I like the speech that the Prime Minister made at Oxford's Christ Church Cathedral the other day. I like it not only because I agree with it, but because I think that it is very well-written. Its references to Christian values have been most noted in the media, but it is fascinating also to see the Conservative Party's leader saying:
Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.
So it's a "genuinely liberal country" to which Mr Cameron aspires in this speech, with the word "conservative" (or conservatism) not meriting a single mention. I know, incidentally, that many Lib Dems will be uncomfortable with the notion that the Prime Minister has defined Britain as a Christian country; they would have wanted him to say something like:
Let me be clear: I am not in any way saying that to have another faith - or no faith - is somehow wrong. I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have a religion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger...Faith is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for morality. There are Christians who don’t live by a moral code. And there are atheists and agnostics who do.
Well, read the speech, because that's exactly what he did say, in those very words. I was struck also by the Prime Minister's saying:
And when it comes to the great humanitarian crises - like the famine in Horn of Africa - again you can count on faith-based organisations like Christian Aid, Tearfund, CAFOD, Jewish Care, Islamic Relief, and Muslim Aid to be at the forefront of the action to save lives.
A terrific sentiment, but Jewish Care is actually an excellent domestic welfare charity; it would have no direct connection with action to save lives abroad and that is not what it is for. The Prime Minister perhaps rather had in mind World Jewish Relief, Tzedek or ORT.
Also, Mr Cameron says that "one thing is clear: moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it any more". "Isn't going to cut it any more"? That is to imply, that, hitherto, the British had decided that moral neutrality or passive tolerance did cut it and that we are now making a change. In which case - what is to change? What, in response to the Prime Minister's having said all of this, is he now proposing to do that is any way different to what he was already doing before? Is this speech merely a rhetorical exercise aimed at pleasing voters without making any new spending commitments? By making this speech in this cathedral in the bleak mid-winter, Mr Cameron chimes with those aspects of Christianity that most resonate with Middle England - Englishness, beautiful old buildings and Christmas - while ignoring those aspects of the Christian debate that are most challenging: abortion, marriage and gay rights. Where does this speech take us? I'm not sure. I'll have to see if Sainsbury's will sell me a moral compass.