God’s man attacks Mammon

Is the financial crisis a moral issue? With the politicians even now slow to burn their boats with the money men its been left to the Archbishop of Canterbury to lead with a dignified dose of moral outrage. Even when he picks a more popular theme than sharia, Rowan Williams manages to be more provocative than perhaps he intends. In the Spectator, Dr Williams writes “Face it: Marx was partly right about capitalism.” In the Daily Telegraph Rev George Pitcher the church’s rep on the street of shame gave the archbishop and his more tabloid number 2 John Sentamu cautious approval and then went on to back them up on the airwaves all day. It was left to the pro-Conservative religious blog Cranmer to take the Archbishop to task – nor for attacking the capitalists but for invoking Marx. Recalling the Cof E’s recent “apology” to Darwin, Cranmer says: “It is a manifest inconsistency for the Church of England in one week to apologise to the man who expounded a theory of survival of the fittest, and the next to denounce such a theory when it is manifest in the natural laws of economy and society.”

The trouble is that when you refine a web of complexities into a moral issue you can accentuate fear, and fear is a barrier to reason and religion-based fear is particularly noxious . Take the backlash we’re seeing against the sexualisation of young teenagers . That was the subject of Channel 4 documentary tonight, The Virgin Daughters,
about the movement sweeping America whereby one in six young girls pledge to remain virgins until their wedding day. The same fear seems to have influenced a Manchester Catholic girls school into refusing to allow its 12 year olds to be inoculated on school premises against the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus transmitted which is responsible for 70% of cervical cancers. cervical cancer. – i.e. that the inoculation acknowledges the likelihood of sex outside marriage.

Fear of religion can be unreasonable of course. Two recent Radio 4 programmes have dealt with different aspects. The excellent Moral Maze asked “why are we so scared of religion?”

Whether it’s Sarah Palin’s beliefs in America, or the idea that a science teacher should answer questions from pupils on creationism, the reaction from secularists has ranged from sneeringly dismissive to open hostility to religion. You might even be left wondering which side is the most fundamentalist.”

The end thought was it was better to have the wishy-washy Church of England in the political establishment as a kind of benchmark for reasonable religion in a secular world.

“In Our Time’s ” subject was Miracles. “They have been part of human culture for thousands of years. From beliefs about the shin bone of a saint to ideas about the nature of creation and the laws of nature, miracles have been a measure of disputes within religion and between religion and rationality from St Augustine in the 4th century to David Hume in the 18th. They have also been used by the corrupt and the powerful to gain their perverse ends.”

The conclusion here was that miracle stories contain valuable moral lessons of the past that it’s too easy to miss, if you take the miracles themselves at face value. Perhaps that’s where the world’s financiers got it wrong, when they took the parable of the five loaves and too small fishes too literally – and invented derivatives.

I don’t doubt that the Church of England is leading a discreet fightback against the forces of the Dawkinites and Dark Materialists. This latest sally against the bankers is quite a shrewd bid for popular favour.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London