Who knew that the question of Britain’s religious identity was so newsworthy? First David Cameron declared that we should be "more confident about our status as a Christian country". Then a group of secularist writers signed an open letter to the Daily Telegraph insisting that Britain is basically a non-religious society. What seems to have received less attention is the reaction of British Christians themselves.
Since Cameron’s comments two weeks ago, the media have been full of claims and counter-claims about the role of faith in Britain. Some point out that 59 per cent of the population declared themselves Christian in the last census. Others remind them that this was down from 71 per cent only 10 years before. A number of non-Christian religious leaders have said they are fine with seeing Britain as a Christian country. Others have been more cautious.
The media seem largely to have assumed that Britain’s Christians have welcomed Cameron’s remarks. In reality, they were met with criticism from Christians on both the right and left.
On the one hand, the socially conservative lobby group Christian Concern was quick to accuse Cameron of "double standards" for the "contradiction" of declaring Britain to be Christian while supporting same-sex marriage. I sometimes wonder if the Bibles in Christian Concern’s offices have the thousands of passages about economic justice cut out, so that the organisation’s staff can focus obsessively on a few passages about sexual relationships snatched from their context.
Right-wing Christians were not the only ones to object. There was a storm of anger on social media from Christians on the left. True, I am one of them – but I’m far from being the only one.
There are two good reasons for left-wing Christian objection.
Firstly, Christian faith is not about claiming privileges for ourselves that are denied to others. This is essentially what we are doing if we insist that the Church should be linked to the state or that one religion should be privileged over others. Jesus encouraged his followers to love their neighbours as themselves. He never spoke of a "Christian country" but of the Kingdom of God in which "many who are first will be last and the last first".
What a contrast to the society that David Cameron proclaims to be Christian. This leads on to the second, and greater, reason for Christian objections to Cameron’s claim.
Poverty and inequality have shot up in the UK since the present government came to power. Food banks have handed out around a million food parcels in the last year – an increase of 163 per cent on the previous year. Rough sleeping in England has increased by over a third in three years. Unemployment figures are kept down by forcing unemployed people to carry out unpaid work or have basic benefit payments cut if they refuse.
I am not suggesting that the policies of a different party would lead Britain to resemble the Kingdom of God. The New Testament vision of a New Heaven and a New Earth involves radicalism, sharing and equality on a level beyond that of even the most progressive human societies. But there are few governments working against this vision more strongly, and leading their country away from it more quickly, than the government of the UK.
I cannot read Cameron’s mind and heart. I do not claim to be a better Christian than him. His views may have been motivated by deep faith. They may have been an attempt to appeal to "traditional" voters or to respond to the clergy who have signed letters to him condemning policies that lead to food poverty. They may have been a mixture of all these things. What I can do is comment on how we respond to him.
Some of the same church leaders who have spoken out against benefit cuts were seen last week welcoming Cameron’s statement and insisting that Britain is a Christian country. While I’m delighted that they are attacking austerity, I doubt they will be so effective with one foot on the side of the poor and the other in the camp of the privileged.
Church leaders need to step away from the wealth and power which have been compromising Christianity for centuries. Nonetheless, we don’t need to rely on leaders alone. There are many grassroots Christians showing the way by joining with others to resist injustice. As the balance of recent media coverage reminds us, we need to be more effective in getting this message heard.
(c) Symon Hill is an Ekklesia associate and a founding member of Christianity Uncut. His book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, can be ordered from the publisher, New Internationalist, at http://newint.org/books/no-nonsense-guides/religion.
The above article appeared originally on the New Internationalist website on 30 April 2014. Please see http://newint.org/blog/2014/04/30/david-cameron-christianity-government-....