There was an interesting exchange last night at the annual lecture for Theos, the think tank that does God. After a speech by the economist Will Hutton which paid tribute to Catholic social teaching as a way of looking at economics, the floor was given over to the two MPs, Jon Cruddas and David Willetts.
Jon Cruddas was fluent in the language of community, solidarity and fraternity, precisely, as he said, because that’s what Christianity is about, and he is of Irish Catholic stock. He observed that the fundamental principle that you should do to others what you would have them do to you was universal – it translates into every kind of moral thinking.
Over to Mr Willetts for the dissident approach. He told the audience that he didn’t believe that you could talk the language of any one religion any more. It wasn’’t possible to use the framework of Christianity in a diverse society. Mrs Thatcher did so, but that was then; you can’t now make an appeal to the scripture of any one faith. Instead, we would have to work towards a morality that would be applicable to a secular age. He proposed two alternative possibilities. One, that he found generally worked, was the idea of intergenerational fairness. (Later he told me and a lady vicar that he found people were most altruistic in respect of their children; the lady vicar said that surely, it had to go beyond your own.) His other idea was based on the evolutionary approach to co-operation, which depended on many social interactions. So, maximise your interactions and bingo, you get the evolutionary co-operation mechanism kicking in.
Reader, I think you can tell which approach I warmed to more. Mr Willetts is a nice, self-evidently intelligent man, but his views chilled me to the marrow. If you don’t use the language of Christianity in public discourse then it will become unfamiliar and alien, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why shouldn’t MPs talk about being Good Samaritans, or, like Gordon Brown, being your brother’s keeper? It has a resonance even with young people left wilfully unchurched by state schools. You don’t have to run scared of religious language, or to couch it apologetically as coming from a faith tradition, as if this was something a bit odd and incomprehensible, like folk dancing or rolling cheese. Anyway, as Clifford Longley, the Thought for the Day man, pointed out, Christian social teaching is not the monopoly of any church, but based on concepts like human dignity accessible to everyone.
And if we want to encourage social solidarity, appealing to our evolutionary strategies for co-operation isn’t going to do it. It’s the kind of morality Richard Dawkins might warm to; normal people are moved by the injunction to love your enemy, to lay down your life for your friend, by the definition of a neighbour as the man who fell among thieves, only to find that the upright people passed by on the other side while the stranger gave him what he had. Once, the language and reflexes of Christianity would have been utterly instinctive for Tories. It’s just scary that one as intelligent and influential as David Willetts finds it a language impossible to speak .