Gordon Brown and the language of faith

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
25 Sep 2007

One of the more intriguing aspects of Gordon Brown's first Labour party conference speech as serving prime minister was his decision to use consciously biblical language as part of his argument against those employing religious rhetoric to oppose diversity and equality in family policy.

Some faith groups and church leaders have argued against Labour's abolition of the married couples allowance, claiming that married couples should receive special treatment through the tax and benefit system, on the grounds that marriage is the best place to bring up children.

David Cameron has publicly agreed with them. He insists the Conservatives must be "the party of the family" and "support marriage." In the eyes of those who use such rhetoric, this apparently involves downgrading the rights of people who are not married.

Mr Brown, however, is known to support an approach that focuses on the needs of children ahead of using government policy to endorse or prohibit specific family structures. And his advisers are equally determined not to allow the assumptions of the self-proclaimed "moralisers" to determine the grounds of debate.

In yesterday's speech, the PM declared: "I say to the children of two parent families, one parent families, foster parent families; to the widow bringing up children: I stand for a Britain that supports as first class citizens not just some children and some families but supports all children and all families."

Then, in a notable riposte to those seeking to use narrow religious arguments to buttress their calls for unequal treatment of different family units, Brown added: "We all remember that biblical saying [of Jesus], 'suffer the little children to come unto me.' No Bible I have ever read says, 'bring just some of the children.'" He also referred to the much misinterpreted parable of the talents.

Undoubtedly there will be those who react with horror at the son of the manse importing "religious arguments" into this appeal, recalling Alistair Campbell's firmly contrary stance when he was Tony Blair's spin doctor: "We don't do God."

But this is too simple. It fails to distinguish between very different potential uses of such language, as the avowedly secularist commentator Matthew Parris noted on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Brown quoted St Mark not in order to root his family policy in the views of a sectional interest group, but precisely to rebut the idea that there is "one view" emanating from religion - or for that matter from secular sources of morality - that can be claimed as justifying the exclusion of certain groups within the public domain.

Behind his choice of language, in other words, is an argument for pluralism and compassion that can be echoed and affirmed by people of quite different outlooks. No doubt he could have quoted Anne Barlow on Regulation of Cohabitation, Changing Family Policies and Social Attitudes: A Discussion of Britain Within Europe, but it wouldn't quite have had the same impact on its intended audience.

Moreover, by turning the rhetoric of the "religious nay-sayers" against them, Brown is following the advice of the American progressive social activist Jim Wallis, a prominent evangelical Christian, who argues both that the jurisdictions of church and state should remain separate, and that the case against the manipulations of the "religious right" needs to be articulated on the ground that they falsely claim as their own, as well as in the language of liberal pluralism, if it is to be politically successful.

There is a further elaboration of the difference between a civic use of biblical language and the church's use to be found here.

Excerpted from 'Keeping Faith', an article on the Guardian Comment-is-Free section. The The whole article may be read here.

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Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at: http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com

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