We're not a Christian nation and those who say we are are mistaken and dangerous

A lot of hoo-hah this Easter about David Cameron’s comments that the UK is a Christian country. A group of scientists and writers wrote an angry letter to the Telegraph calling this divisive.
Personally I think Cameron was trolling us—saying something deliberately controversial in order to provoke the liberal left. The European elections are looming, and I would be willing to bet that precisely the sort of people who are drifting from the Conservative Party to UKIP are the sort of people for whom the whole ‘we are a Christian nation’ schtick would resonate. Its a faux culture war in order to shore up the base.
I wrote about the absurdity of labelling any country with a religion back in, oh, I think it was 2005. “Abolish the Cross of St George” I said then, and I suppose the fact that St George’s Day is nearly upon us means this is as a good moment as any to re-affirm that idea.
Well meaning people like to cite the census as evidence that we are still a Christian nation.

I think the language of who ‘self-identifies’ as what is unhelpful here. I “self identify” as someone who exercises, because I have a gym membership. However, I do not go to the gym. I like the thought of it in theory but not in practice. Any policy or marketing drive that assumes I exercise will fail because it’s not based on what I actually do.
Ironically, it is Jesus who teaches us that actions speak louder than words. And when we act, rather than write down how we ‘self identify’ we realise that far more people spend their weekend watch football that doing anything so Christian as attend a church. Census data is not the same thing as actual attendance data. Vague nostalgia is not the same as actual religious faith.
There’s a related idea being bandied about too: that even if we aren’t Christian, the moral framework we have inherited is of Christian origin, because up until relatively recently pretty much everyone in this country was a practicing Christian.
I say that’s just rubbish. For starters, morality is a personal thing and its dubious to ascribe a shared morality to even small groups, let alone an entire nation of people. Our personal journeys and the moral choices we make are just too different. But even if we do entertain the idea of shared morality, it has is influenced by far far more than the Church of England. The canon of English literature, two global wars, immigration, and Eastenders (for example) have all made a contribution.
‘Morality’ and ‘values’ are complex things that evolve and emerge over time. They are never discovered ready to use, whether on a stone tablet from Siani, a papal decree from Rome, or in the latest parish newsletter. Guff like “this is a Christian nation” and “this country is founded on Christian values” is reductive. The people who repeat these canards do so because they wish to imply that their religion has an authorship over our values. And with that authorship, they also claim authority. This is wrong and dangerous and we should ask them to stop.

2 Replies to “We're not a Christian nation and those who say we are are mistaken and dangerous”

  1. Hi Rob. Interesting post as usual and I agree in the main. However, I’m not sure I agree with the whole argument re self-identifying. For example, if I were to say that I had had relations with men and women, someone may decide to describe me as bisexual. However, I would never self-identify as that. Is it for someone else to tell me my sexuality based on who’s put what where? Or for me to define based on how I ‘feel’? Similarly, am I a Christian if I go to Church every Sunday? Or if I self-identify as one, believe in the Holy Trinity but don’t share that with a congregation? Interesting…

    1. Oh for sure, for sure. But there is a difference between the sort of self identity related to sexuality, and identifying as something where the overt practicing is really part and parcel of actually being that thing. That’s why I used the gym analogy: a non-practicing fitness freak is sort of an oxymoron. And I detect similar oxymoronic tendencies in the idea of non-practicing religious. If people were so schooled in Christian theology that they did not need to attend church, then that’s fine. But that’s an extremely charitable entirely unrealistic view of the sort of cultural Christians this country is producing.
      Actually, perhaps the analogy with sexuality holds after all. I imagine there are a fair few people who self-identify as heterosexual on the basis that their parents were and that is sort of feels like the acceptable norm. Whereas actually they’re repressing their homosexuality?

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