David Cameron

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron (right) and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (left) disagree on many issues, including the idea that Britain is and should be a Christian country. Photo courtesy Number 10 via Flickr

Is Britain a Christian country?
Legally? Yes. Culturally? ish. Demographically? Increasingly less so.

Does it matter? Heavens yes! Hell no!
Not surprisingly, the country’s leading politicians and pundits are divided.

Britain’s religious identity has been hotly debated for centuries, even before Henry VIII split with Rome to become head of the Church of England in 1534. The debate, which has obviously evolved over the centuries, was rekindled earlier this month at Prime Minister David Cameron’s Easter reception. Cameron told a roomful of prominent Christians:

And as Eric Pickles said this week, 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.

But those weren’t Communities Secretary Eric Pickles’ only remarks on the matter. Speaking to delegates at the Conservative spring Forum in London, he said of “militant atheists”:

We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don’t impose your politically correct intolerance on others.

Not so nice, but he’s partially correct. The Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England. The Queen is head of state, but she’s also Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the church. 26 seats in the House of Lords are reserved for church officials, and state-funded schools can refuse to admit children based on their parents’ faiths.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said those who deny Britain is a Christian country are “absurd” and “ignoring both historical and constitutional reality.”

 Again, a little harsh, but fair point from a historical and legal perspective.

Here’s where things get dicey. Amid backlash for his comments about this “Christian country,” Cameron doubled down on Jesus and upped his evangelical rhetoric in a column for the Anglican newspaper Church Times.

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 represents Britain’s supposed “Defender of the Faith,” but he also represents the voting public. To say “we” (Britain) should be more evangelical about a faith (Christianity) that compels “us” disenfranchises the 41 percent of people in England who do not identify as Christian. A study conducted last year suggests that half of Brits are non-religious and only 20 percent belong to the Church of England.

If anyone has a stake in claiming Britain as a Christian country it’s Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the church’s principal leader. His remarks on the matter have been somewhat measured:

It is a historical fact (perhaps unwelcome to some, but true) that our main systems of ethics, the way we do law and justice, the values of society, how we decide what is fair, the protection of the poor, and most of the way we look at society . . . All have been shaped by and founded on Christianity.

Despite Christian foundations, only 1.5 percent of residents in England regularly attend Sunday service. In these terms, Britain “is certainly not” a Christians country, Welby added.

55 of the nation’s leading secularists responded to Cameron’s remarks in an open letter this week:

Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a “Christian country” …  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.

I live in Whitechapel, one of London’s most ethnically and religiously diverse pockets. Once the East End’s Jewish hub, Whitechapel is now predominantly Muslim. Halal butcher shops and colorful sari stalls line the streets and remain open on Christmas when most of the city has shut down. Is Whitechapel not part of Cameron’s Christian Britain?

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg waded into the debate Thursday, calling for the Church of England’s disestablishment in England (i.e. separation of church and state):

In the long run it would be better for the church and better for people of faith, and better for Anglicans, if the church and the state were over time to stand on their own two separate feet.

From a religious freedom perspective, I couldn’t agree more.

8 Comments

  1. The United Kingdom is as Christian as it is a Monarchy. Something of former importance but of zero practical effect on the modern society. If they dumped both, society will still function the same with no major changes.

    Cameron is using “Christian Nation” the same way American fundamentalists do. To proclaim sectarian prejudices are part of the government and marginalize those whose beliefs differ from his

    • I’m not so sure that Britain will or can “dump” its monarchy. The people have always paid mightily for it, but just watch the events in which they parade their royals, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury plays a vital role. The people form mobs. They love it. They eat it up.

      I recall a time, 1972, when I was visiting London and stopped in a tavern hoping to be able to locate a “cold” beer. The beer was “refrigerated” in an open tray of ice cubes at the edge of the backbar, hardly chilled. A gentleman struck up a conversation and asked how I was enjoying London. I responded that I loved it, but I thought the statues and other royal symbols were rather overdone–including the huge initials, “ER,” reverencing “Elizabeth Regina,” at the bottom, center corners of the very large stage curtains at Covent Garden. His cute British response was, “And let me tell you, it’s mighty f…ing expensive, too.”

      The people in the pews spend a mighty dollar on the monarchy of churches. Consider the recent flap, quieted already, over the audacious expenditures for sumptuous mansions for the Catholic archbishops of Newark, NJ, and Atlanta, GA–following the superbly more audacious expenditures spent by the brazen Bishop “Bling” of Germany on his palace. There are numerous others, old and current. They have happened and continue because “the people” allow it.

  2. No, it doesn’t matter whether Britain is Christian, or of any other religious persuasion, or none at all. The only thing that matters is that it is a civil nation, better than the United States, presently, that the genuine majority are in genuine control, and that they live in ways that prove they care for each other. You don’t need any religion to be like that.

    Every nation should be like the very first clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution claims we must be, free and separate from any established religion. Of course, technically, thanks to Henry VIII, the monarch of Britain is the “Protector of the Faith,” head of the church. That title and position are meaningless now, in spite of any formalities like the queen approving the recent appointment of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

    Britain is loaded with meaningless antiquities. Those antiquities may be glamorous and full of super-expensive pageantry, just like the Catholic Church’s Vatican headquarters and the mansions in which many of its bishops reside–and many of its parish priests–at the expense of the stupid people in the pews. They are costly and they are showy, but they serve absolutely no good for the people.

    However, until the masses realize and admit that religion changes like everything else–you know, evolution–there can be no genuine freedom of religion or any other aspect of societies. Until there is freedom of religion that includes the clear understanding of freedom from religion, there can be no freedom of any kind, there can be no real democracy. That goes for money, also.

    The United States is a case in point. We are still searching to be a genuine democracy. We started out with that goal in our original break from Britain, but our original Constitution legalized slavery of particular people. Our original Constitution did not recognize women’s rights, they could not vote. We still keep women subservient to men in wages, opportunities, and control over their own bodies.

    We all have a very long way to go. At times like the present, we seem to take one step forward and two steps backward. Things will continue that way as long as people are not genuinely equal, as long as we have civil or religious monarchies, as long as we have oligarchies like the Koch brothers, the Walton family, the Romneys, and the thieves of Wall St. and corporation heads who are permitted by the masses to keep them subjugated.

  3. British Work and Pension Secretary Iain Duncan Smith hopefully knows more about work and pensions than the ignorance he displays about British history and religion in his country or anywhere else. “Historical and constitutional reality” doesn’t make anything “eternal.” When it comes to religion, religion had always been whatever its adherents and non-adherents have made it.

    Countries may legislate about many behaviors, but not belief. Belief is whatever people believe, and no two people, Catholics, Anglicans, or any others, have ever shared the same details of religious belief. No country or church can legislate belief. Religion is in the mind. Thinking cannot be legislated.

    When politicians like David Cameron for Iain Duncan Smith start talking religion, beware. Some of the most dangerous behavior we are still seeing brazenly demonstrated in our own country are the efforts of some people and their politicians to unconstitutionally mingle politics and religion.

    In spite of the awful history of evil practices by religious people, many have still not learned the necessary wisdom of peace by maintaining a separation of religion and churches from politics and government. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are two sides of the same coin. That should be the coin of every realm, whether civil or monarchical.

    David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith need to study all history, religious and church history included, to learn the vital lessons that study can provide in bringing all ways of life, civil, religious, constitutional, and legislative, to honorable reality. They are currently rank examples of the terror that has always resulted from mingling religion with civil government.

    • Enjoyed your very interesting commentaries about Britain and her ways.

      I think we can easily summarize England’s and America’s obvious greatness and excellent civility —

      1. Righteousness or Godliness exalts a nation…Pro.14:34
      2. Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God….Phil. 1:11

      • Ugh. You enjoyed the commentaries but ignored them completely in favor of some homily.

        1. Godliness makes a mess of nations since nobody has a clear idea of what that is beyond their specific faith and sect.
        2. Righteousness does not require Jesus.

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