December 24, 2014 by James Crossley
David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have given their Christmas addresses and, as is typical, there is reference to Christianity and the Bible and the values we all apparently share, or apparently should share.
David Cameron tells us that this is an ‘important time of year for the Christian faith’ and concludes by asking us to spare a thought for those who help others ‘as we celebrate the birth of Christ with friends, families and neighbours’. Ensuring that a lot of people are included, he sends his ‘best wishes’ to ‘everyone in the UK and around the world celebrating Christmas’. While Cameron is obviously not forgetting the ‘Christ’ in ‘Christmas’, ‘celebrating Christmas’ is sufficiently broad to make sure non-Christians are included (as he always does, and all mainstream politicians do). Covering everything and nothing, what this is also meant to show is what Cameron really means, i.e. that this is about ‘our’ national Christian heritage. Hence this: ‘thousands of churches – whether in the smallest village or biggest city – will hold open their doors and welcome people of faith and none to give thanks and celebrate together.’
In the UK, Christmas is often celebrated by drinking heavily. For those who frequent pubs and nighclubs, kicking the shit out of softer people reaches its peak on Blackeye Friday, in order that there might be less fighting and more goodwill on Christmas Eve through to New Year’s Day. As Cameron put it: ‘Among the joyous celebrations we will reflect on those very Christian values of giving, sharing and taking care of others.’ These ‘very Christian’ values should be no surprise to anyone who has listened to or read Cameron’s previous Christmas and Easter speeches. They are the usual vague, liberal and seemingly agreeable values that almost all politicians publicly agree upon and publicly attribute to the Bible and Christianity.
But, as elsewhere with Cameron, there is a subtle use of Christianity and the Bible to justify more specific political commitments. This can be seen in Cameron’s application of ‘giving, sharing and taking care of others.’ For instance, this Christmas, he claims, ‘we can be very proud as a country at how we honour these values through helping those in need at home and around the world’. This includes the ‘thousands of men and women in our armed forces will be far from home protecting people and entire communities from the threat of terrorism and disease’. This is spelled out in more detail still in more of Cameron’s 2014 Christmas reflections where the same theme of helping others is likewise dominant:
…the last of our combat troops left Afghanistan—and they left it a better place. Because of what you have done, life is better for ordinary Afghans. Their daughters are going to school. They are voting in democratic elections for the first time in their history. And life is safer on the streets of Britain.
Thus, ‘the Christian values’ of ‘giving, sharing and taking care of others’ has justified the war in Afghanistan since 2001 (and all that has happened there) and, despite one deadly attack on July 7, 2005 and a beheading in Woolwich, has also justified one of the main explanations for the War on Terror: the non-quantifiable making life ‘safer on the streets of Britain’. This use of the Bible and Christianity to provide an implicit defence of, and authority for, foreign policy decisions is not new to Cameron. For instance, the Bible and Christianity played a notable role in Cameron’s assessment of what needs to be done about ISIL/ISIS/IS (Cameron seems to prefer ‘ISIL’ at the moment). It is also broadly equivalent to Tony Blair’s biblically-based justification of the War on Terror (e.g. bringing democracy to others, gender equality in education etc.).
What else? In his addresses, Cameron notably focuses on volunteers and, in addition to what Cameron might think of as the core activities of the state (fire, ambulance, police), those working beyond the state: ‘across the country volunteers and workers from charities and other organisations will drop in on the vulnerable and elderly so they are not isolated this Christmas’. Indeed, it is such people (‘those extraordinary professionals and volunteers who help them’) who we should think about ‘as we celebrate the birth of Christ’. Again, on the surface, who could disagree? But, again, there is something more politically divisive going on. Cameron, we might recall, is known for using the Bible and Christianity as a means of justifying food banks and the responses to the 2014 floods. On both food banks and the floods (which he again mentions at Christmas), his government have received heavy criticism but the answer is effectively this: people helping others is a good thing…and it’s biblical/Christian! After all, Cameron made some major claims for the authority of his alternative to state assistance in this context when he claimed that ‘Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago; I just want to see more of it.
Interestingly, self-identified non-believers, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, also gave their take on Christmas. Miliband and the Labour Party are still nervy about the electoral problems of Blair and the Iraq War so it is unlikely that an assessment of the War on Terror would be highlighted. The Liberal Democrats also provided the most prominent opposition to the war on Iraq (remember those Lib Dems?) so Clegg likewise would not likely reference the War on Terror in detail. Rather, Clegg (non-specifically) praises the ‘armed forces’ keeping ‘us safe and well’ over Christmas. This is a striking contrast with his coalition partner Cameron who will use the Bible and Christianity to justify more specific foreign interventions, not least because doesn’t have the same significant votes to lose given the higher levels of Tory support for bombing countries.
Instead, both Miliband and Clegg turned their specificity to World War I and the famous truce and (in the case of Miliband) the famous football match. Indeed, for Miliband, this football match was sort of Christian (in the Cameroonian sense): ‘In the midst of a tragic conflict the generosity, hope and sense of human solidarity that is characteristic of the Christian faith and culture came to the fore.’ What is also notable is that Miliband references the more politically radical tradition of the Labour Party where the Bible and Christianity were once used to justify and provide authority for the trade unions, hostility to the establishment, egalitarianism, nationalisation, collectivism, founding of the NHS and welfare state and so on. However, the more leftist version of this tradition effectively died with Tony Benn and Miliband follows the dominant rhetoric of using this Labour tradition to oppose general things like ‘suffering’, ‘injustice’ and ‘poverty’ through solidarity but always remaining vague and without any specific application (compare, for instance, Tony Benn):
We need the same sense of compassion in the face of the suffering and hatred that afflicts parts of our world. I am proud that the Labour movement has such deep roots in the Christian tradition of social activism and solidarity in the United Kingdom.
This sort of reading of the Bible became dominant in the Labour Party in the 1990s, with the change signalled in 1993 by the Christian Socialist Movement publication, Christopher Bryant (ed.), Reclaiming the Ground: Christianity and Socialism (including a foreword by Tony Blair). In general terms, one question might be: what are the key differences between ‘the Christian tradition of social activism and solidarity’ and Cameron’s construction Christianity?
Clegg’s address is from a primary school in London (presumably school children are one of the few groups who aren’t expected to abuse him in public) and it is sort of like a textbook primary school Religious Studies/Education class on the sorts of things religions do, only with less actual content and detail. He explains that at the ‘heart of this festival is the birth of Jesus Christ’ and that it is ‘a time of joy and celebration for Christians around the world’. Clearly, this is also a visual presentation of a ‘festival’ that Clegg (and countless other politicians) say is about ‘uniting people of all faiths and none’, a liberal understanding of Christianity and the Liberal Bible through the classroom. Clegg’s classroom is clearly what would be understood as ‘multicultural’ and notably includes a girl with both a head covering and Santa hat who is prominent in the video as they all make mince pies with Nick against a backdrop of Christmas decorations. And in case we did not pick up on any of that, Clegg explains that ‘the core values this story represents—love, charity, hope—are universal’.
We are not likely to hear what Clegg or Cameron or even Miliband think about angels appearing, the details of Mary’s sexual practices and marital status, John the Baptist’s drinking habits, why Elizabeth was a disgrace, leaping in the womb, bringing down the rich and the powerful, Jesus’ circumcision, the offering of a sacrifice of turtle doves and pigeons, etc. and so on. No, Christmas in political discourse is kept vaguely liberal.