The reaction to On Rock or Sand, the volume of essays edited by the Archbishop of York, has been depressingly instructive. For whether right or wrong, well-meant or muddled, the response to them by a strident section of the doctrinaire free market “right” has made Richard Dawkins sound almost reasonable and open to doubt. We’ve been told that the essays reek of the “notorious” (and of course “Marxist”) Faith in the City report by the Church of England in 1985. That the clergy involved are “out of touch”, that they need to “earn” the right to enter the debate and that one after another foolish thing follows from their critique of modern British life as it’s endured by far too many of our people today. This is a narrow, ugly, and I hope for its sake, wrong view of what conservatism is. And dare I say it, a tellingly guilty and defensive one too. What Justin Welby argues – the economy should not have “the power to dictate what is and is not possible for human beings” – is unanswerable. What interests me is quite why so many proclaimed conservatives and even Christians have sought to answer it quite so wrongly.
First there have been the smears. Lord Heseltine, for example, called the Archbishops “out of touch”. I suppose it’s possible to be in touch in a Belgravia townhouse or agreeable country seat and equally it’s not impossible to be out of touch running, say, a soup kitchen, it’s just unlikely. I’m not sure that the critics of the Archbishops who have personalised their attacks have really hit the mark. Not least because the ex-oil trader, and the ex-lawyer imprisoned in Uganda by the tyrant Idi Amin, simply aren’t unworldly figures.
Another blanket dismissal of On Rock or Sand has been the denial of legitimacy. That the churches need to somehow “earn” the right to comment on politics in a way that, mysteriously, businessmen or trades unionists don’t have to. In truth, and not least in the run up to a general election, it would have been far easier, far less brave not to publish such a tract now. It takes courage to face up to the casual, careless, unafraid abuse thrown at them. But why does the Christian concern with the weak in modern Britain seem not so much to frighten the powerful as to positively disgust them?
Certainly it leads to the erection of innumerable straw men in the defence of mammon. The Archbishops have variously been attacked (and without any evidence) that they believe in a “cosmic Santa Claus” as God. That their concern for the poor somehow means they therefore wish an end to material advancement for others, or even full stop. Perhaps most absurdly, some critics argue that because the churches want to help those losing out among all society’s evident material gains, they wish to keep them that way. In need of help, “dependent” on it, rather than released and transformed by it.
Making these attacks pushes some market ideologues into unseemly apologetics for all that most discredits capitalism even in the eyes of its friends. I’m hardly opposed to the free market but being so doesn’t require one to leap to the defence of “Black Friday”, crowing great merits for rampant consumerism because that’s supposed to be the motor of progress. Attributing all that’s good in society to our being a capitalist state is just as inadequate as claiming that’s all that’s good has happened because equally we’ve been a welfare state for the better part of a century too.
Justin Welby rebuts the idea “that if we fix the economy, the fixing of human beings will follow. This is a lie,” he starkly says. When opponents of this truth contend the churches shouldn’t “poke their noses into politics”, I, as a politician, say politics has done a lot of poking over the years and everyone else should feel free to poke back. A capitalism that conservative-minded Christians can live with is one that Rod Dreher, the American advocate of “Crunchy Conservatism”, has summed up very well. We’ve got to call greed to account; we’ve got to be as sceptical of big business as we are of big government; and all our hopes for any economic system should be rooted in humility and restraint. Mrs Thatcher, as she was in some other matters, was wrong about the Good Samaritan. What mattered was not that he had hard cash but that he had good intentions. The Archbishops have them too and conservatives of every stripe should listen and learn.
Nigel Dodds is MP for North Belfast and leads the DUP at Westminster