The story seems to be a tailor-made rejoinder to a commonly heard complaint from American religious conservatives: that the U.S. need only look across the Atlantic to Europe as a harbinger of things to come in an increasingly secular nation. Empty pews. Moral decay. Secular politics with elected officials crouching in fear of talking about their faith.
But then came British Prime Minister David Cameron, with a pre-Easter reception during which he “thanked churches for their work in society, including the growth of food banks to help the poor, and urged them to speak up for persecuted Christians around the world.” He referred “at one point to Jesus Christ as ‘our savior,’” and “went further than any recent prime minister in talking about his Christian faith publicly.”
Cameron subsequently penned an opinion piece for Church Times, in which he elaborated:
Some people feel that in this ever more secular age we shouldn’t talk about these things. 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 also dismissed the idea that a secular society is more tolerant of minority faiths than a Christian one, writing that “Many people tell me it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country precisely because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths, too.”
(Like the Prime Minister using his office to promote his Christian faith.)
But then Cameron reveals his politician’s circumspection, arguing on the one hand that advocates of “secular neutrality fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality, or the role that faith can play in helping people to have a moral code.” That accusation is abruptly followed by the disclaimer that “[o]f course, faith is neither necessary nor sufficient for morality.”
Cameron also lays bare his quintessentially 21st century religiosity, proclaiming that “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.” If that’s “classic,” then the Church of England should have been having debates about the typewriter or television killing religion long before the internet was accused of the crime.
Not surprisingly, Cameron has come under fire from atheists and secularists. Yesterday, a group of 55 writers, scientists, academics, and other prominent public figures wrote an open letter criticizing Cameron for “his characterisation of Britain as a ‘Christian country;’ and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders.”
They went on:
Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a “Christian country”. Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities.
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 we are a largely non-religious society.
Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society. Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs. This needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.
And now, also unsurprisingly, Cameron is being accused of playing politics with his religion talk. Alaister Campbell, former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s communications man before Blair’s notorious embrace of faithiness after leaving office, says Cameron’s “religious ramblings” are a shallow political ploy.
On his blog, Campbell asks, “how are we to believe Cameron believes it all when so recently he was twiddling the knobs on the radio trying to find his faith at all, and admitting he was a Christmas and Easter, send the kids to Sunday school, bog standard middle England Churchgoer?” (This is, after all, what Cameron essentially confessed to himself, as a “rather classic” member of the Church of England.) Campbell accuses Cameron of embracing a “tactic in search of a strategy,” concluding, “if this is leadership, God help us.”
In the U.S., we have no established church; in fact our constitution forbids such a thing. Yet such religious talk is far more commonplace among American politicians, even when it is met with objections from church-state separation advocates. There’s a cautionary tale in this Cameron effort, but it’s not about the perils of secularization, but rather about the risks of dismissing it.