What makes Britain a Christian Country? A Response to David Cameron
David Cameron’s recent speech celebrating the anniversary of the King James Bible in Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral is extraordinary—politically, historically, and even theologically. Cameron feels Christian values will combat the social disorder manifest in the August riots, and justifies this claim on the idea that Britain is a Christian country (albeit Christian in a way that doesn’t interfere with other religions). Christianity inspired both stirring opposition to the Nazis—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example — and neo-nazi mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik. However, there is no one complete set of Christian ethics. There is, instead, a culture of debate and discussion, which, whilst clearly not what Cameron meant, is an important legacy of Christianity that I do think could be relevant. It is clear from Cameron’s impressively historically-literate speech that his Christianity is inclusive and modern. However, the ideas underlying his social Christian vision are long-standing, and, as an historian of religion, I think it is worth exploring some of the issues invested here.
On a legal level, Cameron is right. There are, in this country, churches by law established: the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. Cameron’s highly historical approach to the topic bolsters the importance of this strain within his thinking. It is worth unraveling and exploring some of these issues.
The location of Christ Church, Oxford, is particularly apt. A few feet from the entrance of the Cathedral in the College founded by Cardinal Wolsey, an old door has the legend ‘No Peel’ permanently and squarely tacked in nails, a legacy of a protest against the 1829 decision of Oxford University’s MP, then Home Secretary Robert Peel to allow Catholics to vote in elections and sit in Parliament—Catholic Emancipation. This was one of the first crucial moments in dismantling the Anglican political establishment created in the mid-seventeenth century, following what was known as the Civil War, and is now better known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (historians’ latent recognition of Scotland and Ireland). For centuries, the narrative of Anglican-protected liberty ran that Catholicism was foreign, and Catholics owed their primary alleigance to a foreign power (the Pope). State-established Anglicanism prevented Papal dominance, and allowed a freedom of conscience not possible under the despotism of the Pope. This is the origin of the idea of Anglican liberty which Cameron now proposes: bigoted anti-Catholicism.
It is worth noting how some of the response to this speech has been about demographics and church attendance: including for example the BBC coverage on the day. This maps onto a wide academic debate about the nature of secularisation and society after the Second World War: for instance, Callum Brown’s notable The Death of Christian Britain. Measuring the enormous decline in religious participation is not new, and academics developed a now-classic model of secularisation in the 1960s, informed by developments in sociology and their own generation’s refusal to continue their parents’ religiosity (see Peter Berger). However, one important riposte to this idea of an inevitable decline of religion is that measuring church attendance does not measure belief. It measures social conformity, not individual faith. By advocating a return to a socially-conditioned Christianity, Cameron is (I’m sure unintentionally) pitching into awkward territory: how comfortable are we with measuring religion? Those who attend churches today do so out of individual commitment—not social expectation. Can we truly say that our society is ‘less’ religious than previous ones?
The discussion of demographics and society is important. However, it dominates things: scholars of secularisation now try to understand who the ‘nones’ are: those who list ‘none’ on the religious questions on the census. Many religious leaders use the arguments of sociologist Robert Putnam and claim that the problem is not with religion, but civil society more generally: people don’t go to church, but they also don’t go to any other group activities and public life in the internet age is utterly different to that a few decades ago.
In both its historical and social elements Cameron’s thinking is not new. It is a diffused vestige of a long-standing British prejudice. His version is not, to my mind, bigoted. There are wonderful, inclusive strains of Christianity, and Christ Church, where I myself have often worshipped, is a Cathedral staffed by eminent academic theologians who are more conscious than most of the nuances of Christian theology. And this is something Cameron missed. In a 4000 word speech, he spoke entirely of one Christianity.
I am hugely uncomfortable with the idea that Christianity alone can provide society’s missing ethics, not because this claim automatically elevates Christianity beyond other faiths (he does, in fact, confront this), but because it is patronising to present the idea of one simple Christianity. It ignores or dismisses the complexity and nuance of Christian theology, the vibrancy of Christian debates. In the speech, Cameron argued Christianity provided ‘values and morals we should actively stand up and defend’ as ‘[t]he alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option.’ Whilst it might be obsequious to paraphrase my boss, I think in this case the point is relevant: David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, has argued that secularity is not neutral, and is not experienced as neutral by people of faith. Rather, he believes that the world is complexly secular and religious (a point I find compelling, certainly). Yet Cameron’s binary seems to be ineffective moral neutrality vs. robust Christianised moralism, which sounds rather Victorian, really.
It also ignores how the history of Christianity is a history of debate: in essence, all the great clashes of Christian history, from the Council of Nicea in 326 A.D. (which resolved debates on the nature of Jesus) through the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (where genuine theological debate was a motor of comprehensive social change) to a return to the same debates—this time looking for consensus—in the late ‘90s Cathlolic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Nature of Justification have revolved around ideas. Christianity is a religion dedicated to right-thought, to orthodoxy, to thinking. Judaism, in contrast, manifests its theology in law, in practice, in action: it is an orthopraxic religion. Cameron has marginalised an amazing legacy of debate.
This speech comes at a time when managerial politics is dominant. We mostly care about credit ratings, and the essence of politics is not any sort of comprehensive vision for society, but technocracy. This is the ultimate death of politics. If we do look to Christianity for the restitution of social ills, let us look to its messiness, its debates, its awkwardness: not a smooth, unproblematic assumption that all religions say the same thing, and that message will be positive. Let us, instead, work towards well-informed, intelligent, rigorous disagreement. That, honestly, is truly Christian.
James Golden is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University
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James, thanks for that thoughtful analysis. I think the question about ‘which Christianity?’ is well made, and even more pertinent in the United States where there is a division between church and state that many on the religious right seem to wish to overturn without posing, let alone answering, that key question – if the US is formally to be a Christian nation is it to be Episcopalian, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic or even Televisual – run by one of the TV pastors who understands ad revenue better than scripture?
That rather flippant point does however lead me to what strikes me as Cameron’s biggest problem with re-establishing the centrality of Chritianity to British life.
Historically Christian teaching has always tempered the worst excesses of materialism. Until the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 English Christians could avoid committing the sin of usury by outsourcing moneylending to English Jewry. Over the following centuries the need for credit and the lenders’ need to make a profit commsensurate (OK often far in excess of but in theory commensurate) with the risk led Christian Europe to row back from ancient prohibitions.
Christian charity, a feature of British life until well into the 20th century, powered the philanthropy of generations of wealthy merchants and entrepreneurs – many social reformists in the 19th century were successful industrialists who chose to use the money they’d made to improve the lives of those around them. It’s no surprise that many were devout Christians, often Quakers. Their philanthrophy went hand in hand with the notion that God favoured those who worked hard – and with the idea that self indulgence was sinful. Wealth was a sign of Gods favour but carriies with it the responsibility to do good.
What Cameron, and all those on the right of British politics, has avoided tacking is the shift in values in Britain over the last 150 years, not, as some would have us believe amongst the poor, but amongst the rich.
The days when it was considered shameful to be seen to indulge oneself in the fruits of one’s success are long gone. Victorians may have indulged themselves by building monuments to themselves; institutions and buildings to bear witness to the taste, erudition and generosity of their benefactors and creators, but the modern super-rich are positively worshipped for their complete self indulgence – yachts, girlfriends (boyfriends), drugs, football clubs, toys out of the reach of the many.
Indeed they are merely at the pinnacle of a crass materialism, a culture of more stuff for more stuff’s sake, that lies at the heart of global consumerism. Cameron’s Conservatives can simply not decouple themselves from this phenomenon – the banks, the corporations, the super rich own the Conservative party. They bank-roll it.
What I suspect Cameron is really trying to resurrect is the deference and the sense of social order which Anglicanism acted to maintain through the 18th and 19th Centuries, without subscribing to the radical Christian notions of poverty and humility that at least tempered the worst excesses of those atop the Victorian social order.
Put simply Cameron hopes to revive the Anglican church’s traditional role without paying any heed to the difficult bits of New Testament theology – most of the sermon on the mount, Paul’s discourse on righteousness and certainly not the passages from the Acts of the Apostles which depict members of the early church giving up material possessions and sharing everything amongst the community.
Thanks, as a Christian who found Cameron’s speech both interesting and disturbing (for some of the same reasons you mentioned) I very much appreciate this post. Christianity is not simply a series of values that can be applied to solve cultural weaknesses (such an approach is actually the kind of “Christianity” that Anders Breivik seemed to espouse; he was clear that he was only interested in a “cultural Christianity” as a repository of certain values which he believed to be the cure for the social ills he saw around him).