Christianity and society in the 21st century

- Friday, 2nd February 2001

 

Introduction

It is a privilege to be invited to give this address and I am grateful to Meta Reeves and the Conservative Christian Fellowship for organising it.

I have often had to sit in the pew listening to a party political broadside masquerading as religious sermon.

This evening I want to retaliate by giving an essentially religious message dressed up as a political talk!

A talk not a sermon.

Most sermons nowadays are commendably brief.

I once advocated a 10 minute limit on sermons ? which elicited the response from a clergyman I much admired that ?sermonettes make Christianettes?.

This will not run that risk!

I will certainly try to be as non-partisan as I can since the issue of Christianity and society transcends part loyalties.

Supporters of all parties and none are here tonight and my primary aim is to initiate a discussion.

Obviously what I say will be coloured by my political views.

But the one thing I must make clear is that I do not argue or even imply that only Conservative solutions to modern problems are compatible with Christianity.

There are good Christians in all parties who share common ends but believe in different political means.

I will concentrate primarily on those ends.

Section 1

The title I have been given is ?Christianity and Society in the 21st Century?.

Now we are in 2001 we are at least indisputably in the 21st century and third millennium of the Christian era.

The development of today?s society would be incomprehensible without the specifically Christian influence over the last two millennia.

Our values, institutions and habits have been moulded to an extent we scarcely recognise by the life, teachings and followers of that ?Pale Galilean? who conquered through his own death.

What is the role of Christians in moulding the society of the future?

Can Christians influence tomorrow?s society?

Should they try to do so?

And if so by what means?

I want to consider those questions first before moving on to examine some of the specific social issues we need to address.

Can We/Should We/By What Means

In a secular age it might seem that Christians can have precious little impact on society.

In fact Christians often underestimate the capacity of the Church to exercise influence for good beyond our own ranks, for reasons I shall explain in a minute.

There are three ways in which any group can influence society.

? first, through political action;

? second, through propagating values and beliefs directly to others;

? and third, through creating the example of a distinctively Christian community within the broader society.

There is a certain amount of debate about which of these is the right or best strategy for Christians to adopt.

That is futile since they are not alternatives.

We need to adopt all three.

But we do need to be clear as to which is appropriate in which circumstances.

Political Power

In particular Christians should be very careful about seeking to achieve our aims through the exercise of political power and influence.

We must remember that all state power is coercive.

It is about compelling people to do things or not to do things.

It involves passing laws, imposing taxes and punishing those who do not obey.

Of course, some exercise of state power is necessary to govern society and make it work and, as such, it is ordained by God.

But above all, God gave man freedom of choice.

He wants mankind to exercise that choice freely and to respond to Him and to our fellow human beings through love rather than fear.

It would be a complete travesty of the Christian message to try to establish the Kingdom of God by the coercive power of the state.

Remember the final temptation of Christ in the wilderness [Matthew 4 v 8, Luke 4 v 5] "And the devil taking Him up into an high mountain, shewed him all the Kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee and the glory of them?.?

Our Lord could have taken temporal power.

He could have exercised it for good.

He could have decreed that mankind behaved virtuously.

But He knew that that was not His destiny as the son of a Father who had given his creation free will and who wished to win fallen man back to Himself through sacrificial love.

So Christians and the Church should be wary of succumbing to any temptation to substitute temporal power for divine love.

Of course in the present age practising Christians are too few in number to dream of seizing control of the state let alone imposing our faith on others.

But that very weakness can lead to the temptation to opt for political action instead of evangelisation.

It is frankly daunting to think of converting 50 million to the Christian faith or even to accept the Christian position on a particular issue.

How much easier it seems to concentrate on persuading a handful of ministers and civil servants or a sufficient number of MPs to implement a policy by law.

In a democracy we might suppose influence to be proportional to numbers in which case no group could exert more influence on society via political action than it could directly through its behaviour as part of society.

But as F E Smith said "the art of politics is that by which one third cajoles the other two thirds?.

It is always possible to hope that a few votes may be decisive in swinging the balance between one policy and another.

The idea of state power is seductive.

What we as individuals and congregations can do ? for example to alleviate poverty in developing countries, to help the homeless, to create jobs for the unemployed ? seems puny compared with what a government can do on our behalf.

So instead of urging Christians to give sacrificially ? be it only their widows mites ? the preacher calls us to lobby our MPs or vote for those proposing the biggest spending programmes in those areas.

No need for a collection at the end of the sermon.

Just sign a petition.

I am amazed how rarely nowadays I hear a sermon calling on the congregation to do anything at their own personal expense or effort and how frequently we are urged to act vicariously via the state.

It is very tempting to mistake power for virtue.

But if John?s vote or lobbying persuades a government to take money from Peter to give to Paul that does not make Peter virtuous.

Still less can John claim to have demonstrated Christian sacrificial love.

Above all, the politician who enacts this policy should not be credited with generosity or ?compassion?.

I remember a very wise MP warning that ?whenever we hear a politician claiming compassion we are listening to a bid for votes?.

The proof of that, he said, was that even the most sanctimonious politicians never waste their compassion on the two groups who have no votes and are consequently among the most neglected in society ? prisoners and the insane.

Remembering that chastening criticism I did try to get my own party to devote some attention to the callousness of our prison system and I am glad Ann Widdecombe has put some flesh on those bones.

None of this is to argue that the state should not tax us according to our means and redistribute those revenues to help people according to their needs.

Clearly this is the most effective way in a populous nation to organise our basic Christian obligations to help each other.

Even were the entire nation converted to Christianity and the Kingdom of God established on earth there would presumably still be a role for the state to tax and redistribute.

We would all be eager voluntarily to contribute to the needs of others.

(So the threat of punishment would no longer be needed to make us pay our taxes.)

But we would still need a mechanism to identity those needs and to allocate the cost of meeting them according to our means.

That day is still far off.

And there are still important questions about how much which taxpayers should contribute to help which people in need.

As Lenin put it with brutal directness ? the central issue in politics is Who, Whom?

There are practical questions of how much the disincentive effect of taxes may depress the growth in the incomes available to be taxed.

And also how effective state bureaucracies are in identifying the varied needs of people in our complex society?

Christians will have differing views on where the balance lies.

We may well advocate more extensive state provision for certain needs requiring higher taxation.

The proof of our sincerity would be whether, in the event of failing to persuade the electorate to adopt that policy, we were prepared to contribute voluntarily our share of what we wished to impose compulsorily on others!

If not ? or if we are simply advocating higher taxes on people with incomes above our own ? we should not pretend to any great virtue.

To quote F E Smith, "we should resist the temptation of laying up treasure for ourselves in Heaven by the inexpensive method of calling for he confiscation of other people?s treasure on earth?.

So there are temptations to espouse political action as a substitute for the voluntary fulfilment of our own obligations to each other.

But Christians also face a temptation that is almost the reverse danger of this.

That is to say that Christianity is solely about personal salvation, about the individual?s relationship with Jesus Christ, and that the Church should steer clear of politics.

But Christianity is about the whole of human life.

And man is a political animal, living in society, requiring government.

So Christianity cannot be kept out of politics.

Political decisions like all human decisions have a moral and spiritual dimension.

For example, decisions have to be taken about who is responsible for children; about whether taxes and benefits should support or ignore marriage; about whether drugs should be controlled; about whether human life should be sacrosanct.

Non-Political Methods

We tend to overrate the importance of political activity to influence society.

Equally Christians tend to underrate their ability to influence society by non-political means.

Even though churchgoing Christians are a minority, the Church?s message can resonate far more widely than we often realise.

This is above all because no society can be truly secular in the sense of devoid of moral values and spiritual purpose.

Indeed no society could survive just on the basis of rational self-interest.

It needs a widespread sense of altruistic motivation to hold it together.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, human nature abhors a spiritual and moral void.

Christians can help fill that void and people way beyond the ranks of the Church will often respond to a clear reaffirmation of moral imperatives.

Of course most people in most societies have absorbed their values from habit, tradition and prevailing opinion.

But those values are derivative and many people sense that they need refreshing from their source.

And they know the underlying source of our values is the Christian faith.

So if the Church wishes to influence society, it must restate right and wrong; it must reaffirm clear ideals ? which of course will be more than most of us can achieve ? but to which we can aspire; and above all it must spell out the supremacy of sacrificial love over selfish indulgence.

If we do not reaffirm our values others will fill the void with theirs.

Indeed they already do so.

The dissemination of ?politically correct? values in recent decades is both a challenge and an example of the influence a minority can exert.

Politically correct values have been imposed upon a largely antipathetic public by a minority sufficiently vigorous and confident in their rectitude.

A visitor from Mars would tend to believe that there are nowadays only three widely recognised sins ? racism, sexism and homophobia ? and one virtue ? self-fulfilment.

That is an extraordinarily impoverished view of right and wrong.

Unfortunately we have allowed a sort of Greshams Law to apply ? bad morality drives out good.

The best way to reaffirm truth is to practice it.

"Every life is a profession of faith and exercises an inevitable and silent influence?. (Amiel)

Again we underestimate the influence Christians can have.,

As an MP I observe how disproportionate is the role played by Christians in doing good in the community in a multitude of ways.

"A little heaven, leaveneth the whole lump?. (1 Corinthians v 6)

Key Issues

I want to consider just six of the social issues which will face us as the century unfolds.

1. The Family

Central to the Christian view of society is the family.

It has always been seen as the main channel through which culture, language, religion and values are transmitted from one generation to the next.

It equips each new generation for living in society.

Families presuppose at least some measure of love and affection, self-sacrifice and altruism.

It is in the family that people first learn to experience love, then ? however imperfectly ? to love others.

In recent decades, it has been under stress and there is every reason to fear that those pressures will remain and even intensify in the future.

The Christian ideal of the family is clear and timeless. It is of two natural parents; committed through marriage to love each other and to love, nurture and care for their children, preferably with the support of a wider family and of their community.

I emphasise that that is an ideal.

Few of us measure up to it.

And there have always been people who through misfortune or choice find themselves raising children in other circumstances.

Through widowhood, desertion, separation or divorce ? some two million children are being brought up by lone parents and half a million by step-parent families.

The majority will bring up their children, despite the difficulties, successfully and well.

We should not focus exclusively on the negatives of the current situation.

It is worth reminding ourselves:

? that two out of three married couples stay united;

? that the majority of children are brought up in united families; and

? that most children, whether or not from broken homes, do not become criminals, drug addicts or misfits ? they grow up to be sober, law-abiding, responsible citizens.

But there manifestly are serious social and personal problems arising from the disruption of family life.

We cannot ignore them.

The key question is can government strengthen families and if so how?

It is a profound mistake to suppose that government has the power to restore all families to harmony.

The role of the state is far less significant than most commentators assume either as cause or cure of the family?s woes.

Families were not invented by governments nor created by the state.

They are God given ? the consequence of human nature; the natural desire of men and women to find a mate to love; the instinctive love of parents for their children; the helpless dependence of children on their parents,

And the fate of any family depends in large measure on the behaviour of those who comprise it.

The idea that government could impose family values by edict or exhortation is impractical and authoritarian.

The left-wing idea that the state can strengthen the family by undertaking most of its functions is equally objectionable.

It amounts to nationalising parental responsibility, making fathers redundant and mothers dependent.

As a nation it took us a long time to learn that the state has only a limited role in enhancing economic performance and that most intervention has perverse and damaging consequences.

It would be extraordinary if we were to imagine the government can have any but a limited role in enhancing family life.

It probably has rather more capacity to undermine the family ? albeit unintentionally.

We do need to understand the causes of family breakdown if we are to do anything to reverse the trend.

I say causes in the plural because I am certain all attempts to blame it on a single factor are mistaken.

It is almost certainly due to the interaction of at least three sets of factors:

First, the benefit and tax system.

The availability of benefits reduces the financial penalties of separation; two households cost more than one; one may lack a breadwinner and need support, etc.

Once the state underwrites those costs there is less pressure on couples to patch up their differences and stay together.

Moreover, the huge cost which that imposes on the taxpayer falls largely on intact households ? mainly married couples.

It is equivalent to nearly ?2,000 extra tax per annum per married couple putting considerable strains on their finances.

In addition, the tax system no longer contains any recognition of, nor support for, marriage.

And it penalises households where one spouse stays at home to care for the child. Clearly, Christians should be looking for reforms which will at least send out signals that society favours marriage and if possible reduce the burdens upon on married couples raising their own children.

The second set of factors is economic forces which are largely outside the direct control of government.

These have also imposed great strains on marriage in recent decades..

We have all seen redundancy and unemployment ? even if it eventually proves temporary ? tear families apart permanently.

Less obvious is the change in the earning power of unskilled young men.

As a result they are often less attractive as breadwinners than reliance on the State.

Family credit, now renamed Working Families Tax Credit, is designed to help offset this.

Better still would be an increase in their earning power through acquisition of skills, experience and changing demand for labour.

That is easier to prescribe than to deliver.

The third factor is changing attitudes and beliefs.

As two left-wing Christian sociologists, Norman Dennis and George Erdos, point out in ?Fathers without Fatherhood? financial and economic explanations of family break up are inadequate.

They point to the comparative stability of families and low levels of crime in the 1930s even though unemployment was higher and living standards lower than in recent years.

They point the finger of blame at changing attitudes ? fuelled by a direct assault on the family and on the traditional values of the respectable working classes.

They are undoubtedly right to emphasis the change in beliefs and attitudes, religious and moral.

But they are wrong to assert that it is the sole cause.

It seems more realistic to suppose that changing attitudes have most impact because they reinforce economic changes that in turn interact with the benefit, tax and legal systems.

That means that the reaffirmation of the value of the family and the supreme importance of parental commitment to children will play a necessary but not sufficient part in strengthening family life.

And the role of the churches and other leaders of opinion is of paramount importance in reinforcing positive attitudes.

2. Drugs

Mankind has always had to cope with recreational drugs from the moment the first grapes fermented into wine.

So there is nothing new about drugs.

What is new about the drug problem which will face us as this century unfolds is its growing diversity and scale.

We will have to face up to differences between different drugs.

We will have to recognise the difference between use and abuse.

We will have to decide which drugs call for prohibition, which for regulation and which for personal responsibility.

And we will have to start with the problem of cannabis.

I have had to discuss this issue particularly with young people in schools and universities, but also with their parents and grandparents.

In all age groups there is a growing feeling of at best unease and at worst hostility towards our policy of prohibition.

I have tried rehearsing the case for the status quo.

By dint of experience in advocacy I am able to allay some of their unease and hostility.

But each time I do so I find myself less convinced that the present policy is tenable.

Penalisation of cannabis has clearly failed to prevent its widespread use.

Millions use it regularly.

Indeed a higher proportion of people use it here than in countries where its use is not penalised.

The law is proving unenforceable as police become reluctant to prosecute and courts to convict.

And the reason it is unenforceable is that it is scarcely defensible in a country that allows the sale and use of alcohol and nicotine.

Indeed it brings the law as a whole into contempt.

The issue we will have to face sooner rather than later, is can we alter the law on cannabis without appearing to endorse its use, still less its abuse?

It is particularly important that Christians address this issue because the problem has been made more difficult by the moral confusion underlying it.

There is a strong moral case to be made against abuse of soft drugs including cannabis.

But in our secular society few are willing to spell out moral judgements.

This leads to a fourfold moral confusion.

First, because people are reluctant to invoke moral law to guide behaviour, we leave the state to define right and wrong.

This inevitably identifies good and evil with legal and illegal.

So if cannabis use is wrong it must be illegal and if it ceases to be a criminal offence ?society? seems to be saying it is no longer wrong.

But to Christians morality is not coterminous with the law.

We believe in personal responsibility guided by moral imperatives.

None of the seven capital sins, and most of the ten commandments, are not enforced by law.

Second, because people are reluctant to say drug abuse is bad for your moral health the government largely bases its case for criminalisation on claims that cannabis is bad for physical and mental health.

In fact the Lancet review of the literature concluded that "on the medical evidence available, moderate indulgence in cannabis has little effect on health, and that any decision to ban or to legalise cannabis should be based on other considerations?.

The third confusion is an attempt to conflate soft and hard drugs or to assert that soft drug use leads inexorably on to hard drug use.

If that were so, it would indeed be a powerful argument for the present law.

Unfortunately, prohibiting cannabis has not stopped cannabis use.

And far from breaking the link between cannabis and heroin, by forcing them both through the same illegal channels it drives the soft drug user into the arms of the hard drug pusher.

And that is the link we should be trying to break.

Finally, the current law makes no distinction between use and abuse of drugs.

Yet the moral case against abuse of cannabis, as of alcohol, is based on precisely that distinction.

There is every difference between a relaxing pint and getting drunk.

Likewise, there is every difference between a relaxing smoke and getting stoned.

Drunkenness is one of the seven capital sins.

I seem to recall that the reason they are called capital sins is not that they merit capital punishment.

The analogy is with capital investment.

Just as capital multiplies itself so capital sins ? even if minor in themselves - generate further evil.

Drunkenness dulls the conscience and so leads on to anger, violence, sloth, promiscuity, etc.

Getting stoned on cannabis though apparently less likely to unleash violence also dulls the conscience and so can lead to other wrongs.

Moreover, it is harder in the case of cannabis than alcohol for the user to gauge the likely effect of a given amount.

If cannabis laws are relaxed that should not be seen as an endorsement of its abuse anymore than we should endorse alcoholic drunkeness.

It would then be for the individual to exercise personal responsibility in the use of cannabis as of alcohol.

And it would be for parents, teachers and pastors to teach, preach and give firm guidance of what is responsible behaviour.

3. Science and the Sanctity of Life

One of the most significant developments of the new century will be the massive advance in the knowledge of mankind?s biochemical make up.

Hugely important consequences will flow from this flowering of knowledge.

They will be overwhelmingly beneficial and we should give thanks to divine providence for them.

But they will also pose some chilling dilemmas.

And, if we are not careful, they could promote changes in attitudes towards the sanctity of life.

Christians will need to be clear about our views about those developments and firm in our belief in the value of human life.

We must not adopt views assigned to us by tabloid slogans.

They sometimes rail against scientists for ?meddling with nature? and attribute that position to the Church.

Yet Christians are in favour of meddling with nature if done in the right way for the rights ends.

God enjoined mankind ?to subdue the earth? and gave him ?dominion over nature? [Genesis 2 v 27].

So Christians have given impetus to the development of medical science.

We are happy to meddle with nature if it means curing disease and healing wounds.

But medical science must serve human life.

We must not sacrifice human life to serve medical science.

Already we are faced with temptations leading in that direction.

The research lobby claim they could accelerate discoveries of treatments for many currently incurable illnesses if we allow human cloning to harvest stem cells.

No-one pretends there is a comfortable way out of this dilemma.

But if we really believe in the sanctity of human life, can we seriously tolerate creating human embryos to cut them up and throw away the pieces?

Isn?t that abhorrent?

If we concede the principal that human life is sacrosanct ? and permit embryos to be used in this way - can we imagine that the present arbitrary limit of 14 days will last long?

Once we allow this we have begun what the Marxists would call the ?reification of human life?.

Human beings become things whose value is to be weighed in the balance against the value of what can be done with them.

We are then on the well-trodden path that the scientific eugenicists travelled before.

They weren?t just Nazis ? though Nazis were in the forefront ? there were practitioners long after the war in Sweden and the USA and advocates of similar experiments in the UK.

Once we set out down that path the victims won?t be us.

They will be the weak, the frail, the mentally handicapped, the senile, the severely disabled.

Christians should stand up for them.

So we above all should sound the warning against starting down this slippery slope into the abyss.

4. Poverty/Inequality ? the Culture of Giving

Many are concerned that technology and globalisation will further widen differences.

I suspect it will not, but clearly differentials could remain wide or widen.

Does that constitute a problem for Christians?

Clearly we can all agree that if economic forces make it hard for those with the lowest earning power to get a job which will enable them to support a family they merit our help.

And if economic reforms can boost their earning power so much the better.

There is less agreement about whether the ?rich? constitute a ?moral? problem.

I personally have never seen any reason in scripture to justify the pursuit of equality by levelling down.

It is reasonable to tax the rich to help the less well off ? but there is clearly a point beyond which higher taxes would generate declining returns.

So the rich we will always have with us.

Isn?t it time we stopped treating them like pariahs and started to encourage a ?culture of giving? among the better off?

Should we not expect those favoured with high incomes to plough back some of their good fortune into charities, the arts, education and their communities?

Whenever I suggest this some people express horror at the idea this may mean ?conspicuous giving? ? la Americaine.

Frankly I would prefer to see boastful generosity rather than reticent meanness.

 

 

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