By Neal Lawson, who chairs the left-of-centre pressure group Compass, is writing a book about turbo-consumerism (THE GUARDIAN, 03/01/07):
Where do we get moral leadership from today? As we pick up the pieces of another swiped out festive season it’s a fitting question. Is there something more to life than the endless cycle of overconsumption? How can the Iraq war or exorbitant city bonuses be justified? Increasingly it is our religious rather than political leaders who attempt to answer these difficult and pressing questions.The head of the Catholic church in England, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, said in his Christmas mass: “Our nation is in great need because it is deprived of some of the greatest values of life.” He spoke of the emergence of a culture that espoused “individual freedom as the fundamental value to which all others must be subject”. This culture, he said, is the cause of a break with the moral traditions of humanity that meant we were no longer able to “respond to the fundamental questions on the sense and direction of our lives”.
The Pope also berated “unbridled” consumerism in his address, while the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “The poor deserve the best. They do not deserve what’s left over when the more prosperous have had their fill.” And they don’t just talk. They do. Religious communities are among the increasingly few places that bring people together as citizens rather than as consumers – fighting for a living wage and against poverty.
For me, as an atheist and a full-time politico, this is unsettling. It reveals the moral vacuum at the heart of our politics. Many politicians I know agree with the sentiments of these messages – but they feel trapped in a political system that only adapts itself to the demands of big business. Because it is the economy that now dominates our politics, it is the market that decides our morals – or lack of them. The fact that it is “the economy, stupid” requires a moral recession that then creates its social equivalent.
Whether you want a “K or a big P” becomes the political dilemma of our age. A generation of politicians are morally blighted by their support for the war in Iraq. They stayed silent over the bombing of Lebanon in the summer and the decision to drop the BAE case. Now Trident is being traded for the mistaken belief that committing the country to a new generation of nuclear weapons will help win the next election. Our politicians have forgotten that power and principle are two sides of the same coin. Politics has stopped being a different vision of the good society and is instead a job for technocrats and for self-proclaimed rationalists.
Given all this, it might seem strange that there are signs of an increasingly aggressive secularism that borders on a hatred of religion. This was revealed most starkly through attitudes to the veil. Many of the “liberal” elite were alarmingly hostile in their condemnation of some of society’s most vulnerable people. Progressives I’ve known for 20 years, with whom I had agreed on virtually everything, were to my mind on the wrong side of the argument. It was not just getting religion out of the state they wanted, but out of society. This anti-religious left has found its leader in the shape of Richard Dawkins and his book The God Delusion, which is just a gratuitous tirade against faith.
So why are some on the left so hostile to faith? Perhaps it is an example of classic Freudian displacement activity as some progressives turn their political impotence and ire on religion. If their surrender to the nostrums of neoliberalism denies them moral purpose, then they will attack those who are prepared to stand with the poor and denounce the culture of greed at institutions such as Goldman Sachs. More likely, it is the overly rationalist view of some on the left that fuels their distaste for anything vaguely spiritual. This is the conception of socialism as science that ultimately failed both Lenin and the Fabians.
I am a secularist and believe in the disestablishment of church and state – in particular, I want to see the end of faith schools. And, of course, religion has been the cause of terrible deeds – although none perhaps in recent years as abhorrent as those of atheists. But in words and deeds, in the world I see around me, the positive role faith plays far outweighs the negatives. Religious leaders hold a mirror up to the injustice and immorality of our society and are prepared in their own small way to do something about it. I would rather it was politicians, but too often they decline to stand up and be counted.
The left must be fuelled by the vision of the good society. This has to be about more than just economics, science and rationalism, ending in an angry reaction to one of the few institutions in our society that is saying and doing the right thing.
As the lifeblood of morality drips from our body politic, it leaves a small pumping heart of socially and morally aware religious leaders and institutions. I don’t care if they are Muslim, Catholic or Church of England – if they preach the cause of the poor and the needy in our bloated materialistic world, then they are my people.
We live in a society of smug complacency. All too often it is only religious leaders who puncture the anaesthetised contentment of our consumerised lives. Injustice, poverty, corruption, insecurity and disaffection sweep our nation. Technocratic politics has replaced religion as the opiate of the masses.