Christian Socialism in Britain

By Stelzer, Irwin M. | The Public Interest, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Christian Socialism in Britain

Stelzer, Irwin M., The Public Interest

Americans no longer bother much with political developments in Great Britain. True, an IRA bomb set off in London's theater district, near Harrod's department store, or at other sites favored by American tourists, can garner a few paragraphs in the back pages of the New York Times, and a visit by Labour party leader Tony Blair to Washington is worth a few minutes on the Fox Morning News and some minor coverage in the Washington Post. But, ever since the Tories lost their taste for Reaganesque economic and foreign policies, and jettisoned the always-interesting Margaret Thatcher in favor of the relentlessly gray John Major, there is little about British politics that much interests us.

We may be making a serious mistake. For, as we debate efforts by "cultural conservatives" to reintroduce the concepts of "sin" and "the undeserving poor" into the debate over the containment of the welfare state; quake or rejoice - as the case may be - at the emergence of Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition as a powerful force in American politics; and wonder whether it is a good or bad thing that political leaders of both parties have decided that they have a role to play in shaping the cultural output of Hollywood, we can benefit from attending to a revolution on the British left: Marx out, Christ in.

Christianity here and abroad

"I am an ecumenical Christian," proclaimed Tony Blair in an extraordinary interview with deputy editor Matthew d'Ancona of the Sunday Telegraph, published in its Easter Sunday edition. "Can you imagine an American president or presidential candidate saying that?" asked the esteemed co-editor of this journal. Well, no. Certainly not one on the left or even the center-left of the political spectrum. Though Jimmy Carter worried about lust in his heart, he seems to be sui generis among presidents and presidential candidates in that regard (the Democrat who succeeded him appears to have no such concerns). And those on the right who have been or are viable candidates confine their religious impulses to a request that "God bless America."

The difference between the Briton's proclamation and the reticence of his American counterparts cannot be attributed to the raw arithmetic of differences in the electoral makeup of our two countries. After all, Jews, an important American constituency that might find such a remark offensive, are consequential, too, in Great Britain. One out of every five voters in Margaret Thatcher's constituency was Jewish, as were five of her cabinet ministers - more "Estonians" than Etonians, sniffed Harold Macmillan, by then the Earl of Stockton. And Muslims are an even more potent electoral force in Britain, especially in the Labour party, than they are in America. So the difference between Blair's open embrace of Christianity - his willingness to proclaim that his concept of an individual's duty to serve the greater good of the community is "a principle the Church celebrates in the sacrament of communion" - and the more secular formulations offered by American candidates cannot be written off to political expedience.

The differences, instead, lie in the history of the British Labour party; the current efforts of its so-called modernizers to relieve themselves of the weighty burden of the party's Marxist baggage; the different attitudes of the British and American press toward religion and its role in politics; the American constitutional separation of church and state; and the more ecumenical and non-evangelical nature of Blair's Christianity.

Labour's religious roots

The Labour party had its roots in the nonconformist Methodist Church, the rival to the Church of England, the latter better once known as "the Tory Party at prayer." Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her classic Poverty and Compassion, points out that "the generic form of Christian socialism ... was present among all the late-Victorian socialist groups, including the most radical of them." She notes that Keir Hardie, the late nineteenth-century trade unionist who became the first leader of the parliamentary Labour party early in this century, described socialism as "the embodiment of Christianity in our industrial system. …

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