the Church explicitly urges congregations to oppose self-interest and back policies that favour the poor.

"Lord Jesus, who chose the way of the cross in the Garden of Gethsemane, help us to turn our backs on self interest and to support policies that sustain the poor, the vulnerable and the frightened people of this world," the prayer says.

This election is at the moment far too close to call. None might win outright. The Christian vote is clearly being seen as important, judging by these confused interventions by senior Conservatives. But to capture the Christian vote, the Conservatives will have to do far more than say they believe. I write as someone who for much of my life has been Conservative. At the moment, in spite of these outpourings of words of righteousness, they are in danger of seeming no better than those who have laid up treasures for themselves on earth, those who practise their righteousness before others in order to be seen by them, those who are try to serve both God and money. Even a fool such as me knows that this is the opposite of the gospel preached by Jesus. Maybe they should just leave religion to the bishops, and get on with the small but important matter of politics.