‘Christian Britain’? Left Blasts Cameron for Claim
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.
All that said, it’s also the case that religion plays nothing like the role in Britain’s political life that it does in the U.S. (a spokesman for the fervently religious Tony Blair famously told an interviewer that “We don’t do God,” and Blair revealed that he once proposed to end a speech with the words “God bless Britain,” but was dissuaded from doing so by his advisors). And it’s because of this fact but also in spite of it that Cameron's remarks have proved controversial: why would he bother bringing up the subject in the first place, but then again why should anyone care?
Cameron has talked about his faith in the past, and says Christian principles are at the heart of his "Big Society" policy, which encourages churches, charities and other groups to take a bigger role in their communities as his government cuts the size of the state. But never before has he been so vocal on the subject, and cynics say Cameron is merely pandering to disaffected grassroots Tory voters. There’s considerable crossover between churchgoers and Conservative voters -- the Church of England is sometimes called "the Conservative Party at prayer," and Cameron alienated many of those voters when his government enshrined gay marriage in the law of the land. Party membership is falling, with many small-c conservatives defecting to the anti-European Union, tough-on-immigration UKIP, and it’s not unreasonable to suspect that, with elections for the European Parliament a month away, Cameron is making a play to win back the traditionalists.
But while there's a debate to be had about the nature of Britain’s Christianity, and about Cameron’s reasons for celebrating it, the motives of those attacking him for mentioning the subject at all are easier to fathom. While several of those who signed the letter condemning Cameron are smug, condescending but relatively harmless members of the liberal metropolitan elite clambering aboard a Tory-bashing bandwagon, others are scientists and academics who inhabit the outer reaches of the "progressive" left.
They include, for example, the geneticist Professor Jonathan Glover, who advocates not only the destruction of human embryos in the course of research, likening them to a "cake mix," but also the killing of and experimentation on handicapped newborns; Professor Steven Rose, a biologist who has been called “the last of the Marxist radical scientists,” and who is a leading member of the campaign for a British boycott of Israeli academics; Dr. Iolo ap Gwynn, a zoologist who has called religious belief “one of the major threats to peace and our survival on this planet”; and the biologist Professor Steve Jones, who has called Britain’s private schools a "cancer on the education system," and has criticized the BBC -- of all media organizations -- for giving too much coverage to climate change skeptics.
These individuals aren’t concerned about Muslims feeling excluded by Cameron’s remarks, or Hindus taking offense; and Britain’s Jews will note the irony of the Israel-bashing Professor Rose raising the specter of sectarianism. They want to see Christianity driven from the public square because it poses a challenge to progressive orthodoxy, and to the authority of the secular state -- if churches and other private charitable groups are in the welfare business, for example, how is the state going to keep the "underclass" in its place?
They want to replace Judeo-Christian values with their own moral system, codified by "experts" like themselves and enforced by the state (under a liberal-left government rather than a Conservative one, of course). And they’re enraged by the thought that anything or anyone should stand in the way of scientific progress, however terrible the cost of that progress for the most vulnerable – whether it's the unborn, the elderly, or villagers in Africa mired in poverty by failed green energy and "development" policies.
In short, they’re not against a state-sanctioned religion, just as long as it’s theirs.