In her Conservative Party Conference speech, Prime Minister Theresa May made several references to the 'British Dream'.
The dream was, she said, that 'each generation should do better than the one before it'. Her own family's history, she said, was evidence that this dream could be realised: her grandmother who worked as a domestic servant was able to count three professors and a prime minister among her grandchildren.
However, research has shown young people today are likely to be the first generation since the Second World War to experience greater financial hardship than that of their parents.
But is the British Dream really about getting richer? Social mobility – the notion that anyone can rise from rags to riches – has long been associated with the 'American Dream', a term coined in 1861. Britain doesn't have the same outlook: starkly different visions about how Britain should look surely explain the divide over EU membership, immigration, and what 'British values' should be taught in schools, if any.
Politicians are expected to offer a vision of where they believe society should be heading and the policies they think will get it there. Christians ultimately believe that society will be fully transformed by Christ, but that doesn't mean we should be disengaged from society as it currently stands. If anything, because we know that the world as it is in its broken state is not how it was meant to be, we should be bold in reversing the effects of the Fall – on relationships, between people and with God, on our bodies and on the earth. So what should a Christian British Dream look like? Here are three ideas.
1. Fuller churches
Given the increasing secularisation of society, all Christians should long for our churches to be filled with people who come on Sundays not out of convention or habit but because they are enlivened with a passion for Jesus. With increased numbers, it would be harder for Christian voices in the public square to be considered outdated and inappropriate. If more people heard Christian teaching and spent time with God, we would also see salt and light scattered into all areas of life, transforming everything from household chores to the management of institutions.
2. Churches doing stuff
The Church should be enabled to have a substantial role in social provision – not because we see a small state as inherently good, but because we want vulnerable people to be treated as individuals and not statistics, with love and mercy. Being rooted in local communities allows churches to respond to social issues in a holistic, small-scale way which avoids some of the pitfalls of large, impersonal state-run initiatives.
This is not to say that we want to see the end of the welfare state. But we should not be afraid or reluctant to show 'agape' love in uniquely Christian ways, which involve viewing each person as a spiritual being, made in the image of God, and created for relationship with him. We may well wish them to climb the social ladder, but our dreams are bolder than those of a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.
Christians should work towards a society defined by peace and prosperity, where all are able to experience 'shalom', or life in its fullness. God commanded the exiles in Babylon, for instance: 'Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper' (Jeremiah 29:7). This suggests that the material welfare of societies is something for which God cares, even when those cultures do not honour him. But the Bible issues multiple warnings about the potential for money to cause division, anxiety, greed and turn people from God. So, rather than seeking a rise in GDP for its own sake, we should want material wealth to be achieved through responsible, sustainable means with none profiting disproportionately at the expense of others.
Moreover, that wealth should not bolster the status and privilege of a minority, but be given away cheerfully and generously to those less fortunate. A vision of a peaceful society also means one free from entrenched divisions whether along the lines of race, religion, gender and any of the other us-them divides which humans are inclined to create.
Social mobility is a captivating dream for those on the left and the right, and on both sides of the Atlantic. Christians certainly don't have to disagree: it is right to want future generations not to lack anything we have had. But we should not be limited by the visions which politicians present to us. Whether in the public sphere, civil society, or the privacy of our own homes, our action can be fuelled by the hope that Christ will 'reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven' (Colossians 1:20).