11 Apr 2014

David Cameron: Big Society ‘invented by Jesus’

David Cameron’s Easter message means he has spoken more about his Christian faith this week than any recent serving prime minister. Why?

For a prime minister who once likened his faith to the patchy reception of Magic FM in the Chilterns, David Cameron appears to acquired a more powerful radio.

At his annual Easter reception on Wednesday Mr Cameron spoke more candidly than any recent prime minister about his faith. “The Bible tells us to bear one another’s burdens,” he said, hours after the resignation of his culture secretary Maria Miller. “After the day I’ve had, I’m definitely looking for volunteers.”

He did not stop there, according to journalists at the event. Having thanked church groups present for their work including the growth of food banks to help the poor, he referred back to a 2010 election initiative. “Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago; I just want to see more of it,” he said.

“If there are things that are stopping you from doing more, think of me as a giant Dyno-Rod” he added.

The prime minister said his “moments of greatest peace” comes “perhaps every other Thursday morning” when he slips into St Mary Abbots church in Kensington, west London. “I find a little bit of peace and hopefully a bit of guidance.”

Getting louder

While his remarks were clearly tailored to the religious leaders in attendance, they are thought to be some of his most candid.

And in case there was any doubt about his intentions, Downing Street on Friday released Mr Cameron’s Easter message on YouTube. It fleshed out many of the themes from his speech to church leaders. Easter, he said, was a “time for our whole country to reflect on what Christianity brings to Britain.”

“The heart of Christianity is to ‘love thy neighbour’ and millions do really live that out,” he said, praising Alpha courses inside prisons and the “spirit” shown by those who had helped rescue residents during the winter storms across southern England.

Support – at what cost?

Aides will be aware that fusing faith and politics is a particularly risky strategy.

As Channel 4 News Culture Editor Paul Mason notes: “In 1641 a mob outside parliament tried to stop bishops entering to sit there, thus precipitating the English Civil War. Since then politicians have been quite reticent about claiming support from the Christian deity.”

Yet observers suggest Mr Cameron is trying to resurrect his concept of the Big Society – particularly appealing to the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church where relationships soured in wake of liberal policies such as same-sex marriage.

Speaking candidly about faith is likely to resonate with the rural party heartlands who may see recent Conservative reforms as designed to appeal to liberal concerns.

But his volume has been getting steadily louder and more comfortable. In December the prime minister said Britain should be grateful to the millions of Christians “who live out the letter” of the Bible by setting up clubs and volunteering. Six months earlier he said there were aspects of Christianity that everyone could apply when it came to raising children.

“Simple things like do to others as you would be done by; love your neighbour as yourself, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount,” he told voters last summer.

“To me they’re still pretty fresh and good instructions so I find those a set of instructions that I can grapple with.”

So, are we doing God now?

How times are changing. Few will forget Tony Blair’s spokesman Alastair Campbell who famously declared “we don’t do God”. But since leaving Downing Street and converting to Roman Catholicism, Mr Blair has said he was “too sensitive or too cautious” about religion while in government.

Mr Campbell told Channel 4 News: “I still think that as a politician you should try and navigate away from anything giving the impression of pushing the idea of a pre-conceived agenda – not least that of Jesus Christ. Malcolm Tucker would have had a field day with these remarks.”

He added: “Church leaders are insightful enough to know that the Big Society project died a long, long time ago. And this as a result becomes another classic example of David Cameron saying something that is designed to appeal to his audience.”

Inherent contradictions

Peter Owen-Jones, a church of England clergyman, says that if intent on raising religion, politicians should be aware of contraditions: “By its very nature the Big Society does not sit comfortably with the capitalist ethics,” he told Channel 4 News. “What is really needed is a deeper exploration of the direction in which our society is headed – not just an annual crowd-pleaser to those who are already preconditioned to the idea of collectivism.”

And yet, religion offers opportunities to politicians.

The Christian think-tank, Theos, released a report earlier this year that suggests Labour should target the Muslim vote in next year’s general election, while David Cameron is likely to do well among Jewish voters.

The report also found those who regularly attend religious services are most likely to be pro-welfare, while Anglicans are the most consistently authoritarian in their political views.

Faith may have a powerful role to play as parties shape their election campaign. But beware. Few are likely to mind a leader with strong personal convictions. But bring those too far inside the political arena, and don’t be surprised at their propensity to backfire.

Mr Cameron, for now at least, is prepared to take the risk.