Why MPs' expenses are driving me to religion


Major real world events have a cultural echo. As we were gripped by fear about AIDS there was a spate of movies warning of the wages of sin. When Glenn Close boiled the Michael Douglas’ family bunny we all wondered about our comeuppance.

In the wake of the credit crunch we are looking for people who can channel our sense of outrage and, in a more subtle process, act as the transference object for our complicity in the culture of excess and irresponsibility. Thus the last nine months are framed by the arc that begins with Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross abusing Andrew Sachs, passing through the pay and pension of Sir Fred Goodwin, before reaching the saga of MPs’ expenses.

Each of these episodes follows a largely predictable pattern. First the exposure, second the vain attempt to close down or justify, third the mounting hysteria, fourth the show of contrition (Sir Fred can only be admired for his refusal to play the game on this one), fifth the emerging consensus that it isn’t just the bad apples but the whole barrel, sixth the demand that something must be done, seventh – but much later – questions being raised over whether the remedy might have been worse than the original disease.

Maybe it just has to be this way. It is difficult to know what to make of these tides of outrage. There is something of the mob in the air - the targets of our wrath cannot be bad in just one way, we crave evidence that they are bad in every way. This is necessary so that we can be reassured that the bad people are nothing like us; there can be no question that in their circumstances we might have behaved as they did.

As I veer between joining in the public outrage and adopting a position of sophisticated distance, I have to admit that religion has – as I understand it – a powerful narrative for these times. Believers are not surprised by sin, they knew it was everywhere and in all of us. They urge us not to cast the first stone but to reflect on our own frailties and responsibilities. In the end we will all be judged, so we can put aside our rage and lust for revenge safe in the knowledge that ultimately no one gets away with anything but all must answer for their deeds.

True religion makes it easier for us to forgive and to accept our own complicities; even if the political practice of religion has often meant the very opposite. So while the impact of the credit crunch may be the right climate for public outrage, secularisation provides the fertile soil in which it grows.

PS: While I am tempting readers into a slightly more pious mode, this is just a reminder about my run on Sunday for the Alzheimer’s Society – if anyone would like to make a donation, they can do so here.  Thank you.

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