The UK’s paradox of faith

April 23, 2014

When David Cameron recently proclaimed in the Church Times — the organ of the Church of England — that he was a Christian, that his faith helped guide him through life and work and that Britain is a Christian country and should be proud of it, he was met with a wall of disapproval.

When a European leader says he’s a Christian and that he lives in a Christian country, he’s asking for trouble. The approved political position in Europe is that religion should be commended for its sterling values when it cares for the poor and condemned when it is used as a rationale for terrorism. Otherwise, politicians should steer clear and leave it to the clergy.

European states are not the United States, and thus not “nations under God,” (though only since 1954, when the words were added to the pledge of allegiance). EU states are nations under constitutions that prescribe secularism. They say that all faiths may (peacefully) flourish and that none shall have priority.

Two famed British authors, Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman, ganged up on Cameron with 50 others in a letter to the Daily Telegraph. They wrote that the prime minister is playing a dangerous and divisive game. He has not accepted that the country is mainly non-religious and he will upset other faiths in a country that has lots of them, not just Christianity, they wrote.

One reason for the Church Times article may be the European Union (EU) parliament elections next month. The anti-EU UK Independence Party, which makes a point of believing in good old British values, is expected to do well. A spin doctor might argue that a judiciously placed article affirming the nation’s Christian attachment might do a little good for Cameron.

Critics incorrectly assumed that this was all there was to it. Cameron wrote that he is a “classic” Anglican, whose church attendance is irregular. But there’s no reason to think that he can’t both ride the UKIP’s coattails and actually believe that his religion has meaning for him and for his country.

Did Cameron’s article do harm? On the contrary.

A nation’s constitution does not enable religious exclusion on its own. Exclusion also depends on the nature of civil society in which the privileges and problems of religion are sorted out. The Pope and the Vatican exercise a huge influence on politics, media and society in Italy. The crucifix may be displayed in Italian classrooms. But its constitution is proudly secular.

In France, the secularism that has been branded into the country’s public behavior since the 1789 Revolution is more strictly observed. The French state was willing to fight with its Islamic population, the largest in Europe, over women wearing a headscarf in public buildings — including schools. The state won. When President Francois Hollande’s affair with an actress was reported earlier this year, the religious angle was unexplored because it wasn’t thought to be relevant.

In the UnitedStates, a presidential candidate who professes atheism would find it tough-going in a country where religious observance is still (though falling) in the majority. The most serious question that came up against Barack Obama when he first ran in 2008 was not a matter of political orientation, but about which church he belonged to.

The U.S. Constitution, protecting those who had fled religious persecution in Europe, abjures any smack of a state religion. America is a country of competing faiths, which in part gives them the vigor that they show.

Cameron speaks against one of Britain’s many paradoxes. Its second chamber of parliament was, until the 1990s, full of lords and ladies whose titles in some cases went back to medieval times and the illicit couplings of kings. Even now, in a hard fought compromise, some 92 remain. Yet Britain’s democracy is robust.

The Church of England is a state religion, with bishops in the House of Lords, the primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury — who is appointed by the prime minister — and with the Queen at its head. One of her titles is “Defender of the Faith” — though she has never said a public word in its defense as congregations dwindle and amid debates over women bishops or gay marriage.

The benign paradox is that this state church, long past any power to enforce its faith on anyone, is actually the best guarantee to other faiths that they will find a place in the state and have leave to prosper. Being a state church means ensuring that a multi-faith society with sometimes hostile factions can find accommodation. This happens through drawing them into forums where they may talk and even pray together.

There are many currents in the Church of England, as in every great church. Most of these are united in a determination to be like the good and active neighbor; happy that the street is more diverse and anxious that it be at peace.

This is the vision of Christianity that Cameron invokes in his article. There can be much to sneer at. For the enthusiastic believer, the piece is too milk-and-water. For the egalitarian, it’s too condescending, a form of noblesse oblige. For those who see other faiths as an abomination, it’s… an abomination.

For the letter writers to the Telegraph, Cameron’s article serves only to divide. Yet important voices among those who are supposed to be its victims did not think so. Farooq Murad, secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, said of course Britain is culturally Christian. Anil Bhanot, head of the Hindu Council UK, said he is “very comfortable” with British Christianity. They seem to understand the British paradox better than the great and the good who signed the letter.

PHOTO: British Prime Minister David Cameron (C) lights a candle as he visits the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem March 13, 2014. REUTERS/Thomas Coex/Pool

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