Monday 21 April 2014

A Christian Country?

David Cameron the Prime Minister of the UK, it must be noted, is first and foremost a politician. This means that his words generally mean more than, or less than they appear to mean but practically never mean what they appear to mean. So when he says-

"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 "

It is worth asking the question 'what meaning or meanings does this conceal?' 

To my mind, such as it is, Mr Cameron has, no doubt intentionally, hopelessly confused three different strands of thought only one of which is unquestionably true. The fundamental ambiguity rests in his use of the word 'we.' To whom does it refer? The individual believer? The State? UK society at large?

What is true is that each Christian as an individual is called upon to bear witness to their faith. This is primarily expressed by the way they live their lives. The fruits of the transformative power of Christ should be manifest in the way that Christians are pure love to each person whom they encounter. 

The first confusion lies in the use of the word 'evangelical.' By virtue of their vocation to the faith a believer is to be evangelical which is not the same thing as 'an evangelical.' Evangelicalism is a particular form of Christianity, it believes certain things and acts in certain ways which other parts of the Christian family have difficulty in accepting as authentic manifestations of the Holy Spirit. It is, however, a current of opinion which has sometimes been more or less easily co-opted by the political Right and I suspect that Mr Cameron used the word intending to defend it in the first sense but also to send a signal to Evangelicals that he is on their side if not in their tribe.

The second confusion and that liable to cause most offence is in the possible application of the 'we' to the State. The State has no business to be Evangelically Christian. Not because, or not just because, we are a multicultural, multi faith, diverse country. But because State functionaries are appointed on their ability to perform their statutory tasks and it would be absurd to apply a religious belief test in addition to a competence test in giving people these appointments. It would be still more absurd to expect non-believers to fulfil a Christianly evangelical role if they themselves are not believers. The best that the Christian Church or the ecclesial communities of the Reformation can expect from the State is a recognition of the special role they have played and continue to play in UK and European society.

David Cameron remains a politician. The debate he has stirred up really does nothing to help the Christian faith or to impress upon the minds of those who hear him the Good News about Jesus Christ. But it probably does help the Conservative Party bring on board Evangelicals and those for whom the words 'Christian values' is a shorthand way of saying 'everything was better in the 1950's'. And that is all he cares about. 

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  1. There's one extremely famous Winston Churchill speech (let's say for the sake of argument, the blood sweat toil and tears one) which, prior to broadcast, the Prime Minster had actually been working off and polishing up at political rallies all over the country for years in various forms. That was fine back in the day, because local speeches tended to go unrecorded, except in very general terms. I wonder if Tony Benn's style and use of the same handful of well loved bon mots is also a product of beginning his career back in that age.

    The advantage of being a 40s/50s politician is of course that you can tell every community what they specifically want to hear, without much risk of it getting out anywhere else. What surprises me about the Cameron speech is that it's still tailored to a very small audience, as if the whole of the rest of the nation wouldn't be listening in too (and getting the text as a pdf off his press office if they want.)

    A recent survey among Anglican bishops ( showed that none of them strongly agreed with the idea that 'the UK is still a Christian nation'. So Cameron's certainly not courting them. You're probably right that he is courting the evangelicals - you should see the mad stuff about the Somerset floods and gay marriage that they printed in the Church Newspaper letters page. There's certainly a group there that are older, naive, out of touch, probably not consumers of the more cynical political narratives of the broadsheets, who he might feel he wants to win back from UKIP after the gay marriage thing. Problem is, as he schmoozes them, everyone else is watching and he'll inevitably be putting off another bunch of people. The best he can hope is that they shrug, and realise that he's simply selling a fantasy to a small demographic.

  2. I think that the Evangelicals and the Shire voters thinking of UKIP are two distinct groups. The latter like Christianity in the sense that its a shorthand way of saying 'the tranquility of order 1950's style.' They like having the CofE there but have better things to do on a Sunday morning than attend its services. DC is sending them a signal that he feels their pain. What he's not doing is committing himself to actions which might upset the socially liberal urban voters who like open borders and the free flow of capital and labour.

  3. A hilarious PS to this - I'm just reading the report of the bit where Cameron said that Jesus invented the Big Society. But the Church Newspaper (no, I don't buy it, but a friend has it) adds:

    "But Downing Street was forced to issue a clarification of this remark when The Times pointed out that in a speech to the British Asian Community the Prime Minister credited them with creating the Big Society."

    Very hard trying to be all things to all people these days.

  4. "Saruman was shown that the power of his voice was waning. He cannot be both tyrant and counsellor. When the plot is ripe it remains no longer secret. Yet he fell into the trap, and tried to deal with his victims piece-meal, while others listened"
    Gandalf the Grey.