The extended holiday weekend celebrating Easter wasn’t enjoyed by all in the UK as a letter published in The Daily Telegraph on Sunday reveals. Signed by some 55 Britons from differing professions and industries, the letter responded to Prime Minister David Cameron’s religious assertions last week, concisely objecting “to his characterisation of Britain as a “Christian country” and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders.” Reaction to the letter in turn has been swift with that bastion of tolerance the Daily Mail labelling the signatories to the letter as “militant atheists”, utilising spokespeople of other religions to further make their point. What does it all mean?
The original article penned by David Cameron for the Church Times publication was a reiteration to ‘Middle England’ that he was a Christian and that Christianity still has a role to play in the governance of this country. Cameron, like other politicians in the UK has often been criticised for refraining to mention his faith or the influence it exerts over the affairs of this country. It is sometimes suggested that the politically correct nature of our times is behind what is a conscious decision not to ‘do the God thing’ publicly. But after writing his article before Easter last week, that isn’t an argument that will hold much clout in the near future, even if his commentary fell short of what some Christians would have hoped to read.
The controversy that has arisen centres on the Prime Minister’s words in describing the status of the United Kingdom as a ‘Christian country’. On the face of it one finds it hard to disagree. Both constitutionally and culturally, the UK is deeply imbibed by Christian practices. Births, marriages and deaths continue to exert a Christian mind-set, even if the populous, including those engaging in such practices are disbelievers otherwise; public holidays find their basis in dates of importance on the Christian calendar (ironic too that the letter in opposition was published on Easter Sunday); and difficult as it is to remember, the very foundation of our Parliamentary sovereignty is intertwined with the overarching authority of the Head of the Church of England. Whilst the latter was acknowledged by those opposing David Cameron’s sentiments, they saw it as a narrow definition of the Constitution, probably rightly so but in those terms of no less significance.
I would argue that in many ways the UK is still a Christian country, but perhaps not in the way that David Cameron would like us to think. The “tolerance which Christianity demands” was reminded to us over the last decade during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, harking back to the era of the crusades; if these were truly humanitarian interventions why were barbaric regimes in the Middle East and Africa not simply ignored, but continued to be supported by the UK through trade and investment? I make that point in the knowledge that Christian groups were amongst the most vocal in opposing the War in Iraq, but it hints at the complexity and sophistication in being labelled a Christian country, or a country of any religious dominance for that matter.
It was interesting to see that the dependable Hindu, Sikh and Muslim representatives were wheeled out by the Daily Mail in their hastily brought together God squad in today’s article. An attack on the ‘Christian’ heritage of this country or any in the West by largely non-believers in God is still in the 21st century seen as an affront to all religions for some reason. In the case of the Sikh representative this is beyond irritation, particularly in light of recent statements by Lord Indarjit Singh that suggested he might have rediscovered his Khalsa sovereignty. Instead, his comments indicate that whilst he is beginning to choose his words much more carefully to reflect the sovereignty of the Khalsa, by allowing himself to be quoted at all he still sees Sikhi as associated with organised religion rather than as an all-encompassing way of living.
The sad truth of the matter is that with an election looming and seeing himself as the only ‘Christian’ leader of the traditional political parties, David Cameron has opted to influence the masses with his selective credentials of being inspired to lead a more fulfilling life by Jesus Christ. Perhaps if he had acknowledged the frankly criminal behaviour of a member of his cabinet earlier this month instead of allowing her to continue in her role as the Culture Secretary, we might be less cynical of his Christian values.