Michael Gove and King James
Michael Gove is giving a lot of commemorative King James Bibles to schools, to mark the, er, 401st anniversary of the publication of the original (thanks to typical government efficiency), and a lot of people are unhappy about it. Atheists and secularists are unhappy at religion being pushed into schools, while many Christians are furious that their holy book has been turned into a cultural artifact, doled out in a form of political patronage with Gove’s name on the spine. And then, just when it seemed that there was a clear consensus against the Bibles, Richard Dawkins made headlines by saying they were a jolly good thing.
As usual, a comment by Dawkins has been turned into a news story even though it’s not really news. He’s always been something of a “Nine Lessons and Carols” atheist, enjoying and appreciating the tradition and culture that derives from religion, even while he denies the corresponding truth claims. He even devotes part of The God Delusion to listing some of the commonly-used phrases which originated in the King James Bible, in support of its place as a significant part of our culture. That his restatement of this position has been treated as big news speaks volumes about standards of journalism. But I digress.
There are reasons to be concerned about these Bibles, but I think there are more reasons to feel relaxed about them. For a start, the money to pay for them has apparently come from Tory donors. You may feel that they have strange priorities, or that the money would be better spent elsewhere, or even that it’s obscene that they have this sort of money to splash around on vanity projects, but these are separate arguments. They’re free to spend their own money as they like, and the taxpayer isn’t being asked to foot the bill for this project in any way, which is a point in its favour.
Dawkins is right that the King James Bible is a very significant cultural document, and this fact doesn’t change just because it has religious significance; Shakespeare didn’t suddenly become a hack writer the moment he penned propaganda in support of the Tudor dynasty, and the existence of a Jedi religion (however seriously you take it) doesn’t make the Star Wars films divisive and sectarian. His view that exposure to the Bible will help to convince people of its flaws may be controversial, but it also suggests that the issues are more complex than some have implied.
We’re able to distinguish the significance of a text from its intended message, or the way it’s been used, and it seems reasonable for a school library to contain a copy of the Bible, along with holy books from other major world religions and prominent atheist works. If schools lack these, the solution is surely to obtain what’s missing, rather than to refuse the gift of a significant work on an appropriate (if you overlook the delay) occasion. Nor is it particularly significant if schools already have copies of this translation, seeing that this is a special edition commemorating a notable anniversary. It’s likely to be more of a keepsake than a book in regular use.
But I said there are reasons for concern, and there are. We should be wary of the aims of the people who are supporting this project, in case this is being used as a part of a less acceptable campaign. Mein Kampf is one of the most significant and important works of the 20th century, in its way, but any group that was shelling out the thick end of half a million pounds to give a copy to every school should be prepared for some suspicious questioning of their motives.
There’s also the concern that these Bibles are being employed as a political dog-whistle, seeing that Michael Gove’s name is to appear prominently. That worries me, as does the implication that the Bibles are officially approved in some way. That’s unlikely to be a perception that would improve the standing or appeal of Christianity, but it’s something I’d hope the government would be careful to avoid, even in a country with an established church.
I don’t have much time for the King James Version of the Bible (I don’t see much value in wading through its archaic language when there are hundreds of translations that are easier to read), and I consider Michael Gove to be one of the least capable ministers in living memory, but although there’s been opposition from across the religious spectrum, I think the arguments against this project are a little weak on the evidence we have.
The worst that can be said about it for now is that it’s a shameless act of self-aggrandisement on Gove’s part. Given that he’s a politician, that’s unlikely to rank as one of the great shocks of the year.