It takes some doing to get yourself condemned by a couple of dozen leading scientists and a trio of stand-up comedians for the same alleged transgression, but it’s a feat that Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has managed to pull off. His perceived offense? Asserting that Britain is a Christian country.
In an article for the Anglican newspaper Church Times, Cameron said Britain should be more confident about its status as a Christian country, and that Christians should be “more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”
This prompted 55 secularists and atheists to write a letter to the London Telegraph newspaper accusing the prime minister of fostering “alienation and division in our society” and fueling “sectarian debates.” The signatories included leading atheist thinkers and scientists, together with writers and broadcasters, most of whom sit somewhere between soft liberal and hard left politically.
On the face of it, Cameron’s claim doesn’t seem particularly controversial. While religious belief and church attendance are much less widespread than in the U.S., 59 % of Britons described themselves as Christian at the last census; other polls have put the figure closer to 50%, but by any measure those professing some connection to Christianity comfortably outnumber both atheists and other faith groups.
It’s also indisputable that Britain’s laws, customs and culture are underpinned both by the major Christian faiths, and by Judeo-Christian values in general. The Church of England is that country’s established religion (Scotland and Wales have their own national churches), the monarch holds the title Defender of the Faith, and the national anthem begins with the word “God.” When the controversy over Cameron’s remarks erupted, Britain was in the middle of the Easter break, with most of the country enjoying public holidays on Good Friday and the Monday after Easter Sunday.
Cameron has received broad support from the leaders of other faiths, and from political allies and opponents. Farooq Murad, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “No one can deny that Britain remains largely a Christian country.” Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said the prime minister’s choice of words was “neither controversial nor problematic.” Christian Labour MPs have backed the PM, and even the atheist and archly progressive Nick Clegg, leader of the Tories’ Liberal Democrat coalition partners, said Cameron’s remarks were “entirely uncontroversial.”
And it’s laughable to accuse him of fostering division. The modern Church of England is up to its eyes in “multi-faith initiatives,” and has been deferential to the point of defeatism in the face of a fast-growing and assertive Islam. The CofE is also tolerant, inclusive, and hang-wringingly liberal; it’s more about social work than the Lord’s work these days, and no one on the left objects when senior figures from it or the Catholic Church attack Conservative policies on welfare or immigration.