Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Gordon Brown's God

As everyone knows, Gordon Brown is a son of the manse - to coin a cliche - his father having been a minister in the Church of Scotland. Johann Hari has been speculating what this means for someone who is an atheist on the left: given that his religion clearly is not like that of the American religious right - obsessed with sex and hard-faced towards the poor - is it a problem that he gets his alleged concern for the poor from his religious background?

Chris Dillow argues persuasively that it is. Amongst his concerns is that egalitarianism, if it is based on religion, becomes an extension of religious duty and the poor end up not being treated as ends in themselves:

"Redistributive policies then become merely a way of the Christian imposing his private beliefs onto others. Other people therefore become tools of his own will, rather than moral agents in their own standing, with beliefs of their own which we should address. This is an odd thing for an egalitarian to do."
I've got a couple of slightly different but related concerns. One is, regardless of where it comes from, Brown's supposed egalitarianism is unlikely to do the poor much good - or so the record thus far would tend to indicate. It is difficult, for example, to see how the words of Isaiah or Jerimiah fit in with his recent budget where he abolished the lowest rate of income tax and made our fiscal regime more regressive than it was already.

And while his religious egalitarianism doesn't appear to have made a huge impact on the gap between rich and poor, the fear is the presbyterian tradition's instrinsic authoritarianism will prove to be more effectual. Perhaps it is this that makes Brown famously unwilling to truck any dissent or disagreement - and was behind his various attempts to modify our behaviour through 'sin taxes' and tax credits.

But another concern of mine has to do with the political atmosphere we live in today. There is nothing that unusual about a Labour politician being a Christian. The Labour movement does, after all, owe a great deal of its character to the influence of Methodism - and in the West of Scotland the Catholic Church has also played a significant role. But religious politicians tended to be much quieter about it, the late John Smith being an exemplar of this tradition.

Not so today. Catherine Bennett suggests that Brown's book teaches us that we're about to have another pious Christian as Prime Minister. I think what it teaches us is that politicians today think their political principles somehow have greater legitimacy with the public if they claim they owe more to the writing of Micah rather than Marx, or some other atheist writer. I sincerely hope they're wrong about this but I'm not sure they are. The political culture in the United States is such that I can't imagine an avowed atheist ever winning a presidential election. We are nowhere near that here, thank goodness. But God forbid, if you'll pardon the expression, we ever arrive at a place where a politician's unbelief comes to be seen as an electoral liability.

Update: A subtle and interesting response from Jamie K here.

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