Jun 8, 2017
“We won’t walk by on the other side.” Those were the words of British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in an allusion to the Parable of the Good Samaritan as he campaigned this week against the Conservatives on their Welfare policies.
While nods to the Bible or Christianity are nowhere near as prominent as they are in American politics, they continue to play an implicit authorizing role in English political discourse.
All mainstream British politicians claim to believe that the Bible and Christianity are at the heart of British (and particularly English) values, heritage, and democracy. Quite what “values, heritage, and democracy” mean depends on individual politicians, their respective parties, and their inherited interpretations.
To understand the role of Christianity in British politics in the context of the 2017 general election, we might go back to Margaret Thatcher. Out of the social and economic crises of the 1960s and 1970s, Thatcher foregrounded the Bible and her understanding of religion in her attacks on anything resembling socialism, Marxism, and the Soviet Union. For Thatcher, the Bible and religion were to be understood as promoting individualism, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation, which in turn would generate charitable giving and lessen the need for the welfare state. Probably her most famous use of the Bible was her claim that “no one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.” In other words, the Bible and religion became a (perhaps the) authoritative source for the shifts towards economic liberalism.
Tony Blair represents the next significant change in rethinking the Bible and Christian tradition in relation to politics, policy, and governance. Broadly embracing Thatcher’s neoliberal template, he added certain socially liberal qualifications (e.g., equality of gender and sexuality) that he believed were consistent with a full understanding of Christian teaching. By doing this Blair also represents a shift from socialist understandings of the Bible, which were a significant part of the history of the Labour Party. In his speeches to the Labour Party conference after 9/11 (part 1 and part 2) and his speech to Parliament on the eve of the Iraq war, he employed the traditional “apocalyptic” language associated with radical social change in the present, as used in the famous 1945 Labour Party manifesto in promoting the building of the National Health Service and the development of the welfare state. But now, for Blair, radical social transformation was to come to Afghanistan, the Middle East, and North Africa. The readers can judge for themselves how well that turned out, but Blair effectively marked the transformation, and end, of socialist understandings of the Bible, or so it seemed.
By the time of David Cameron’s premiership, the Bible and religion were firmly in the Thatcher-Blair tradition (and, if anything, intensified). Under Cameron, the Bible could be used to justify military intervention in the Middle East, the use of foodbanks over government intervention, and same-sex marriage. But something else was happening. The 2008 crash was beginning to open up new political understandings of the Bible and religion. The Occupy movement and Russell Brand were pushing more leftist understandings of the Bible and religion closer to mainstream political discourse. One of the enduring images of Occupy London Stock Exchange was Jesus’s actions in the Temple rethought in light of the activities against bankers and financiers, whether visually or in print. But perhaps the most surprising development was the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in 2015. With Corbyn, the Good Samaritan was now implied to be an example of someone in favor of the welfare state (e.g. here and here) and one of his close allies, Cat Smith, even claimed that “Jesus was a radical socialist.” Indeed, the Corbyn movement has regularly been described in language of the old radical nonconformist tradition associated with the beginnings of the Labor Party.
But shifts were also taking place on the Right, as seen by Brexit. Brexit itself cut across Right and Left much more than is popularly presented, but it has certainly been relentlessly packaged in terms of issues relating to immigration. This is not without support, of course. Part of Brexit (though certainly not all) was a reaction from those who have not benefitted from neoliberalism developed from Thatcher or been helped by the “gig economy.” Such citizens have felt abandoned by the direction of the Labour Party from Blair onwards, with immigration (often with particular reference to ‘Muslims’) indeed blamed. This seemed to open the way for UKIP, but Theresa May took advantage of this development when she replaced Cameron after the referendum result. Her reading of Christianity, the Bible, and religion now invokes the idea of Christmas and Easter as something faintly ethno-nationalist and to be distinguished from “minority communities” and “their traditions” and “people of other faiths or none.” And in their 2017 manifesto, the Conservatives have also offered somewhat vague promises to workers in precarious circumstances by rhetorically distancing the Conservative Party from its traditional image and using the language of deviance from religious/political truth by rejecting ‘untrammeled free markets’ and the ‘cult of selfish individualism’. American readers will be familiar with this shift on the Right.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron – who is a committed Christian – has been trying to attract disgruntled Remain voters with pro-immigration rhetoric (as has Corbyn) but has been struggling with questions about his attitude to homosexuality and the Bible. After refusing to answer the question on becoming leader, he has now admitted to thinking it is not a sin. Such social liberalism, along with May’s protectionism and her flirtation with ethno-nationalism, and Corbyn’s socialism, represent the main competing understandings of politics in relation to the Bible and religion in English political discourse. It is not yet clear what will become the dominant template to replace the Thatcher-Blair settlement, and given the fluctuations in polling running up to the General Election it may take some time before the ideological dust settles.
James Crossley is Professor of Bible, Society and Politics at St Mary’s University, London.