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Enter priestly men, to fill our moral void

Religious leaders are using the language of secularism to preach new values. It's an uneasy mix
The law of the market is a mighty law. There is a demand, in these wicked times, for moral certainties and for a social language that goes beyond the glib individualism of the "me generation''. Answering that demand has come supply: turn on Radio 4 or open a broadsheet paper and it is hard to avoid the thundering voices of moral reconstruction. And they're coming not from politicians, but from religious leaders.

They're everywhere. Liberal bishops, bashed around the mitre a bit by Margaret Thatcher, are reasserting themselves. Last week David Sheppard, the Bishop of Liverpool, spoke about how Christianity should be "uncomfortable for the fat sheep ... both about human hearts and social structures''. This week we have a book on moral decay and the family from the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, while Amitai Etzioni, a founder of the American Communitarian movement, which calls for a remoralising of society, is speaking in London, too. Who's currently ahead in market share is a little unclear. But there's a lot of it about.

Both Sheppard and Sacks have said explicitly over the past few days that they are challenging a trend that goes back to the 18th century. Sheppard, speaking to the Royal Society of Arts, said: "The Age of Enlightenment was responsible for much of that pushing of religion to the margins of life.'' Sacks, in his book Faith in the Future, cited Adam Smith as an originator of "our new secular mythology - that life is made of unfettered individual choices through which we negotiate our private paths to happiness ...''

As a Scot, I would of course defend both the social richness of Adam Smith's thought and the Enlightenment against all comers. This was Caledonia's mental equivalent of the weekend's rugby at Murrayfield, except that in the Enlightenment the Scottish team was a bit smaller and it was two millennia of superstition that got gubbed, rather than 15 wet Welshmen.

But there is no doubt that for an increasing number of people - environmentalists, campaigners against free trade, socialists, conservative moralists, New Agers and others - the economic and scientific truths of the 18th century have been taken too far. They have ended up with global free trade and a frantically competitive individualism, and this is not a rich enough diet to live on.

Enter the new moralists, in quasi-religious garb. But how far can they take this? Examples of the gap between popular attitudes and the traditional teaching of religious authorities are legion. Whether it is sex before marriage, homosexuality, female equality or abortion, liberal attitudes have spread in ways that religious traditionalism finds it impossible to deal with.

In this context the rebellion of the five Norfolk parishes against the Bishop of Norwich has a wider relevance than the immediate Passport to Pimlico overtones of the story suggest.

The rebel churchwardens and parishioners find it acceptable that their former vicar should marry for a third time; the Anglican hierarchy does not. The rebels, furthermore, cast their dissent in political, secular, post-Enlightenment terms. Hear John Davies of Little Cressingham: "The bishop cannot govern us by remote control. He cannot be allowed to dictate to us. England isn't a feudal country and we are not a bunch of peasants ... if this forces the church establishment to re-examine its centralised structures and appreciate the value of parochial democracy, then maybe we have done something ...''

So what is the basis for the authority claimed by religious leaders in an age saturated by relativism and democracy? Bishops and others may speak the language of social science and political choice. They say marriage is good because it produces better-brought-up children who are then less likely to commit crime and thus save the taxpayer policing bills.

But for the religious perspective, that was never really the point, was it? Adultery was sin, against God's law, and if you did it you risked spending eternity having your toenails plucked out. That's all gone, of course. Hell is the abandoned Clause IV of the Christian world.

And here, the religious morality salesmen are on a hiding to nothing. We British, who are a pretty secular lot, are not ready now, or perhaps ever, for the full works. Fundamentalism may be the Islamic choice and even the Middle-American choice, but it is not our choice. Outside Northern Ireland and few Welsh valleys, the Enlightenment has done its work (small cheer) too thoroughly.

And yet all that yearning for a more moral, more fertile language with which to debate social choice is real enough, too. The arid numerical language of economics and the exhortations of perpetual growth merchants - these things are not enough.

Where does that leave us? It is certainly true that our conventional political language, the Conservatism of the past 15 years, has had little to say about the inner life, or ecology, or the limits of growth, or how to measure happiness rather than GNP. When thinking right-wingers, like Michael Portillo, agonise publicly about the moral basis for their politics, they tend to end up by stressing the importance of, well, leaving people alone. Portillo recently quoted Isaiah Berlin: "The desire not to be impinged upon, to be left to oneself, has been a mark of high civilisation.'' But it rather depends who's left to themselves, and what they do next.

On the other side of the street, state socialism developed a language of values that challenged liberalism for the best part of a century, but found its mechanisms utterly incapable of the reformation it promised. Its diagnosis was compelling and delivered with impressive self-certainty. But its cure either killed the patient or, in the homoeopathic doses administered in the West, led to a kind of sleeping sickness. In answer to the question "how should we live?'' it had little to say. Too often its answer was merely an instruction about how to vote.

To put it crudely: the highest ambition of the right has been to retreat from the moral arena, while the left has been forced from it by failure. Now politicians of all kinds are regarded with a sort of passionate contempt. Moral dilemmas are fought out in television soaps, women's magazines and among environmentalists, who are in some ways the socialists of our time.

But professional politicians, who are in theory the leaders of society, the people chosen to explain the world to us, to tease out our dilemmas and make our choices explicit - they have had remarkably little to offer.

So Britain, one of the oldest, most intensely political societies in the world, now finds that it turns to bishops and American academics and rabbis to say the most straightforward things about the condition of the culture. It isn't sustainable: as the churchwardens of Norfolk noted, we are a democracy; and in a democracy, when it comes to the big choices, the leaders should be the elected ones. This is a rather vague challenge to the political order, I grant you. But it is also the main one.