Why do so many of our religious leaders feel compelled to preach about British identity and values these days? It’s as if the word has gone out from government that they have a duty to be ‘on message’ about these things. This is because religion has the potential both to reinforce social divisions (cf. the supposed separation between devout Muslims and the rest of society) and to promote cohesion. ‘Better make sure you intone the “shared values” and “British identity” themes, boys, if you want an easy time from government’.
As I’ve observed before, the ‘Thought For the Day’ item on BBC Radio Four’s morning current-affairs programme, Today, is a prime outlet for these politico-religious, Britological outpourings. The three-minute God slot must have been deemed a suitably ‘soft’ part of the programme where it would be safe to toe the government line without appearing to compromise editorial integrity. (As is well known, the programme came under considerable pressure over its treatment of the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’, which provided part of the justification for Britain to participate in the Iraq War.)
Today it was the turn of Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Chief Rabbi (of the orthodox hue, not the liberal persuasion). Rabbi Sacks argued that one of the distinctive contributions that religion could make to society was to bring shared ‘stories’ that encapsulated the nation’s collective identity: its understanding and memories about its past, which in turn provided the framework for a shared vision and sense of purpose looking towards the future. Britain’s story, so the Rabbi proceeded, could involve our most meaningful narratives about the historical struggles for justice, freedom and social progress. In other words, these stories encapsulate these fundamental values and ideals in narrative form, and impose them on our imagination and emotions as something essentially British. The Rabbi concluded that Britain needed a new ‘story’: if you like, an overall meta-narrative or myth, in the proper sense of the word, that makes sense of what it is to be British.
I’ve got nothing against this in principle, certainly in the more specific context of different religions. The presentation of an overarching story providing an account, ultimately, of who we are – of what it is to be human – is indeed a core feature and purpose of religion. But what does this mean transposed to the British context? When it comes to a narrative that can tell us something real about Britishness, and the experience of life in Britain today and in the past, doesn’t this need to be in the form of history rather than story; objective, truth-seeking investigation, not myth making?
Is the struggle for social justice, freedom and progress really the true story of Britain – that which can signify for us the essential meaning, the truth, of Britishness? Clearly, these things are part of the British identity and value system, and we have much to be proud of with respect to our traditions of democracy and freedom. But they’re obviously also not the whole story. And the reality of Britain today – and perhaps throughout its history – is one of a society that is in many respects desperately impoverished and divided – culturally, spiritually and socially. For example: the break down of families and marriages; children unloved and abused; monotonous, soul-destroying urban environments; drug abuse and crime; class divisions; lack of faith, hope and a shared vision for the future.
Well, I suppose you could say you can either talk up the positives or emphasise the negatives; and, in fact, I’m greatly in favour of stressing the positives and taking as hopeful an outlook on the future as the facts allow. But merely by-passing the real experiences of many Britons and glossing over them with a new collective British myth will not provide an effective means to confront the real challenges of Britain today and to build a sustainable future for its peoples. And it is in facing up to the darker realities that the politicians like to spin out of existence through their idealistic narratives – in differentiating themselves from political blandishments – that religions have a mission to make a distinctive contribution to the British future.