Faith and Reason: What should we get away with?: Rabbi David J. Goldberg, of the Liberal Jewish synagogue, preached this sermon last Saturday. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is a member of his congregation
Saturday 22 January 1994
But since our current government has belatedly decided that morality should be preached from the pulpit, not from the House of Commons, let me try, this shabbat, with diffidence and reluctance, to see if there is a religious perspective that can be brought to bear on the current tide of sleaze, corruption and hypocrisy that is engulfing the public life of our country.
My diffidence and reluctance to dip my toe in muddy waters are due to two causes. The first is a fear of burdening you with yet more pompous comment of the kind that has kept leader-writers and columnists happily at work these past couple of weeks. And the second is because whereas religion provides us with certain broad maxims of moral conduct - thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal etc - natural justice demands that in each instance of moral or legal infraction the individual is judged individually, on the facts of his or her particular situation.
It is the attempts to bridge this gulf between the enunciation of a general principle and the behaviour of the particular individual, - the gulf between theory and practice, betwean the ideal and the real - that make religion, philosophy, the law and politics such fascinating occupations for those who pursue them.
It should also make them wary of giving hostages to fortune by delivering unconsidered moral judgements that might come back to haunt them, as the government is now discovering to its cost. We might be confident of our own standards, but can we be as confident of the standards of our families, our friends, those with whom we work?
If we start by analysing ourselves, which is the proper basis from which to make any general observations about humanity or society at large, then we are bound to become uncomfortably aware that it is often a very fine line which keeps us on the side of the angels. Prudence, timidity, ambition for advancement, fear of what the neighbours will say, it is often that rather than any positive virtue which keeps us on the straight and narrow. As the writer Milan Kundera put it 'It takes a little, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning; love, convictions, faith, history. Human life . . . takes place in the immediate proximity of that border.'
Good conduct is often harder and less natural than mediocre or bad conduct. It isn't easy to sacrifice egoistic attachments or break bad habits. We satisfy our consciences by doing half the task and justify our failings by saying that others are doing the same only didn't get caught out.
'Yes, yes, that's all very metaphysical and charitable' the man on the Clapham omnibus or the reader of the Sun newspaper will retort, 'but does that mean we should react with indulgent forgiveness and forbear to cast the first stone, on the grounds that we are all potential sinners, every time an MP fathers a lovechild or a London council is accused of gerrymandering? What about standards?' And they are right, of course. The common ground between morality, religion, law and politics is that they all aspire to set standards, to define the difference between right and wrong, to express a vision of what constitutes a healthy society.
It is perfectly proper, therefore, for any political party to set out a programme of what it sees as essential values. The Conservatives do so, so does the Labour Party, so do the Social Democrats, Marxists, and Greens. It is how they hope to woo the electorate to give them power, and once in power to retain it by periodic injections of fresh aims and new ideas.
So one cannot blame Mr Major for his vision of wanting to be prime minister of a classless society, a country at ease with itself where shadows lengthen over cricket grounds, the beer is always warm and children grow up with two parents in a stable home environment that inculcates basic values of respect for authority and personal achievement, rather than expecting the state to provide. That is a perfectly worthy manifesto, and did not deserve the mockery that clever-clever pundits have heaped upon it.
But in politics, as in our personal lives, we don't always get praised for our merits or condemned for our sins. The system of cause and effect, reward and punishment, seems to operate in a more roundabout way than that. That is why religion tends to admit that it is not in our power to explain the success of the wicked and the sufferings of the righteous, and to hope that in the world to come such mysteries will be put right.
But politicians are more concerned with the here and now. That is why the glee with which each new sexual peccadillo by Tory MPs is being unearthed or that greeted the damning report on Westminster Council has less to do with moral judgement about the offences themselves than with the public's paying back the Government for its past failures, whether forced departure from the ERM, selling arms to Iraq while an embargo was in operation, or the Maastricht fudge, all of which were papered over at the time or even presented as triumphs of statecraft.
To me, quite the worst but a little-quoted remark from that Conservative Party conference, was made in a speech by Peter Lilley, when he said - pausing meaningfully for effect - it was 'beyond the pale' that hordes of foreign scroungers should take advantage of our health and social services. That was no chance figure of speech, but a deliberate pandering to the racial prejudices of his audience, and disgraceful coming from a cabinet minister.
So of course it has been gratifying to see a government which accepts no blame itself, but preaches to others, slip up on its own banana skins. You can't suddenly proclaim the eternal verities and hope to be credible, when until now your actions have appeared to condone all the least noble aspects of human behaviour; and hanging on to office at all costs - otherwise known as the David Mellor syndrome.
People en masse today are probably no better, no worse, no more or less moral, than we were 10, 20 or 50 years ago in that golden age evoked by Mr Major. What has changed for the worse is our perception of what we can get away with, and for that government, which sets the tone of public behaviour, has to accept its share of responsibility, just as religious leaders and teachers have to accept theirs for any decline in the standards of private behaviour.
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