April 2, 2015 by James Crossley
In the Spectator, Michael Gove has again presented himself as a defender of Christianity against its cultured despisers. What kind of people pray? Gove provides his answer:
Well, the kind of people who built our civilisation, founded our democracies, developed our modern ideas of rights and justice, ended slavery, established universal education and who are, even as I write, in the forefront of the fight against poverty, prejudice and ignorance. In a word, Christians.
This way of thinking about Christianity is, of course, nothing new for Gove. In 2012, when he was Education Secretary, Gove (with the help of private donors), sent out copies of the King James Bible to English state schools bearing the words, PRESENTED BY THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR EDUCATION. Presumably, schoolchildren were not necessarily going to read the contents of the Gove Bible but that doesn’t matter because we already know its meaning: whatever may be inside the cover, this is a text supportive of English/British democracy and heritage. As Gove put it, ‘The King James Bible has had a profound impact on our culture…Every school pupil should have the opportunity to learn about this book and the impact it has had on our history, language, literature and democracy’. This Bible went hand-in-hand with Gove’s interest in the History curriculum during his time at Education which foregrounded a patriotic, triumphal narrative of British history.
Gove’s latest construction of Christianity has more specific relevance for the forthcoming General Election. In his praise of charitable giving, Gove continues Cameron’s emphasis (itself a development of Thatcher’s thinking) on Christianity as Big Society and a tacit alternative to state welfare:
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.
And if you think that’s reading too much into Gove’s words, note the following which implicitly addresses criticisms levelled at the Coalition government and their controversial changes to welfare:
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.
Let’s take food banks. Like Cameron before/alongside him, this controversial feature of the Coalition era becomes an attempt to answer critics through the construction of Christianity and Christian authority: yes, it is a problem that people can’t eat as well as others but we don’t need the state interfering when churches can do the good work instead!
At this point, we might point out that Gove doesn’t mention all the problematic illiberal things that others might associate with Christianity. We might point out that the end of slavery was a highly complex affair that took however many centuries. We might point out that Christian imperialists can be found alongside anti-imperialists. But Gove addresses these sorts of issues:
And proclaiming your adherence to the faith which generations of dead white males used to cow and coerce others is particularly problematic. You stand in the tradition of the Inquisition, the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits who made South America safe for colonisation, the missionaries who accompanied the imperial exploiters into Africa, the Christian Brothers who presided over forced adoption and the televangelists who keep America safe for capitalism.
However, Gove moves on to establish that this is not True Christianity by contrasting such beliefs with ‘genuine Christian faith’ which is much more about empathy with the Other. Gove can then make a Morgan-like move that Thatcher likewise made in her critique of Communism: this focus on the preciousness of the individual means Christianity celebrates ‘our common humanity’ and therefore this ‘genuine Christian faith’ will shield the vulnerable against ‘tyrants and dictators’ who ‘have attempted to set individuals against one another’. Gove’s Christianity has ‘Bonhoeffer and the Christian-inspired White Rose movement’ leading ‘the internal opposition to Hitler’s rule’ with no mention of any other groups leading opposition to Hitler. And presumably discussing (say) any leftist opposition to Hitler would be problematic for Gove’s convenient history because the ‘moral witness of the Catholic church in Poland that helped erode Communism’s authority in the 1980s.’
As this suggests, Gove’s history is (has to be?) as simplified as the caricature of Christianity he seeks to counter. Indeed, history for Gove works like this: in ‘pre-Christian times’ moral reasoning was restricted to the elite and build on ‘radical inequality’. But Christianity (‘like Judaism before it’) gave ‘every individual the dignity of a soul’ and thus ‘the capacity to reason, the right to be heard and equality before the law.’ In other words, history is presumably to be something like this: bad and dictatorial—the shining light of True Christianity (with some additional previously light shed by Judaism)—a partly corrupted era of Not Genuine Christianity when things like slavery and imperialism somehow continued for centuries—more True Christianity which ushered in liberal democracy and a series of ‘genuine’ Christians standing up to tyrants—and now the sneering at the liberalism of True Christianity by unspecified people who should know better.
People who historically self-identified as Christians (and non-Christians) have obviously opposed slavery and people who historically self-identified as Christians (and non-Christians) have obviously supported slavery. Equally obviously, to explain history and society in such idealist ways does not explain the chaotic complexity of change. But that is not the function of Gove’s rhetoric. As with Cameron, Gove’s Christianity is to give authority to liberal democracy generally, and controversial policies specifically. And given that Gove is defending Christianity against cultural embarrassment, why fall back on that which is culturally not culturally embarrassing (anti-slavery, anti-totalitarianism etc.)? Why not defend (say) speaking in tongues, the Whore of Babylon or something that is a bit more alien to his preferred discourse? Well, that’s because Gove is playing the same liberal democratic game as his hypothetical opponents and his Christianity, like their beliefs, can only be acceptable on liberal democratic terms.