David Cameron’s Liberal (King James) Bible

Yvonne Sherwood [1] has shown that a powerful tradition of understanding the Bible, certainly among political establishments but also more widely still, has been what she calls ‘the Liberal Bible’. For Sherwood, the Liberal Bible is supportive of ‘freedom of conscience’, ‘rights’, law, and consensus. This has produced the mistaken assumption that the Bible is the foundation of Western democracies, or at least complements Western democratic thought, and masks the modern origins of this strand of biblical interpretation in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. Sherwood’s reading of this powerful interpretative tradition echoes a number of readings (e.g. McCutcheon, Martin, and the work we’ve been doing at CFOM) of the ways in which ‘religion’ has been constructed in relation to the nation state and politics: removal of any problematic otherness to make religion more palatable.

There is increasing evidence (including some forthcoming) that this Liberal Bible continues to dominate the handling of the Bible in the British media and political establishment. An excellent example of this liberal accommodation of the Bible was David Cameron’s recent suggestion at the closing of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible that Britain needs to be understood as a Christian nation. What is particularly interesting about this notion is that the nation is Christian not in the sense that we should all be going to church, singing hymns, praying to God, fasting, dealing with heretics, vigorously converting non-believers and so on but rather a thoroughly liberalised (in the political sense) notion of what a ‘Christian country’ ought to be, with anything unpalatable to this notion of the nation state removed. In Cameron’s speech, ‘Christianity’, along with the King James Bible, is viewed (anachronistically, of course) as bringing forth attributes of a modern vision of the ‘secular’ nation state:

…human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy…the first forms of welfare provision… language and culture… the Judeo-Christian roots of the Bible also provide the foundations for protest and for the evolution of our freedom and democracy…the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights a foundation that has seen the Bible at the forefront of the emergence of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women… Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none.

In other words, it would presumably be pointless asking what would Cameron have made of the book of Joshua, smashing babies heads against rocks, labelling Gentiles ‘dogs’, condemning the rich to Hades, or weeping and gnashing of teeth. The Bible, and this understanding of ‘religion’, has effectively been colonised and drafted in to the service of liberal democracy.

[1] Yvonne Sherwood, ‘Bush’s Bible as a Liberal Bible (Strange though that Might Seem)’ Postscripts 2 (2006), pp. 47–58

James Crossley

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2 thoughts on “David Cameron’s Liberal (King James) Bible

  1. People will always seek to use a powerful and spiritual text to try and justify their actions whether it is the Bible or the Koran or whatever. They twist it to fit their philosophy rather then try to live by the philiosophy that the text proclaims.
    So the wors spoken by politicians about it should really come as no surprise.

  2. I especillay love that Cameron did not mention details regarding the other side of the proverbial coin in relationship to the use of the Bible in history. The Bible has also been seen at the forefront of monarchies and tyrannies (um… the King James translation). The Bible was one the main documents used in defense of slavery in the American south (it was also a main text used to defend abolition). And the Bible has been used to subjugate of women for thousands of years (‘thou shall not suffer a witch to live”) etc. Fascinating that the same text could be used to support such disparate agendas… Thank you for writing. I am excited about this new blog!

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