Britain, he says in the title of his book, is the nation that forgot God. In a society which has swapped mysticism for materialism, Conservative MP EDWARD LEIGH reckons preachers do not spend enough time talking about God, while politicians are sneered at when they do, as he explains to Nigel Bovey.
Mr Leigh, how worried are you about the spiritual state of the nation?
We’re in a desperate state. We are playing with a dangerous experiment. We are the first post-religious society outside the Communist bloc and countries such as North Korea. The UK is in a worse state than anywhere else in the world. France, for example, is an increasingly secular society but it’s a divided society. It has a rationalist, anticlerical tradition but it also has a very strong pro-faith part of the population. I’m not sure we have that in the UK any more.
What evidence do you have for such a bleak picture?
There has been a catastrophic decline in church attendance, especially in the past 20 years. We have record teenage pregnancies. We have a problem with binge drinking. We have very high rates of divorce. Despite being a wealthier society than ever before, we are a society that is full of angst, unhappiness and alienation.
I strongly believe this is because of a decline in religion. Religion is an extraordinarily important cornerstone of society. Although 70 per cent of the population say they are Christian, most are barely practising, not going to church and mildly sceptical. It’s important that church leaders highlight the value of faith for individuals and for society as a whole.
Has lack of religious faith contributed to the economic downturn?
The fact that, for the majority of people, faith has flown out of the window has manifested itself in the banking crisis. Fifty years ago bankers would not have behaved in this way. They were brought up to do the right thing and to get a good salary. They weren’t brought up to expect bonuses worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. They were brought up to ensure that their capital covered what they lent.
Years ago there was a very British way of the financial sector not being overregulated. Where there
were laws, they were obeyed. Where there were grey areas, we relied on good conduct. Nowadays a lot of people think they can do what they like so long as they are not regulated. In the past 20 years there’s been a culture in banking, as in other areas, where people think they can do what they want as long as they don’t get caught.
Recently there have been calls for more regulation, tighter controls and so on. But, ultimately, goodness doesn’t come from regulations – it comes from ourselves.
How does your Christian faith help you as an MP?
My faith is a great solace. It is enormously valuable. As a society we have lost people – role models –
who are prepared to say that ‘faith is a part of my life’.
Do you sense a reluctance for MPs to talk about their faith?
Traditionally, in polite society people didn’t talk about religion or politics. Alastair Campbell famously
told Tony Blair: ‘We don’t do God.’ Tony Blair also wanted to sign off his broadcast to the nation on the Iraq war with ‘God bless you’ but Alastair Campbell persuaded him not to.
Politicians are terrified of being accused of hypocrisy. But why not have the courage to talk about the value of faith to society in general and on a personal level? (Saying that something is valuable doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re good at it.)
The Prime Minister has spoken about the importance of having a moral compass. Do you agree with him?
Politicians are even more terrified of talking about morality than they are about faith. They are worried that having got on a moral soapbox they will then be caught doing something they shouldn’t do. We all know what morality is. We are, though, in an age when anything goes. If, however, the Prime Minister is prepared to talk about morality, then full marks to him.
When she was Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher told the Bishop of Durham to stop meddling in politics. How closely can politicians and church leaders work together on promoting values and faith for the nation?
I don’t mind if bishops want to talk politics. (After all, politicians talk about faith.) Just so long as they don’t neglect their first responsibility, which is to get people to believe in God. The Church mustn’t water down the gospel.
To what extent can Parliament legislate for morality?
I’m not sure it can. I think some laws are bad – laws on easy divorce, embryonic stem cell research and abortion on demand, for example. But the House of Commons reflects society as a whole.
Of course, Parliament can’t legislate to make people believe in God or to behave properly. These
are personal decisions. Parliament cannot create a better world. That is down to individuals.
First published in The War Cry 2nd May 2009
(The book was also hailed by Eric Hester wrote in the Catholic Times who wrote, “…The arresting title is justified by the intellectual strength of the 12 authors, and this is a book to be read by all who are concerned with the present state of the Christian religion.”
The Nation That Forgot God: ABook of Essays – edited by Edward Leigh and Alex Haydon is published by the Social Affairs Unit, priced £10 and is available through Amazon online and St Paul’s bookshop, next to Westminster Cathedral. Ed)