When politicians seek God's help: The state is now taking the Church seriously. A new approach to morality may result, says Andrew Brown

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The boom in religious interest since the death of Thatcherism has been remarkable. Suddenly, it seems, the general public believes what it hears from the pulpits. And government ministers, if not all backbenchers, are happy to be lectured.

When Cardinal Hume calls for a Royal Commission into the state of the family, and the Chief Rabbi supports this demand, neither is seen as interfering in politics.

It is all very confusing to anyone who remembers the hurricane of anger and contempt that greeted the first tentative Anglican attempts to criticise the government in the Eighties. Had the cardinal made a similar suggestion, with its implied criticism of the Government, 10 years earlier, there would have been a lynch mob of Conservative backbenchers heading down Victoria Street, as one Catholic remarked yesterday.

The immediate cause of this change is undoubtedly the murder of two-year-old James Bulger. But the remarkable aspect of the reaction to that crime is that - one small riot apart - it has not been directed towards the particular crime or criminals. The moral people have drawn is not that there is something profoundly wrong with human nature: we knew that already; but that there is something radically rotten in British society, which can be cured only by collective moral and religious effort.

Some of this soul-searching has economic roots. It has long been observed that vocations to the priesthood rise in recessions, and the link between religious success and economic failure seems to hold across Europe. It is a commonplace of thought among religious people that the greatest enemy to piety is prosperity.

There seems now to be a widespread belief among Christians of every sort that the worst batterings of secularisation this century are over, and that there are prospects for a slow and steady growth in religious observance. In the current climate of national penitence, it hardly seems to matter what sickness is diagnosed, so long as it is spiritual. In the Tablet last week, Cardinal Hume said: 'We seem to have lost an awareness of God and therefore the sense of sin. In particular, we have not supported family and within that context marriage and the right handling of human love.'

The fact that the Roman Catholic Church's view of family life - in particular its ban on artificial contraception - may not be shared by the majority, even by many Catholics, has not prevented the cardinal's call for a Royal Commission being treated seriously in many quarters, something that Anglican archbishops have difficulty achieving.

The cardinal's advantage derives in part from the care he takes to say very little in public at all on political and social issues. In last week's Tablet he said that he did not believe in 'shrieking' at the Government. 'People get bored if they hear you too often. You have to judge whether you should be spitting in the eye of the Prime Minister or trying to work along with the system.'

In contrast, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, appears to have a programme of thoughts to put before the nation. He accepts a great many speaking and preaching engagements, writes much of his own speeches, and pontificates willingly on all sorts of things. Even so, he has rarely incurred the wrath of the politicians.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, speaks less often in public, and seldom on large questions. He tends, though, to be the more ferociously attacked. One Anglican observer yesterday put this down to his obvious intelligence: 'Habgood speaks as a clever man to other clever people. The cardinal just tries to appear as a saint,' he said. This remark may seem bitchy, but its suggestion that there are springs of wisdom inaccessible to reason, and so good grounds for irrational hope, does hint at why religion becomes attractive at times like this.

Yet economic hard times alone cannot explain the relative respect with which religious leaders are currently being heard. The miseries of the early Eighties recession did not guarantee a hearing for Faith in the City, an inoffensive Anglican report which was denounced even before publication by an unnamed cabinet minister as 'Marxist theology'.

Intellectual fashions and discoveries have played a role, too. After 14 years of uninterrupted Conservative rule, intelligent ministers have learnt the limits of government power. The churches are the only surviving national power structures of any size that are almost wholly independent of government. And ministers' requests for religious help in their tasks have become a marked trend. Douglas Hurd, when Home Secretary, addressed the General Synod of the Church of England on these lines as early as 1988. And churches of the Evangelical Alliance are collaborating on inner- city regeneration projects.

The Government may well be trying to use religion as an adjunct to its civil power. Tories as well as Marxists can believe that religion is the opium of the people. But people who start out promoting religious belief because it is useful may find that it spreads because it is true. And here lies the other half of the explanation for the respect with which religious leaders are now being heard.

A majority of the professors of philosophy in English universities are now said to be practising Christians. Certainly one of the most interesting and influential philosophers of the age, Alasdair MacIntyre, is now a very important propagandist for the view that classical Roman Catholic philosophy, with its roots going back through Aquinas to Aristotle, will triumph over alternative explanations of the world because it is truer and more powerful than the alternatives.

The implications of this change, if it ever spreads to politicians, could be revolutionary. The language of sin and virtue is hardly used in politics nowadays, except in very debased forms. It is worth asking, given the current enthusiasm for family values and Sunday school, what the law on divorce would look like if the majority in Parliament believed, as it did 150 years ago, that God made us to stay married.

Similar questions have been raised in a recent book, The Loss of Virtue, edited by the Thatcherite sociologist (and Anglican priest) Dr Digby Anderson. But interest in them transcends party boundaries. The big arguments about man as an economic animal seem to have petered out: that is what the End of History meant. The arguments about men and women as moral, social beings, may be only just starting.

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