By and large, when clerics turn to politics, they sound naive. But when politicians turn to religion, they sound either cynical or dangerous; indeed, usually both. In David Cameron’s case, the dangers he poses have little to do with religion, and everything to do with his political and class philosophy. He merely likes to sprinkle a bit of bible dust around the place to perk it all up a bit, just as a chef might add a touch of chilli powder to an otherwise pedestrian dish.
Thus the Prime Minister’s religious excursion on the back of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible does not make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up in the way that those creepy fundamentalist Republicans do. I don’t worry that we’ll soon be banning evolution from the classroom, nor demonising gay people on the basis of selective quotation and poor biblical exegesis. No-one looking at or listening to Mr Cameron would ever make the mistake of thinking that he actually believed any of that stuff, still less practised it.
Yet in his distinctively British way, he played a more subtle, yet perhaps even more insidious, hand. He weaved a mythology every bit as misleading and corrupting as any fire-brand, mouth-frothing senator from the Southern USA. He located the Bible as a sort of comfortable, and comforting, nostalgic gloss on Britishness. The King James Version emerged as Cameron’s warm beer and village cricket, a mythical England (not even Britain if truth be told) as chocolate box, darling buds of May costume drama.
Those films and television series that Britain is so famous for, and so good at producing, that evoke that kind of idyllic, old-fashioned, nostalgic sense of ourselves are indeed seductive. The only thing wrong with the images they create is that they’re not true now, and they never were. The translation of the Bible into English was not some cosy high water mark of Britishness. It was a bloody and controversial, subversive act that shook the society to its foundations. To present that, of all things, as a symbol of British social harmony is as breathtakingly ahistorical as it is theologically inept.
This Prime Minister presides over the largest net transfer of wealth from the very poorest to the very richest that we’ve seen for generations. There is no interpretation of the Bible, old testament or new, that gives authority to such a process. Rather than using the Bible as a sort of anodyne guarantee of us all being in it together, Mr Cameron should try reading it. He might learn something.