THERE is a certain conception of the part played by the state which goes something like this. We live in a plural and diverse society, where different groups have very different ideas about what the good looks like. Given this, it is not the job of the state to take sides. The state holds the ring: it protects the rights of all individuals, but does not and must not buy into any particular conception of the good. Apart from maintaining fairness, the state must be entirely neutral — hence the priority of the language of rights over the language of the good.
This is a political philosophy that seems to be increasingly pervasive among our political class. Thirty or so years ago, most politicians would have thought it their job to help bring about some greater vision of the human good. Now, this sort of thinking is disparaged. The state has a more modest part to play: it is the referee. It must not subscribe to any one version of the good — especially if that good has a faith dimension.
Obviously this is a way of understanding politics which the Church does not much like. It makes politicians regard religious leaders not as natural allies in the formation of the good society, but as issues to be solved.
This is precisely what the Archbishop of Canterbury was complaining about at the weekend: “The trouble with a lot of government initiatives about faith is that they assume it is a problem, it’s an eccentricity, it’s practised by oddities, foreigners, and minorities.”
So what, then, are we to make of last week’s little shindig for Christians at 10 Downing Street? We ate mince pies and sang carols, and the Revd Nicky Gumbel, from Holy Trinity, Brompton, led us all in prayer. To cap it all, the Prime Minister remarked in his little thank-you speech: “I don’t subscribe to the secular society.”
So: are some in government waking up to the idea that without the moral imagination of the faith traditions, this country is immeasurably poorer? Or was the Downing Street soirée just a buttering-up exercise before an election? Who knows.
We Christians may feel that we are regularly patronised by a secular-minded élite, but I don’t suppose that there has been a gathering for atheists at No. 10 where the PM patted them on the back for their great contribution to society. And why should he? Can anybody think of an atheist soup kitchen?
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.