‘We are a Christian country,’ David Cameron declared last month. In the days and weeks that followed, his much-discussed speech at Christ Church, Oxford on 16 December marking the end of the 400th anniversary year of the King James Bible, was labelled by diverse commentators as either ‘manipulative’, ‘misguided’, or ‘brave’.
But it did also raise one particular question which most of the press addressed sotto voce: if the leader of a nation publicly ‘does God’, could it possibly be said that the supposedly inevitable process of secularization is at an end?
Eminent sociologist Bryan Wilson’s is the classic definition of secularization as ‘the process by which religious thinking, practice and institutions lose social significance and become marginal to the operation of the social system’.
He also stated that ‘religion has retreated from its former activities and functions as the secular state has consolidated its boundaries and evolved diverse spheres of technical expertise in the various departments of social life’.
But it would seem that if this is true of Britain, then the prime minister was not privy to the memo, for he staunchly waved the banner of Christianity over the nation, and urged the rest of us ‘not to be afraid to say so’.
He added: ‘The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option. You can’t fight something with nothing. Because if we don’t stand for something, we can’t stand against anything.’
The National Secular Society describes secularism ideologically and some might add impractically as ‘the strict separation of the state from religious institutions’. But during the speech we found the prime minister saying: ‘To me, Christianity, faith, religion, the Church and the Bible are all inherently involved in politics because so many political questions are moral questions. So I don’t think we should be shy or frightened of this.’
Media commentators were neither shy nor frightened of criticizing the prime minister for his pre-Christmas message.
Writing in the Guardian, playwright David Edgar warned against ‘hijacking’ the Bible for political purposes. He said: ‘If the vernacular Bible in the hands of every ploughboy (in Tyndale’s phrase) was the precursor of pluralism, then it’s certainly too important to be hijacked for narrow and partisan political purposes, by political leaders seeking to reverse one of its greatest, if unintended, legacies.’
Of course, the anti-religious were not happy with Mr Cameron’s remarks – especially the suggestions that it is only through Christianity that a society can function morally.
Name-checking a range of faith-based – but predominantly Christian – organisations, Cameron suggested that it is precisely because of their religious convictions that they wanted to change the world for good.
At points he suggested that many of society’s ills could be solved by standing up for Christianity. ‘Shying away from speaking the truth about behavior, about morality, has actually helped to cause some of the social problems that lie at the heart of the lawlessness we saw with the riots.’
Well it is this speaking up about religion from within political office which truly riles Professor Richard Dawkins. In the Christmas edition of the New Statesman, which he guest-edits, his leader reads: ‘A diverse and largely secular country such as Britain should not privilege the religious over the non-religious, or impose or underwrite religion in any aspect of public life. A government that does so is out of step with modern demographics and values.’
He adds: ‘Modern society requires and deserves a truly secular state, by which I mean not state atheism, but state neutrality in all matters pertaining to religion: the recognition that faith is personal and no business of the state. Individuals must always be free to ‘do God’ if they wish; but a government for the people certainly should not.’
In a similar vein, Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, wrote on the organisation’s website: ‘Our concern here is not really about people’s personal faith. It is about Mr Cameron’s threat to adulterate our political processes with theology. Last week we reported another speech that he made in which he promised that he would “enhance faith-based education”. This, together with his ideas for a “Big Society” in which secular social services will be handed over to sectarian religious interests, are all indications that he is recruiting religion to rescue him from the woeful mess the country is in.’
The BBC’s religion correspondent Robert Piggott comments: ‘It's interesting he delivered this speech about being too tolerant, the passivity in the face of bad behaviour, to a crowd of church people. He said that by extension that Rowan Williams and the Church were not doing enough to stick up for Christian values.
‘Mr Williams has exercised Christian leadership but he's tended to focus on social justice elements of Christian teaching like care for the poor and marginalised. Mr Cameron has chosen a strict moral code of behaving in a right or wrong way from the Bible. Both men could easily advocate Christian principles in public life but come to very different conclusions on how government policies were going to put that into operation.’
Journalist Mark Vernon in the Guardian said that ‘David Cameron would not have had to assert that Britain is a Christian country if the matter were beyond dispute’. He has a point. If Britain is a Christian country, it seems to be doing a good job of hiding it. In late December, the Daily Mail described the nation as ‘secular UK’, reporting on a Citizenship Survey which showed the number who declared themselves to be Christian had dropped by 10 per cent in the past five years, while the number of non-believers was on the up. Added to this is the latest British Social Attitudes survey, which revealed 50 per cent of Britons are of ‘no religion’.
But for some, Cameron’s statement that ‘we are a Christian country’ refers not just to the current state of affairs but to the values that underpin our society – a kind of ‘patriotic history’, as David Edgar describes in the Guardian; a narrative being employed to bolster a sense of good, British society. It is a thumbs-down to multiculturalism, rather than a thumbs-up to the Church.
For Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, Cameron’s speech should serve to reconnect church and state. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said: ‘What Cameron has said about the ways in which Christian ideas are embedded in our constitutional arrangements is simply not understood any more in the corridors of power. A disconnected view of history and the fog of multiculturalism have all but erased such memory from official consciousness. A concerted programme is needed if this literacy is to be recovered and used.’
The Church Times leader sums up the apparent contradiction between a secular state and Christianity as good for society as a whole. ‘The British culture is undoubtedly informed by faith, despite the inarticulacy of the present generation of believers,’ it reads. ‘But, even were it not so, there is value in an assumption of Christianity, since it can act as a form of placebo: even if the majority of citizens do not experience the reality of faith, its semblance has a restorative and redemptive effect.’
This is why Simon Kelner can write in the Independent: ‘He [Cameron] is right, of course, that Britain is still a Christian country. It is the predominant religion and informs the values of tolerance, fairness and respect which help make Britain such a very great country to live in.’
He says however that ‘these are universal values, not ones on which Christianity has an exclusive call’. ‘I am a secular Jew and I couldn’t find anything wrong with what Mr Cameron was suggesting. Bankers shouldn’t have their noses in the trough – any more than MPs or journalists should – and I would also like to live in a society where people didn’t smash up city centres or want to blow us up for being infidels.’
For Jonathan Chaplin, director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cameron’s speech can certainly not be said to herald the end of secularization. ‘Cameron didn’t assert that Christianity is the sole source of core British values or even that it is more important than other sources in sustaining those values today,’ he writes for Theos. ‘He didn’t call for any kind of public privileging of Christianity.’
Instead, he writes: ‘Much of the speech was simply a factual recounting of the substantial historical influence of the Bible on the values underpinning British politics and society and of the contemporary contributions churches make, alongside people of other faiths or none, to the welfare of society today. His claim that “Britain is a Christian country” was largely descriptive, although historians and sociologists will no doubt want to press him for a more nuanced account of how that influence operated and still operates in particular instances.’
Speaking to Lapido Media, Dr Dave Landrum, head of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, put the speech down to ‘classical political opportunism’ but recognised it raised some interesting points. ‘Although it was a welcome (and quite theologically nuanced) contribution, it also illustrated the dominant ideal of our time – relativism,’ he said. ‘Liberalism has collapsed into relativism in politics, society, economics etc, so to call the UK a Christian country is not true. The most interesting bit was the attack on the myth of secular neutrality. This is really key to assessing whether we are post-secular in any sense, which is different from being post-secularist.’
Instead of waving goodbye to secularism, Dr Landrum said the speech marked ‘the beginning of a discussion in which the idea of a society can be moved on from. The context for it all is that nobody has a clue how to manage a diverse and fragmentary public square. Secularism is in a paradox – never more influential and ubiquitous, but never more exposed, collapsing. By pointing out the hostile, totalising nature of secularism the speech signals a permission to speak about a renewal of the role of religion in national identity.’