(cross-posted from the Wardman Wire.)
As the Labour Conference begins, there is probably an obscure spread bet to be had on how many times God is mentioned. The thinktank Theos reported this week on the rising number of credits offered to the Man Upstairs in conference speeches by party leaders. Findings include:
- despite Alastair Campbells protestations, Labour has made most use of ‘God talk’, making 98 religious references and allusions in the ten party conference speeches examined, compared with 65 for the Conservatives and 23 for the Liberal Democrats.
- Gordon Brown makes most references per speech. In 2007, his one speech (in which he famously referred “the sermons my father preached Sunday after Sunday”) contains 14 religious references, compared with Blair’s average of 9.3 and Cameron’s 8.3.
- Brown, Blair, Cameron and Duncan-Smith each made over 8 references per speech; Hague, Campbell, Kennedy, Howard and Ashdown each made fewer than 5 per speech.
- In 2001, when each of the speeches was delivered within a few weeks of the 9/11 attacks, the three leaders between them made over 50 religious references.
- Since 9/11, there is a general upward trend in religious rhetoric. Prior to 2001 (i.e. 1998-2000) there are, on average, 11 references and allusions made in party conference speeches per year, whereas after 2001 there are over 16.5.
Okay it's hardly a scientific study, and Tony Blair looms large over all of it, but he's certainly far from alone.
There are a whole cluster of reasons for this. One is the religious faith of some of the leaders themselves. In another age, religion was a private matter - no longer. Our confessional culture requires people to wear their heart on their sleeve, and Blair is the prime example. Margaret Thatcher professed a Christian faith, but (with one notable exception) she rarely spoke about it.
Religion is, of course, a much bigger issue in politics. Not what you'd expect in a post-Christian, and increasingly secular society. But part of the process of secularisation is debates about things like faith schools, and how to deal with religious worldviews in the state education system. Post-9/11, how our society relates to Islam has become both a local and global issue.
There are other things going on too:
- Faith groups, particularly churches, are more involved in 'welfare delivery' to use an awful government phrase. Media coverage suggests that the only politically active groups are those like CCFON, focusing on embryo research, abortion and sexuality. Look more closely and you find a different picture.
Christian groups are involved in everything from debt counselling to marriage support, prison visiting to Make Poverty History, mental health to measures against people trafficking. Even city traders get a look-in. Organisations like Faithworks, with a track record in dealing with a whole spectrum of need, are routinely consulted by the state, and rightly so. When the church's Moral But No Compass report criticised the governments attitude to faith groups, the one thing that nobody questioned was the church's major role in civic, economic and social life, and in welfare and support of the vulnerable.
- As Britain loses its Christian identity, church and Christian groups become much more distinct from society in general. In 'Christendom', a Christian perspective is taken for granted by everyone, but in a secular society, a religious perspective is novel and distintive (or strange and deluded, depending on how you look at it). It is the very success of faith in motivating people to work with and for the marginalised which makes some politicians keen to work with them, though the reality doesn't always match the rhetoric.
- Religion may be on the way out, but God isn't. Research suggests that more of us are reporting religious experiences, and praying, than 20 years ago.
- The divide between religion and politics, reinforced by Margaret Thatcher once she started getting it in the neck from the Church of England, is weakening from both sides. Politicians see religious groups as a legitimate part of society and politics, and most Christians would say 'Amen' to Desmond Tutu: "I wonder which Bible people are reading when they say religion and politics don't mix".
Finally, there may be one other thing going on. Political ideology seems to be a thing of the past. Back in the 1980's we were drowning in 'isms' - socialism, Thatcherism, communism, monetarism. The Ism is now an endangered species. Now that politics no longer gives us a Theory of Everything, religion has the field all to itself. The success of the Alpha Course - tagline 'is there more to life than this?' - is evidence that people want to see life in a bigger perspective.
Maybe God-talk in political speeches is just politicians trying to hint that, like the majority of voters, they believe in more than pure pragmatism. This is not the same as button-pushing 'God Bless America' rhetoric, which takes God's name in vain in order to win votes.
It would be a miracle if Brown survives to win the next election, and there will be a lot of praying in Manchester over the next few days, much of it done by MP's who have seen the latest polls. I'd be surprised if there is a lot of religious rhetoric at the Labour conference, but if there's no mention of God, you can see the headlines: "Brown hasn't got a prayer".