By Tommy Gilchrist
April 23, 2014
British Prime Minister David Cameron found himself embroiled in a religious kerfuffle over the Easter weekend — one that has been largely of his own making.
In an article published April 16 in the Church Times, a weekly British newspaper with strong historic links to the Church of England that date to the 1860s, Mr. Cameron commented that Britain “should be more confident of our status as a Christian country.” It didn’t take long for the howls of outrage to follow quickly on the heels of the Prime Minister’s remarks.
A letter, published in The Sunday Telegraph on Easter Sunday, objected to Cameron’s characterization of Britain as a “Christian country” and went on to claim that doing so “fosters alienation and division in our society.” The open letter, signed by some 56 public figures, came from a group that included renowned authors, Nobel Prize winning scientists, prominent broadcasters and comedians and a smattering of politicians.
Only two weeks ago, I wrote on this site about the role religion had played in the disappearance of what I termed “transatlantic conservatism” with the religious right in the U.S. hijacking the Republican Party for their own fundamentalist viewpoints, whilst political parties in the U.K. had stopped “doing God” since Lady Thatcher left office. Indeed, I had commented that not only had all three major political parties in Britain (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat) come to a consensus on the separation of religious conviction from political position, but that the chasm between Cameron and Thatcher on faith seemed irreversible. After all this was a man for whom faith is a very private thing, not something he wears on his sleeve, and who has stated repeatedly that he “does not have a direct line to God.”
However, in what has come across as a politically-motivated outreach to the segment of the Tory base, which has been battered by gay marriage equality and a perception that the government defends all faiths except Christianity, Cameron’s comments have moved closer to making his faith — as vague as it may be — a central tenet of next year’s General Election on May 7.
There are a subset of Conservative voters, who identify more closely with the segregationist views of United Kingdom Independence Party. These voters have felt besieged in recent years by the growing secular movement within the U.K. and do not share their sense of “traditional” family values. Unfortunately, this section of the Tory party has been collapsing since the days of John Major’s “back to basics” campaign, in which then-Prime Minister Major claimed that many people, in particular the older generations, were bewildered and deeply disturbed by “a world that sometimes seems to be changing too fast for comfort, old certainties crumbling, traditional values falling away. Week after week, month after month, they see attacks on the very pillars of our society – the Church, the law and even the monarchy.”
Whilst dwindling in numbers, this section of the Tory party tend to be (as Major identified) the older segment of society who are also the most politically active when it comes to voting; if David Cameron has any hope of being returned as Prime Minister in 2015 he needs this older base to get out the vote for him. He makes a specific play to this constituency in his article in the Church Times:
“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. But that doesn’t mean the Church of England doesn’t matter to me or people like me.”
Cameron is, however, essentially correct in his comments on two accounts: first, the United Kingdom is a Christian country and, secondly, that fact “does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgment on those with no faith at all.” While the overall number of Christians in the U.K. may be declining, down to 59.3 percent of the population according to the last national Census in 2011, Christianity remains the largest religion. Further, the Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England, with some 27 million baptized members, and the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Even other religious groups around the U.K. have backed David Cameron’s comments that Britain is, essentially, a Christian country. Hindu Council U.K. said it was “very comfortable” with the description whilst Secretary General Farooq Murad of the Muslim Council of Britain said nobody could deny the U.K. remained a largely Christian country with “deep historical and structural links” to Christianity. Anil Bhanot, managing director of Hindu Council U.K., added that “people can secularize those traditions but it doesn’t take away from the fact that the country was based in Christian traditions.”
Julian Baggini, writing in The Guardian this week, makes an excellent point that the outrage from some British secularists is a bit surprising given that even the eminent Richard Dawkins, conspicuous in his absence from the letter’s signatories, accepts that the U.K. “is historically a Christian country” and that he is “a cultural Christian” who is “not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history.”
This was followed by comments from two senior Conservative government officials, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (and former Tory leader) Iain Duncan Smith and Cabinet minister Attorney General Dominic Grieve, to The Daily Telegraph in support of their boss the Prime Minister. Whilst Mr Duncan Smith remarked that those denying Britain is a Christian country are “absurd” and “ignoring both historical and constitutional reality,” Grieve went further. The Attorney General stated, “the rise of religious fundamentalism is a major deterrent to people” and “a big turn off away from religion generally.”
There is, perhaps, a lesson here for the Tea Party and the religious right in general in America. You can wear your religion on your sleeve quietly, or you can talk about it openly and how religion matters to you individually, but what one must always remember are David Cameron’s words of wisdom: “even when people disagree with specific policies, they can share in the belief of trying to lift people up rather than count people out.” The majority of Americans aren’t saying that you can’t be religious; they’re just asking that you keep your religion out of their rights under the law, and out of their wombs.
Tommy Gilchrist studied at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, where he studied physical geography. He was formerly an intern with the U.K. Conservative Party. He’s an avid follower of U.S. politics, and you can find his commentary here, on PolicyMic and on his personal blog.