Why David Cameron should be cautious of labeling Britain a “Christian country”

In his Easter message, David Cameron again opened the debate on religion and its role in our national identity by urging the British people to “all stand together” to defend Christianity. Not the first time Cameron has championed Britain’s identity as a Christian country, much of this year’s message was regurgitated from Christmas and Easter addresses of previous years, with only the reference to the recent Brussels terror attack to deflect any accusations of a half-hearted copy-and-paste effort. We’ve heard it before, and this year David Cameron didn’t hold back, saying we should be proud to stand up and say, “we are a Christian country and we are proud of it”.

There was no public furore, most likely because Easter is technically a Christian celebration. And yet, a recent YouGov poll has revealed British people are more likely to believe in ghosts than in God. A survey of 23,4441 adults found that 46% of people regard themselves as not belonging to any religion, a figure that equals the percentage of Britons claiming to follow some form of Christianity. Why then, when as many people identify with Christianity as do with agnosticism and atheism, is Britain still labelled a Christian country?

For most people, Easter nowadays means little more than a long weekend off work and indulging in chocolate. Nowhere in the Lindt Gold Bunny is there represented the story of how Jesus died in agony for people that had betrayed him. No one wants to hear that, and quite frankly no one wants the guilt.It probably isn’t fair to hold today’sChristians up against the slightly
uncomfortable implications of a text written 2000 years ago. As is now being seen with the media attention given to Isis, it’s often extremist factions that misrepresent the religious community as a whole. There were, after all, many British Christians supportive of the legalisation of same-sex marriage back in 2014, despite the resistance of many religious institutions. However, part of the reason the label “Christian country” sits so uneasily with many is because it isn’t entirely clear what Christianity today means. The Prime Minister’s “Christian values” of “hard work, responsibility, charity, compassion” and “honouring social obligations” are so vague they could just as easily be applied to any other religion.

So, if we don’t know what it means to be a Christian nation, why do we persist in viewing Christianity as inseparable from ‘Britishness’? ‘Because that’s the way Britain has always been’ seems the easiest answer, and the argument most drawn upon in the face of a ‘flood of migrants’ that for many threaten to change our way of life. And maybe because we’re not entirely sure on what ‘Britishness’ is either. Historically defined by its dominance over nearly the whole of the globe, Britain has long lived in the shadow of its Empire. Christianity was very much a part of this, albeit largely as a cover up to disguise exploitative capitalism as a ‘civilising mission’. As Britain comes to terms with forming a new identity, Christianity at first seems to offer a semblance of continuity in an uncertain future.Yet, in calling Britain a “Christian country’” there runs the risk of being dismissive of the past of which we should be very careful. Britain is very much in a transition phase, and until we work out what it means to be British and the part Christianity should have in this, maybe David Cameron should leave Christianity out of his political rhetoric for the time being.


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September 2021
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