England’s prime minister, David Cameron, triggered a debate last week when he spoke of Britain as a Christian nation. His comments published on April 16 in the Anglican newspaper, Church Times, set off a debate that is still continuing.
Some people feel that in this ever more secular age we shouldn’t talk about faith and the importance of Christianity, he said.
“I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organizations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives,” he affirmed.
“I think people will be glad to see the gospel getting back into politics – or explicitly back into politics, it is there in a lot of what the Government tries to do, in looking after people,” commented the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, Kieran Conry, head of the evangelization office of the Catholic Church in England and Wales the same day in London’s Telegraph newspaper.
Others were not so complimentary. In a letter published online on April 20 to the Telegraph 55 prominent people, including writers and academics said: “we object to his characterization of Britain as a ‘Christian country’ and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders.”
“At a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society,” they argued.
In response Gary Streeter, a Conservative Party member of Parliament and chairman of the cross-party Christians in Parliament group, said that only a “handful of secular militant atheists” had an issue with Mr Cameron’s intervention,” in comments reported April 22 by the Times newspaper.
“Many of the great things about our country are based on our Judaeo-Christian heritage and of course, much of the charity and voluntary work in the country is carried out by religious communities,” he said.
A number of articles noted that in the 2011 census 59% of Britian’s population declared themselves as Christians.
“Mr Cameron would be an ignoramus if he did not identify Christianity as the key factor in our national story. And he would be a fool – as well being unfaithful to his own beliefs – if he did not celebrate its benign, continuing effects,” commented Charles Moore in an article dated April 21 for the Telegraph.
He did acknowledge that in recent times secularism had made significant advances in British society.
Moore also criticized Cameron for his pushing of same-sex marriage. The family, based on marriage between a man and a woman has been an important contribution of Christianity, he argued.
The debate continued, with Dominic Grieve, the attorney-general, saying that “atheists who believed that Britain was no longer a Christian country were deluding themselves,” the Times reported April 23.
Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, also defended Mr Cameron, the Times reported. Anyone questioning Britain’s Christian status was “ignoring historical and constitutional reality,” he said.
The same day a letter to The Telegraph, written by eight leading thinkers including Roger Scruton, the philosopher and writer, insisted that moderate Christianity “enshrined” in the British constitution actively protects those of other faiths and none.
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, entered the debate, the Telegraph reported, saying: “I’m not a man of faith, but it think it’s stating the flamingly obvious that we as a country are underpinned, informed, infused by Christian values.”
Subsequently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke out, saying, “It is clear that, in the general sense of being founded in Christian faith,” he said, “this is a Christian country,” the Guardian newspaper reported April 25.
He also said that judging by the reaction to the prime minister’s “moving” article, “anyone would think that [he] had at the same time suggested the return of the Inquisition.”
For those in the church as well as for those of other faiths and traditions, history “makes for some uncomfortable reading,” he says. “Its facts are awkward for all of us, but it is no use pretending they do not exist. The PM is right on this,” Archbishop Welby concluded.