By Tim Montgomerie
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The Telegraph describes David Cameron's Christmas message "as the most Christian of its kind from an incumbent prime minister". The Daily Mail concludes that Mr Cameron "went further than ever last night when he quoted from the Bible, referring to Jesus as ‘the light of all mankind’ and the ‘Prince of Peace’".
Here is the key section of the message that has aroused reporters' interest and is being interpreted as an attempt to woo Christians offended by the Coalition's plans to introduce gay marriage:
"Christmas also gives us the opportunity to remember the Christmas story – the story about the birth of Jesus Christ and the hope that he brings to the countless millions who follow him. The Gospel of John tells us that in this man was life, and that his life was the light of all mankind, and that he came with grace, truth and love. Indeed, God’s word reminds us that Jesus was the Prince of Peace."
It is certainly more emphatic than the way he described his faith in 2008:
"I believe, you know. I am a sort of typical member of the Church of England. As Boris Johnson once said, his religious faith is a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes. That sums up a lot of people in the Church of England. We are racked with doubts, but sort of fundamentally believe, but don't sort of wear it on our sleeves or make too much of it. I think that is sort of where I am."
Read Mr Cameron's full Christmas message here.
If the Prime Minister is wanting to reach out to Christians I suspect many will be impressed more by the way he models family life to the nation rather than anything he'll say about his faith. I also suspect they'll be more interested in how the current government addresses their practical concerns through concrete policy actions.
While most Christians probably resemble most voters in that their top concerns are probably the state of the economy, the NHS and pensions, here are some key themes of an ideal Tory programme for churchgoers and those from other faith communities:
- A big emphasis on family, education and work as the superior conservative conception of social justice.
- A commitment to the 0.7% development target and redirection of aid monies to the poorest nations of the world.
- Freedoms for church and other faith schools to grow or establish.
- Protection of children from internet porn and other forms of sexualisation and commercialisation. Claire Perry has been leading the way on this.
- Enhancement of the tax reliefs that help churches to serve their communities. Tory MPs are increasingly concerned that the Charity Commission may be at war with faith groups.
- Appointment of more non-Anglicans to the House of Lords to recognise Britain's denominational and religious breadth.
- A focus on hospice care and reassurance that existing laws on assisted dying and euthanasia will be maintained.
- Reassurance that there will be no further liberalisation of Sunday trading laws.
- Introduction of an offer of independent counselling for women considering an abortion.
- The introduction of a tax allowance for married couples with dependent children or relatives. Such an allowance would be more pro-poor and pro-family than further increases in the basic income tax allowance. The Coalition Agreement includes specific provisions for it to be introduced by Tory MPs voting 'yes' and Lib Dem MPs abstaining.
- A big effort to assure Christians that their liberties will be protected in an age when there are real and perceived conflicts between equalities laws and some traditionalist beliefs – especially towards gay people. If necessary the government shouldn't address these concerns in a piecemeal way but at a major rolling conference and if necessary introduce a range of new legal safeguards. The churches rightly or wrongly feel threatened by far-reaching social changes and a sustained effort to reassure them – working with leaders of all faiths – would not only be politically sensible but is becoming substantially necessary if we are to avoid swapping one age of intolerance towards gay people with a new age of intolerance towards traditionalist religious communities.
- A determination to put religious freedom at the heart of foreign policy. In my column for today's Times (£) I note that 70% of the world's population lack full religious liberty. The independent Conservative Party Human Rights Commission has set out (PDF) how the Coalition could lead in addressing this problem
Churchgoers may be small in number but they are not an unimportant group within the electorate and they are also likelier than average to vote. Focusing on issues of the kind outlined above is also a way into the hearts of many minority communities – including Muslim Britons and also Black Majority Churches. Explaining where the Conservative Party stands on issues of importance to churchgoers – as the party did in Corby – should be an important exercise for all MPs.