THERESA MAY’s Easter message was not, on the face of things, likely to stir much thought. It came at a time when the attention of much of the world was focused on the serious possibility of a nuclear war in North Korea — one that does not appear much to have receded — and it was in its content, as The Guardian pointed out, almost indistinguishable from the last one put out by David Cameron, which had sunk without trace.
Whoever is put up to draft next year’s message is going to have to be careful there. But there were heavyweight opinion pieces in The Guardian, The Times, the Telegraph, and the Financial Times this year. They cannot all have been motivated by the urge to look away from North Korea.
Nick Spencer, of Theos, had a piece in the Telegraph: “For reasons that are not entirely clear the natural and proper scepticism towards [principle], and in particular to religious principle, has morphed, in Britain, into uncontrolled paranoia. A leader can’t voice their religious faith without being thought of as a ‘nutter’, as Tony Blair memorably put it.
“This is a mistake. We want to know what makes our leaders tick, and automatically assuming that if that is Christian faith their politics is necessarily suspect does an injustice not only to them but to the liberal democracies they govern.”
THIS is not the best thing he wrote last week. That was a blog post on the subject of the BBC survey that purported to show that only a minority of Christians believed in the resurrection, in which he explained how to read these complicated statistical arguments: “As with Jesus, so with social research surveys: go in search of ‘the truth’ in a set of data tables and you will come back with the story that best fits your own narrative. . . Being thoroughly objective, neutral and impartial, I would never dream of playing this game. But it is nonetheless interesting how the survey proves right everything I have ever written, said or thought on this subject, or indeed any.”
It was in this spirit that the commentators interpreted Mrs May, but you should not entirely blame them. That is also the way in which pieces are commissioned nowadays. It has long been the way that broadcast media work. No one wants you on the air if they don’t know in advance what you are going to say.
But there are still some unpredictables. Janan Ganesh in the FT is one of them. “On Easter Sunday, one of the least pious societies in the world heard an explicitly Christian message from its prime minister.”
The next bit of his piece, with the assumption that what she said was unprecedented rather than astonishingly similar to Mr Cameron’s message, merely reveals that no one believed a word that Mr Cameron said about his own beliefs: “A leader who has to look over her shoulder does not air her faith with such confidence. Alastair Campbell, who advised Tony Blair as prime minister, called it a mistake. In the absence of serious competition, there is no such thing as a mistake.”
But what he went on to say is a useful example of the way in which religion can illuminate political journalism: “The Easter message confirmed something about Mrs May that continues to escape some of the commentary about her. She is a believer in things. She has her own view of the world and it comes, if not from scripture, then at least from the Anglican cast of mind.
“She favours a gentle society over a dynamic one, views the market with the suspicion of a mild social democrat and takes nationhood more seriously than the universalist end of Christianity tends to. None of these beliefs are extreme but they are held with enough strength to drive the government.”
The Guardian’s news reporting of the story pushed it on nicely by getting Campbell to denounce her. “She does not exactly say if God had a vote he would have voted Leave, but she gets closer to it than she should. If she really thinks she is leading a united country full of hope . . . I suggest she gets out more.”
I can authoritatively reveal that The Guardian believes that God voted to remain. In fact, you could probably get a sermon out of God’s preference for remaining next Easter. But in its leader the paper merely observed that there was not much notably Christian about her policies: “Between the platitude and the policy falls the shadow.”
TALKING of great Christian poets, however mangled, there was a remarkable piece by Kate Maltby in the FT: a careful exegesis of John Donne’s poem “Good Friday 1613: Riding Westward”. It is hard to feel complete despair when one of the pre-eminent journals of elite opinion prints something that takes Christianity so seriously and so much from the inside.
NORMAL service resumes when we turn to the Daily Mail: “The hunt for the DNA of Jesus: Scientists and religious scholars team up in groundbreaking project to try and find living descendants”. They had got as far as analysing some bones, supposedly relics of John the Baptist, but the DNA they collected turned out to belong to the technician who had extracted it.