Whilst living in America, Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) derived great pleasure by reminding the American conservatives, who had become his allies following his support for the war in Iraq, that if they really were the enemies of big government then they ought to be avid supporters of secularism. He had spent the later years of his extraordinary life fighting religion and promoting humanist ideals, two very rare hobbies for a supporter of George W Bush. The day after Christopher Hitchens died in December of last year, David Cameron gave a speech in Oxford to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. In the speech he declared that “We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so… the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today”. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams was present at the speech, only a month after he had very publicly described the coalition governments welfare cuts, specifically the £500-a-week cap on benefits per-family as “profoundly unjust”. This had come shortly after the prime minster had dismissed the Archbishop’s calls for a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ on financial transactions.
Strangely, the views of Rowan Williams weren’t mentioned by the Conservative Party co-chairwoman, Baroness Warsi, when in February she complained that religion was being “sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere”. Instead she cited the lack of God’s name in the texts of the European Union constitution as an “astonishing” example of what she describes as “militant secularism”. The problem is that the Conservative government has consistently ignored the views of religious leaders who oppose the government’s stringent austerity measures, probably because the morals of the Bible are roundly regarded as being much less important then economic growth.
Only last month the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brian described the prime minister as “immoral” and told him to do more then “just protect (his) very rich colleagues in the financial industry”. He too urged David Cameron to reconsider a Robin Hood Tax and he too was brushed off by Downing Street. It is becoming increasingly clear that the advocacy of religious values in the public sphere by senor conservatives is little more than posturing. The virtues of faith-based politics is recommended to the public but not adopted by the politicians who are selling it to us. The British government has made its mind up and decided that economic growth is the priority, even if that means the voices of religion being sidelined, marginalised and downgraded. So why do they bother to emphasise the importance of the religious perspective in the first place if they have no intention of paying any attention to it themselves?
Across the Atlantic, where faith and politics have been, for a while much closer in comparison to Britain, the US Republican party has seen a similar philosophical collision take place. Back in April, republican representative Paul Ryan, the author of an austerity-heavy budget, (which is expected to be implemented if Mitt Romney wins the presidential election) was set to give a speech at a catholic university in Washington D.C. But when we received an open letter from a group of almost 90 catholic bishops, theologians, priests and university staff. Here is an extract:
“we would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has wisely noted in several letters to Congress – “a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.” Catholic bishops recently wrote, “the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria. In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favourite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.“
Ayn Rand (1905-1982) who was recently described as the “the new right’s version of Marx”, has become a patron saint of the American right. During the infamous Tea Party rallies of 2009 and 2010 when signs reading, “Rand was right”, “atlas is shrugging” and “who is John Galt” frequently referenced her work. John Galt is a ‘Randian hero’ of the book Atlas Shrugged, an Ayn Rand novel first published in 1957 and one she personally read out loud to a young and impressionable Alan Greenspan. By the 1990’s Atlas Shrugged was voted the second most influential book in America, first place went to the Bible. The conflict of affection that exists between the two books amongst the American right is nothing new. Back in 1966 Ronald Reagan claimed to be “an admirer of Ayn Rand” but fifteen years later when Reagan came to power, Rand expressed doubts about her fan in the White House, writing, “I do not approve of Mr. Reagan’s mixture of capitalism and religion.”
Three decades later and Paul Ryan’s response to the same problem was a philosophical retreat towards Jerusalem. Hardly surprising given that Christianity has acted as an ideological republican safe house ever since Jerry Falwell politicised the evangelicals in 1980 and told them to vote for god by voting for Ronald Reagan. Thirty years on and Paul Ryan needed to make his loyalty to God as clear as he could, but instead of going to the confessional box he decided go to the press and give an interview to National Review:
“I reject her philosophy… It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”
However it wasn’t long before numerous contradictory quotations surfaced. During a speech he delivered to a meeting of an Ayn Rand fan club called the Atlas Society back in 2005 Ryan had said “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand and the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” This was the first of many quotes in which Ryan attributes his political identity and motivation to the Russian author.
The real tragedy regarding Ryan’s abandonment of his political heroine is that the outcome that any rational person studying her work would come to is that her animosity towards religion was (pardon my choice of words) the least objectionable thing about her. Rand was foremost a logician, a cold an calculating rationalist who, prior to the popularisation of game theory and the widespread misinterpretations of selfish gene theory, (Richard Dawkins insists that he has always voted on the left) believed altruism to be irrational. Man she said should live for himself instead of being held back by the weak. She was a devout individualist and was even known to have admired murders because they lived for themselves. In the critically un-acclaimed but staggeringly popular Atlas Shrugged the artists, entrepreneurs, industrialists, inventors and writers vanish from a state controlled (“collectivist”) society to go on strike. As they hide in a remote outpost the country falls apart before they emerge to create a new (“objectivist”) world build upon “the virtues of selfishness”. The book became popular with the republican proponents of a growing trend of libertarianism within the American right and this happened at precisely the same time the party was successfully seducing the evangelical vote. Somehow the Christians didn’t seem to notice or to mind the contradiction at the heart of Ronald Reagan’s political message.
Fast-forward three decades and it seems that the penny has finally dropped as highly influential religious leaders are beginning to notice the disparity between the deconstruction of the welfare state and the values of the Bible. David Cameron, who had ended 2011 by espousing the importance of Christian values, soon found himself using a “financial privilege” to force though a £26,000 benefits cap on state benefits because it had been so roundly rejected by the bishops sitting the House of Lords, by the second month of 2012. Meaning he has now publicly acted to circumvent religious morality; presumably the morality the bishops were placed in the lords to represent.
Perhaps it is fair to say that Cameron doesn’t really consider religious values unless he has been asked to give a speech defending their importance. Perhaps like almost every other issue, it’s simply the lip service that matters. In a way it reminds me of Pascal’s wager; the idea that one should stay safe by maintaining an otherwise irrational belief in god, just in case it turns out to be true. Because while almost nobody will cast a vote just to defend secularism, a few or even many might vote to defend a nations supposed Christian identity. As Christopher Hitchens wrote last year, in one of his last articles for Slate “religion in politics is more like an insurance policy than a true act of faith. Professing allegiance to it seldom does you any harm… and can do you some good. It’s a question of prudence” and that might just be the one defining link between fiscal and social conservatism; a simple and universal application of prudence.