Local Government and Communities Minister Eric Pickles yesterday (Tuesday) announced the publication of the coalition government’s new strategy for bringing Britain together.
The paper, entitled Creating the Conditions for Integration contains a series of proposals that overtly re-integrates Christianity’s role in policy on inter-community participation and youth disconnection.
New policy proposals were inevitable following country-wide rioting and looting beamed around the world last summer. They fit with the recurring theme of discipline and strengthening of family values that have regularly featured in the speeches of the Prime Minister.
More surprising is the prominent place given to Christianity, specifically in Pickles’ overview of the key markers around which the government wants the UK to form its identity.
The document ‘recognis[es] that Christianity - and faith in general - plays an important part in the heritage and culture of our nation.’
It additionally gives a stunning riposte to Bideford Council’s recent attempt to do away with prayers at the commencement of business, by pointing to the Localism Act 2011. This it says, ‘should provide sufficient legal powers for all major local authorities in England to now include prayers as part of the formal business at council meetings, if they so wish (and following due Parliamentary process, for parishes that meet the necessary conditions by April).
This marks a departure from past government comment which has grouped all faiths together when discussing the possible contribution of religion to community welfare.
Statements in the past week from Pickles on the preservation of prayer in council meetings, and the bold exhortation by Baroness Warsi for European Christians to be ‘stronger in their religious identities and more confident in their beliefs’, set the Communities Minister’s comments in the context of an ongoing, consistent narrative from the government.
Furthermore, they come on the back of the Prime Minister’s own assertion that ‘the UK is a Christian country and should not be afraid to say so' at a speech in Oxford last December.
Prominent humanists have given the measure a cool reception. Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, Andrew Copson, on the politics.co.uk website responded that,'The vast majority of people in Britain are not members of any local church, religious group or community, and so to lay such emphasis on religious identities as being the ones most important for encouraging voluntary work or community building is misguided.'
Copson’s comment is contradicted by available evidence. The 2009-10 Citizenship Survey: Race, Religion and Equalities Topic Report published by Eric Pickles’ own department in December last year showed that 70% of the 10,000 respondents identified themselves as Christian.
It was not alone. An Office of National Statistics survey Census Religion Module, April, May, June and July, 2009 that offered the option of ‘no religion’ first to its respondents, also produced a figure of 68%.
This is not to say that the numbers have not gone down. Between 2005 and 2010, the same Communities and Local Government survey showed a drop from 79% to the 70% quoted above.
But what has been missed before now, and what Conservative ministers are now cottoning onto, is that the number remains stubbornly high, given the onslaught of alternative ideologies that have been offered to the British public since the Second World War.
‘Christianity just does not seem to go away’, said one commentator.