Another Perspective

David Cameron’s Christian Understanding

A British prime minister who's not afraid to confront the dogmatic secularists.

By 12.29.11

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British Prime Minister David Cameron recently marked the 400th anniversary of the King James' Bible by declaring that Great Britain is a "Christian country" and "we should not be afraid to say so." Cameron was speaking at Christ Church, Oxford before a Church of England audience.

The speech will trouble dogmatic secularists of course. But it also should alert many American religionists who enthusiastically insist that Christendom is dead. Perhaps the embers, however muted, of what reputedly began with the Emperor Constantine almost 1700 years ago still burn, even in a nation like Britain where only 5 percent are regular churchgoers.

Acknowledging that critics would be concerned about his remarks, and claiming for himself "no religious authority whatsoever," Cameron described himself as a "committed" but "vaguely practising" Church of England Christian "who will stand up for the values and principles of my faith."

Of course Cameron affirmed Britain as home to people of many faiths and no faith. "But what I am saying is that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today," he declared. "Values and morals we should actively stand up and defend." He added: "The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option," and: "You can't fight something with nothing."

Cameron paid homage to the King James Bible's magnificent language and its vast influence on all English-speaking peoples, specifically citing two great American speeches: Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. 

Even more interestingly, Cameron summarized the Bible's impact on politics and governance. "The Judeo-Christian roots of the Bible also provide the foundations for protest and for the evolution of our freedom and democracy," he said. "The Torah placed the first limits on Royal Power." And God's crafting man after His own image was a "game changer for the cause of human dignity and equality" when the "in the ancient world this equity was inconceivable." He saw the Bible in the "forefront of the emergence of democracy, the abolition of slavery, and the emancipation of women."

Cameron also credited the Bible with the "formation of the first welfare state" an unfortunate choice of words, as he cited historically private initiatives emerging from the church that "enabled hospitals to be built, charities created, the hungry fed, the sick nursed and the poor given shelter." He noted 30,000 "faith-based" charities in Britain today. 

The Prime Minister accurately described the world as getting more and not less religious, with three-quarters of humanity now adhering to the four biggest religions, up from two-thirds a century ago. "Societies do not necessarily become more secular with modernity but rather more plural, with a wider range of beliefs and commitments," he said, observing that China now likely has more Christians than Communist Party members. He even declared of ostensibly mostly secular Britain: "Christianity is alive and well in our country."

Rebutting rabid multiculturalists, he regretted they "simply don't understand that it is easier for people to believe and practise other faiths when Britain has confidence in its Christian identity." Observing that Jews and Muslims sometimes tell him their faith seems more welcome in Britain than more secular France, Cameron pronounced: "The tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too."

In what one British newspaper called a "coded attack" on the left-leaning Archbishop of Canterbury, Cameron claimed he had no objection to the prelate's expressing political views. But "he shouldn't be surprised when I respond." And Cameron said the Church of England should advocate an agenda that "speaks to the whole country." Presumably the Prime Minister doesn't believe the established church or its senior bishop should simply represent the far left of the Labour Party. 

Reputedly over 70 percent of the English and 65 percent of the Scottish self-identify as Christian. Far fewer are active in any institutional church. But obviously Cameron was still politically confident about the likely reaction to his affirmation of Christian Britain. He cited the public's enthusiasm over the recent royal wedding and papal visit.

The United States never had a state church as Britain still does. But for years many U.S. Christians, especially evangelicals, have heralded the supposed collapse of Christendom and Christian America, which remains far more outwardly religious than Britain. A recent massive Gallup study found that 78 percent of Americans identify as Christians, and 95 percent of Americans professing religion identify as Christian. Even the statistics may not reflect the full reality. Some American believers in the Christian faith in recent years have started avoiding the term "Christian" in favor of "follower of Jesus," or other alternatives that supposedly avoid negative images about organized religion.

Evangelical elites who insist, even celebrate, that Christendom has ended point to a new postmodern age where modern Western society will more resemble the pagan, multicultural ancient Greco-Roman world where Christianity began. Post-Christendom, Christians supposedly will have more opportunity for faithful witness, now shorn of the corruptions originating with Constantine's semi-merger of state with church. 

Prime Minister Cameron's speech affirms that Britain, and by implication the U.S. along with much of the West, still rests on the cultural and moral assumptions of Christianity. Both secular elites and passionate religionists often deny this reality for differing reasons. But American Christians who imagine themselves living as the bold Apostles of old in a completely hostile culture might reconsider their paradigm. Pointing at the continued social structures of morality and faith that survive as vestiges of Christendom may be more effective than pretending that 1700 years of Christendom have completely vanished.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.