Political Discourse: David Cameron, Religious and Traditional Values

When politicians write or speak of values in the context of religion, I get just a little bit uneasy; particularly when they refer to values of the Bible or of a particular religion. So Prime Minister David Cameron was on a hiding to nothing with his Easter message this year.

He seems set on placing Christian values at the heart of life in the UK. My unease about this is similar to when politicians speak of ‘traditional’ values. Indeed, the stories in response to Cameron’s December 2011 speech commemorating the publication of the King James Bible frequently spoke of a return to ‘traditional Christian values’; so even the listener cannot always distinguish between religious values and traditional values.

To be sure, I have no problem with religion and religious conversations having a role in public discourse, as long as followers of religions do not expect their position to be the final arbiter of what is right or should be done. However, when it comes to Easter greetings and such like, I cynically suspect politicians are using religion to make political gain (especially since public declarations about religion for politicians in the UK are potentially toxic) and, on top of this, I have two other concerns.

Firstly, when politicians use the idea of religious values they seem to remove those values from their context. Let us suppose I wanted to speak of ‘the Golden Rule’ as Cameron did this Easter: do to others as you would have them do to you. The context of the Gospel of Luke 6:31 is very different to the context in which we find the almost contemporaneous rabbinic reference to the negative version of the Golden Rule:

“Hillel said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”

Nor is the context of Luke the same as the discussion which occur in other rabbinic teachings that demonstrates the problem of the version of the Golden Rule found in Leviticus 19:18: the rabbinic teaching suggests that since you may despise yourself, you might despise your fellow:

Ben Azzai said: THIS IS THE BOOK OF THE DESCENDANTS OF ADAM WHEN GOD CREATED HUMANKIND IN THE IMAGE OF GOD HE MADE HIM (Genesis 5:1) is a great principle of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva said: But YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR AS YOURSELF (Leviticus 19:18) is even a greater principle. Hence you must not say, ‘Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbour be put to shame’. R. Tanhuma said: If you do so, know whom you put to shame, [for] IN THE IMAGE OF GOD HE MADE HIM. (Genesis Rabbah 24:7 Soncino edition).

Nor does Cameron’s use of the verse from the Gospel of Luke take into account the historical experience of the Jewish people who have found it particularly hard to turn the other cheek to their enemies, since their enemies were often trying to exterminate them. You may argue that interpretation of literature, and particularly the Bible, frequently takes phrases out of context to establish new or adapted meanings. However, when interpreted within a religious community that seems well and good, but when applied to the reified world of public political discourse it feels hollow and the impact of the words is dulled.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly of all, I work and live in a religious community that has embraced change, abandoned hierarchical constructions of power, worked for the equality of women, included people who are not heterosexual, recognised the role of science in understanding the world, and so on. If The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, where I work, had stuck to ‘traditional’ values we would not have a senior Rabbi who is a woman, we would not have conducted same-sex ceremonies and we would not have recognised scripture as a human product subject to great nobility and unethical fallibility. The religious tradition we inherited and continue to transmit has changed over time and we have also been a conscious and deliberate part of that change. Heaven forbid that we should try and hermetically seal the Judaism of today, attempting to deny the reality of change in the past or the possibility of change in the future.

Poor David Cameron, he tries to bring in religious teachings and ideas to the important public debate about our shared heritage and the character of society in this country and yet he is still criticised by a religious minister. Perhaps he cannot win. I’m sure the remarks this Easter were made with a genuine commitment to his faith and to his desire to make Britain a better place, just as I’m sure his Passover message was heartfelt and genuine. Believe it or not, I have no particular problem with acknowledging the role of Christianity in the history and cultural development of the Britain. At least Cameron did not use the misnomer of ‘Judeo-Christian’ values, as if two thousand years since the religions began developing their separate ways could be ignored. I just wish he was a little more subtle in espousing statements of the role of Christian values as defining of life in this complex country and, even more importantly, that ‘traditional’ values were not heralded as the great saviour of civil society.