Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron is enjoying some controversy for again hailing Britain as a Christian nation.
It came most recently after a Downing Street Easter reception for church leaders, similar to receptions Cameron’s held for Muslim and Hindu holidays, where Cameron said “we should be proud of the fact that we are a Christian country, and I am proud of the fact we’re a Christian country and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so.” He recalled his own recent “small pilgrimage” to “where our Saviour was both crucified and born.”
Cameron cited global persecution of Christians and said “our religion is now the most persecuted religion around the world.” And he emphasized, “We should stand up against persecution of Christians and other religious groups wherever and whenever we can, and should be unashamed in doing so.”
The Prime Minister urged the church and political institutions towards more “evangelism,” which he defined as “more belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives and make a difference and improve both the spiritual, physical and moral state of our country.” He cited his own commitment to changing welfare, sustaining foreign aid, and outlawing modern slavery.
There was significant blowback, of course, so Cameron followed up with a column in the Church of England’s newspaper, in which he vigorously reiterated and expanded on his earlier affirmation of Britain as Christian.
“Some people feel that in this ever more secular age we shouldn't talk about these things,” Cameron wrote. “I completely disagree. I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”
Cameron insisted Britain’s Christianity doesn’t diminish other faiths or people of no faith, since Christianity demands tolerance and offers “greater space” for various religions than secularism does. He cited “Christian values” of “responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love” that other faiths also teach. And he extolled the humanitarian accomplishments of faith-based charities.
“I am a member of the Church of England, and, I suspect, a rather classic one: not that regular in attendance, and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith,” Cameron admitted. “But that doesn’t mean the Church of England doesn't matter to me or people like me.” He noted its “openness,” liturgy, architecture, and cultural heritage, which are a “vital party of Britain’s living history.” And he mentioned his children attend a Church of England school.
Cameron observed criticism for the Church of England’s “perceived woolliness when it comes to belief,” confessing he himself is “not one for doctrinal purity, and I don’t believe it is essential for evangelism about the Church’s role in our society or its importance.”
Of course, he cited his government’s claimed economic accomplishments, and touted future political goals, as any prime minister would, even in a church magazine. He repeated his “evangelism” theme about uplifting society through good works, through church and politics. “That to me is what a lot of the Christian message is about — and it is a confidence in our Christianity that we can all reflect on this Easter,” he concluded.
The details of Cameron’s personal theology are not with certainty known, perhaps not even to himself. He pushed through same-sex marriage in Britain, despite opposition even from the wooly-minded Church of England. He has cited faith’s role in comforting him after the death of his young son five years ago. He seems to see Britain’s historic Christianity and its state church as pediments for sustaining national virtues and cultural cohesion.
More zealous Christians rightly insist that Christianity makes more specific theological claims than Cameron acknowledges, with a much more defined understanding of “evangelism.” But politicians, especially when governing, are not typically called to articulate theological specifics.
Among Cameron’s critics were 50 cultural elites who signed a critique from the British Humanist Association, declaring:
Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established church, we are not a ‘Christian country’. Repeated surveys, polls, and studies show most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities and at a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives and a largely non-religious society. To constantly claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society.
A 2011 census showed 59 percent of Britons professed Christianity while 26 percent were religiously unaffiliated. Muslims were 4.4 percent and others were 3.2 percent. But only a small percentage of Britons regularly attend church, and of course many professing a cultural Christianity don’t fully subscribe to key Christian doctrines. The Church of England typically has about 1 million churchgoers on Sunday. About 40 percent of 50 million English (out of 62 million in the United Kingdom) affiliate with the state church. But some of Britain’s larger churches are Evangelical or Catholic and cater to African, Asian, and East European immigrants. The BBC quoted a Hindu and Muslim leader defending Cameron’s remarks.
Cameron’s deputy prime minister and coalition partner, Nick Clegg of the left of center Liberal Democrats, who is agnostic, also defended Cameron’s Christian declaration, saying, “I'm not a man of faith but I think it's stating the obvious that we are a country underpinned, informed, infused by Christian values, Christian heritage, Christian history, Christian culture, and Christian values,” which he cited as the source of British religious toleration.
Ignoring that reality, more aggressive secularists and multiculturalist are reluctant to even acknowledge Christian influence as a source of the tolerance they acclaim. Some Christians as well, perhaps especially Evangelicals, are discomfited by Cameron’s assertion, preferring a more exacting form of personal faith in Christ that cannot be stretched into Cameron’s form of broad social and cultural force.
But if Britain can’t be described, or shouldn’t aspire to be described, as Christian, what then should it be? Secularism is sterile and often oppressive. Multiculturalism typically is antagonistic towards Christianity and Western Civilization, rejecting cohesive social identity in favor of postmodern dissonance. Britain’s other religions remain relatively small.
Christianity, for better or worse, and I think mostly for better, describes not just the faith of the Church and its true believers but also their pervasive and transformative influence over nations like Britain across more than a millennium. That even wooly-minded, theologically vague Church of England politicos find in Christianity a source of cultural inspiration and potential moral uplift for a whole nation is surely, on the whole, good news, especially compared to most alternatives.