Last week it happened. Just as I was doing the final edit on my new book (Good for Society: Christian Values and Conservative Politics) before sending it to publishers, the news arrived.
A new book by the archbishop of York was about to be published and billed as a successor to the 1985 Faith in the City report that led to the greatest altercation between a Conservative government and the church in recent history.
Now I’m an admirer of the archbishop of York. Not only does Dr Sentamu bring a great sense of colourful African fun to the C of E, he has spoken up for British values and the historic Christian foundations of our society in the face of liberal attempts to dilute them.
Now I will defend passionately the right of the church to be a prophetic voice in society, to say things that governments of whatever colour or wider society may find uncomfortable. That is part of what it means to be a free society. However, the question I want to raise is the basis on which the archbishop’s book On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future makes that critique.
The inspiration for this collection of essays edited by the archbishop was a symposium set up during WW2 by archbishop William Temple that led to his book, Christianity and Social Order, setting out a case for a welfare state.
Dr Sentamu explains that the catalyst for a similar symposium and writing this book has been the desire to achieve a common vision and recover confidence in society in the face of:
“…calls, from all sections of society, for a rebirth of civic values and virtues. The experience of growing inequalities in Britain, the loss of hope for the future among many of our young people, the financial struggle faced by individuals and families, the threat to health and welfare provision, etc.”
In the introductory and concluding chapters written by Dr Sentamu he draws heavily on the Christian Socialist tradition of RH Tawney and archbishop William Temple to argues that ‘loving your neighbour’ requires state redistribution of income. Both this and the further assumption that inequality of income is intrinsically wrong also underpin a number of chapters by others.
Both assumptions need to be gently challenged as to whether they, consciously or unconsciously, owe more to socialism than Scripture. There is significant biblical precedent for a welfare society which provides a safety net and helping hand up for those in need, and a spirit of generosity and compassion towards the needy.
However, it is simply not tenable to argue that compelling people to surrender part of their income and then transfer it to someone else represents either love, compassion or generosity. One cannot be generous with other people’s money!
Neither is there anything anywhere in either the Old or New Testaments suggesting that inequality of either income or wealth is intrinsically wrong, in fact, quite the opposite. Job for example, is described as a man who even by modern standards is a fantastically wealthy farmer, owning 7,000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of cattle and 500 donkeys with a large number of servants on the payroll.
Even more interesting is that, after Job has suffered all manner of adversities and loss without giving up his trust in God, the Book of Job concludes by saying:
“The Lord made him prosperous again, and gave him twice as much as he had before…The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys…” (Job 42: 10-12).
You simply cannot square that with saying that inequality of income or wealth is intrinsically wrong. In fact for politicians to go into elections promising to redistribute income is morally corrosive. ‘Vote for my party and I’ll take money off those people and give you an extra £100 a month’ represents the moral hazard of ‘the politics of envy’.
I would humbly suggest to the archbishop that to tackle the malaise in society and restore the values and virtues he speaks of, he should look to the vision set out by Winston Churchill, the 50th anniversary of whose death we commemorate on Saturday. During similar times of austerity he wrote in the 1950 Conservative election manifesto:
“We shall make Britain once again a place in which hard work, thrift, honesty and neighbourliness are honoured and win their true reward in wide freedom underneath the law. Reverence for Christian ethics, self-respect, pride in skill and responsibility, love of home and family, devotion to our country…are the pillars upon which we base our faith.”
Similarly, Mrs Thatcher in her Iain Macleod lecture, subsequent letter to The Times, and speech to the Church of Scotland, explicitly drew on Christian values. In the former she spoke of someone who responded to an archbishop’s consultation saying:
“We wish to be self-reliant and do not want to be dependent on the state, nor do we want the state to take so great a proportion of our money in rates and taxes to decide for us what we shall have and not have… I may be wrong, but I think it weakens character when little by little our freedom of choice is taken from us.”
Mrs Thatcher commented
“So let there be no mistake: economic choices have a moral dimension. A man is now enabled to choose between earning his living and depending on the bounty of the state, a choice which comes about because benefits rise and remain tax-free, while earnings rise more slowly if at all, and tax is high at very low income levels.”
Conservative tax and welfare reforms are founded on such principles.
I am not so sure that the assumptions of the archbishop’s new book, that income inequality is intrinsically wrong and a greater redistribution of income is a necessity, are quite so firmly founded on the rock of Scripture.