What do we mean by 'doing god'? Doing God - Revision Resource #1

In the contemporary political and policy spaces, what do we mean by the phrase 'doing god'?

It’s alleged that the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair expressed a desire to end his address to the nation following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 with the phrase "god bless you”. While so, he was unequivocally told by his senior advisers that he was not to discuss his religious beliefs in public.

Crines & Theakston (2015) offer a useful overview of this, available here.

Later in 2003, Blair was interviewed for an article to be published in Vanity Fair to mark his 50th birthday. Somewhat unexpectedly, the interviewer asked him about his Christian beliefs. Before being allowed to answer, Alistair Campbell – Blair’s Director of Strategy and Communications at the time – intervened by saying:

“We don't do God…I'm sorry. We don't do God”

Allen's 2010 journal article, "‘We don't do God’: A critical retrospective of New Labour's approaches to ‘religion or belief’ and ‘faith’" provides additional context and is available here.

How the story was reported in the Telegraph in 2003

"When Blair talked about how his religious faith shaped his political thinking he opened himself up to charges of 'playing politics with God' (Campbell 2007, 112) and of being a “sanctimonious, calculating hypocrite” (Seldon 2004, 518). 'God was a disaster area,' his media adviser Alastair Campbell insisted, after an interview Blair gave on the subject triggered a media storm. 'British people are not like Americans, who seem to want their politicians banging the Bible the whole time. They hated it ... The ones who didn't believe didn't want to hear it; and the ones who did felt the politicians who went on about it were doing it for the wrong reasons'" (see Crines & Theakston, 20102 here)

Despite being a somewhat ‘off the cuff’ remark, Campbell’s ‘don’t do god’ – and reciprocally, ‘do god’ - has since become established in the public and political lexicon. It is typically used as a shorthand way of referring to the interaction between politics and politicians with religion and the religious (Spencer, 2006; Allen, 2010; O’Toole, 2012).

Since then, 'doing god' has become established as a fluid term, one that is variously used to describe:

- Whether a government is receptive to or engages with religion and religious communities;

- Policies and legislation that are directly applicable to religion and/or religious communities; and,

- When politicians speak publicly about their personal faith or about how their personal faith has shaped and influenced their political views.

The 2006 Theos report, "Doing God: a future for faith in the public square"
"Only the wilfully blind or those with a well-developed martyr complex could think that twenty-first century Britain was actively hostile to religious belief or that God has been elbowed out of the public square. Not only is “faith” back in the public square, but it is somewhere near the centre"

(Theos report, p.15 - available here).

For Bruce (2012), a distinct feature of British political culture has been its lack of piety and a lack of fondness for linking national identity to religion.

In this respect, the past two decades have been atypical in the British political context.

Similarly atypical have been the three Prime Ministers that have led Britain during this time – Blair, Gordon Brown, and Cameron – each of whom, albeit to varying degrees, have spoken publicly about their personal faith and how it influenced and shaped their respective politics (Crines & Theakston, 2015)

As Bruce (2012) goes on, very few British Prime Ministers have shown any real interest in religion; even less have shown a desire to talk about it.

In spite of this, Theresa May would appear to be continuing this relatively recent development. Late last year she spoke openly about her Christian faith - see the article in the Huffington Post "Theresa May’s Christianity - Another Way Of Dividing The Country" available here.

In December 2016, Theresa May said that Christians should not be afraid of speaking "freely" about their faith

O'Toole in her 2012 paper - "Faith and the Coalition: a new confidence to ‘do God’?" (available here) - offers two examples of the Coalition's approach to 'doing god':

- PREVENT 2 (more here)

- Near Neighbours (more here)

Allen (2010) says New Labour 'did god' with:

- Face to Face, Side by Side (more here)

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi with religious leaders at Lambeth Palace in 2012

One final thing is to consider how different Government's have approached 'doing god'.

O'Toole (2012) argues that Alastair Campbell gave the impression that New Labour was nervous about 'doing God'. While so, the Coalition (and Conservatives subsequently) - especially evident in Cameron's King James Bible speech - suggested a a more overt and confident approach to 'doing god'.

Shortly after coming to power in 2010, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi said:

"If anyone suggests that this [Coalition] government does not understand, does not appreciate, does not defend people of faith, dare I even say does not 'do God', then I hope my schedule this week will go some way to banishing that myth"

Coverage of her speech can be found here.

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