“I believe in aspiration”: the rhetoric and the limits of Cameron’s speech at the Festival of Life

Last weekend David Cameron took the Conservative Party campaign trail into places of worship, visiting the ‘Festival of Life’, an annual gathering (of around 45,000 people) hosted by the Nigerian Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) at the O2 arena in London. RCCG is truly an example of a globalised African Pentecostal denomination, with parishes in 178 countries of the world, and more than 700 in the U.K. alone (including Jesus House, one of London’s megachurches). In speaking at the Festival of Life, Cameron was clearly attempting to reach out to the Black born-again Christian community in the U.K. His speech had been crafted to attempt to connect with his audience, referring to Pastor Enoch Adeboye, the ‘General Overseer’ of RCCG as ‘Daddy G.O.’ (his affectionate nickname), making a number of biblical references, and remarking that he (Cameron) was also a ‘child of God’.

But of particular interest to the work we are doing on Megachurches and social engagement and transformation, Cameron could also be seen to seek favour by alluding to a key trope in many contemporary African Pentecostal churches in the U.K., the centrality of aspiration. “I believe in aspiration”, Cameron asserted, going on to add that “I believe the only limit to someone’s potential is their own ambition”. In the Black-majority megachurches I have been spending time with, there is a strong rhetoric, not least with the youth, of (positive) future-thinking, of attempting to ‘be the best you can be’ despite obstacles and challenges. Adherents are encouraged to ‘think big’ in all areas of their life.  Furthermore, Cameron also championed the audience as an example of the Big Society, of people who “care for those who are sick and lonely”, of people who “turn deprivation into comfort”. Certainly we have seen community engagement activities at all the megachurches we have been studying. Some are more engaged than others (for reasons of resources, theology, or vision), but all do at some point attempt to alleviate suffering of some of the less advantaged members of their congregations and neighbourhoods.

However, whilst it is encouraging to see this acknowledgement of both the community action work, and encouragement of aspiration, that are often present in Black-majority Pentecostal churches in Britain, in his speech Cameron not only continues to peddle the idea of the primacy of individualism unfettered by state interference, the notion that there are no structural constraints on the prospects of Britain’s youth, but also fails to address why those beneficiaries of church ministries are ‘deprived’ in the first place, and why our welfare system is not robust enough to turn people’s “deprivation into comfort”.

To suggest that the ‘only’ limit to a young person’s potential ‘is their own ambition’ might be seen to resonate with an audience that is familiar with such positive-thinking rhetoric, but considering the increasing inequality in higher education and housing (particularly in the capital), it is unlikely that this same audience was not keenly aware of the challenges and obstacles that many youth face, no matter how much ‘ambition’ they may have. In addition, from talking to some people involved in social action ministries in Black-majority megachurches in London, there is certainly a concern of the policies of austerity, and of the scaling back of the welfare state.

Interestingly, away from the public support of Cameron at the O2 arena at the weekend, a post in response to the PM’s message at the Festival of Life is doing the rounds on the social media platform WhatsApp, reminding readers to remember the Tories’ policies and rhetoric on immigration before they vote, and urging them to think twice before they place their cross against ‘Conservative’ at the ballot box next month. It is impossible to say how ‘viral’ such posts have become on this private messaging app, but they do speak of critical voices among Britain’s Black born-again community. Cameron may have attempted to court the Black Christian vote at the Festival of Life, but behind the applause and shouts of ‘hallelujah’, it would seem that they may not be so easily won over.

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Studying Christianity as a non-believer

When I first started researching contemporary Christianity, back when I was an undergraduate anthropology doing research in northern Thailand, I woke one morning to find I had missed an early phone call from my father. In those more technologically simple days, international calls were a rarity, and so I called straight back. “Have they got to you yet?” he asked, with a tone of real concern in his voice. It seemed that one of the greatest fears of my atheist father was that I might be converted by one of the evangelical Christians I was spending time with!

Quite a few years later and I have yet to have that road-to-Damascus moment, or even a slow conversion to becoming a believer (most probably still to the relief of my dad). But does my continuing lack of Christian beliefs – or indeed any spiritual beliefs – make it impossible to be able to understand those that I study? In a similar way to the experience of the atheist anthropologist Ruy Llera Blanes (2007) when he was researching Pentecostal churches in Lisbon, an interviewee once suggested to me that without having a relationship with God and without being filled by the Holy Spirit, I would never be able to effectively understand his belief system. But surely this is actually at the heart of doing anthropology: trying to understand cultures that are different to our own.

As anthropologists, our training encourages us to attempt to understand others’ beliefs on their own terms, rather than engaging in an exercise of assessing the validity of truth claims. Put simply, my role is not to ascertain whether a church-goer is correct in believing in God, whether a prophecy will really come to pass, or whether an intercessor speaking in tongues is really filled with something called the Holy Spirit. Instead, it is to understand what these beliefs mean to those that hold them, and how these beliefs influence their lives and the actions they take in the societies in which they live.

As our project continues it will be interesting to compare notes and analyses with my Christian colleagues. But hopefully an anthropological approach from this outsider will still have value in increasing our understanding of Christian megachurches in contemporary London, even if I only go to church for work!

Reference

Blanes, R. L. (2006), The atheist anthropologist: Believers and non-believers in anthropological fieldwork. Social Anthropology, 14:223–234