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So apparently England is a Christian country, or at least that is what our beloved Prime Minister is trying to tell us and if he said it then it must be the gospel truth. For a man who once stated that his faith was “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”, it’s a bit rich that we are now supposed to believe he is now evangelical about the place of Christianity in society – even if he maintains that he is “not that regular in attendance [at Church], and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith.” A cynic might suggest that he is political point-scoring, attempting to appeal to the Christian middle-England whilst making sure that we all know that he is relaxed about his faith to keep the more agnostic of us onside. Shrewd move, Mr Cameron, shrewd move.
The problem is that most British people raise a quizzical eyebrow if anyone is passionate and fanatical about anything they believe in. Try it: next time you go to a house party start promoting your beliefs in Marxism, Randism, Catholicism, Atheism – the list goes on – and see if people love to hear your stuff or give you a distanced look and try to avoid you for the rest of the night. It’s not that we don’t like people being passionate about things, sport being a glib but bleakly true example, just don’t force your views on me. In fact, unless there’s a debate already going on, it’s best to keep them to yourself. There is no issue with the prime minister having faith, but if this evangelising continues it will have pangs of American Republicanism and all that that entails, which is just not a road we want to go down. As one commentator said in America: “If you don’t have faith and want to go into politics, you best find some, and I’m not talking about the solid-gold classic by George Michael.”
The truth is that we are, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has declared, “post-Christian.” This is not to say that we are not Christian, but that our cultural memory and history have been shaped by the faith; even Richard Dawkins agrees on this one. For a case in point, look at the criticism of stand-up comedians who do jokes mocking Christianity, but not, and the example is always this, Islam. Apparently it is because they fear the wrath of Islamic fanatics, or so the complainants cry. It’s not. It is simply that because Christianity is so embedded within our cultural identity, we will understand the jokes without having to do any homework, as the reference points are already there through our upbringing. For a terrific example of this, see “Stewart Lee’s anti-Islamic stand-up” on YouTube. It’s very funny.
Look around you. This is a Christian country. There are Church of England churches in every town and the Queen, on the shrapnel in your back pocket, is given her full title “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.” The issue is that by stating this, many have taken Cameron to mean that the people of Britain are Christian, and that is manifestly not true. As Lucy Mangan in the Guardian wrote: “I had some water poured over my head when I was a baby, but it didn’t mean much to me at the time and in the years since it hasn’t come to mean much more.” This sums up modern Christianity in Britain. Many of us, when asked whether or not we are Christian, will respond: “Well, I’ve been christened.” That’s as far as our association with the Church goes. We do have a “vague faith”, but the statistics show that the number of us who self-identify as Christian is reducing, from 72 percent on the 2001 census, to 59 percent on the 2011 census.
Mr Cameron just needs to realise that this is no bad thing and that, yes, Christianity can in his words “help people to have a moral code.” However, when over 20 bishops wrote to the Daily Mirror discussing the issue of food banks and hunger in the UK, they didn’t ask for only believers to help as though they would not know better; they appealed to “those of all faith and none, people of good conscience, to join with [them]”. Christianity does not have the monopoly on “responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love”, but shares these values with all of humanity.