Of course Britain is a Christian country, says Charles Moore, in response to the 'angry atheists’ who claim otherwise. And we must defend that precious heritage
David Cameron said last week that Britain is a Christian country. In The Telegraph yesterday, 55 mainly atheist public figures said in a letter that it is not. The funny thing is, both sides are right. The Prime Minister is correct statistically, historically and culturally. Although the self-identification of Christians in Britain is declining, 59 per cent described themselves as such in the latest census. That is still a huge figure: allegiance to Christianity is roughly double that offered to any political party.
Besides, the country that we now (until September’s Scottish referendum?) call the United Kingdom has been explicitly Christian for more than a thousand years. Its monarchy, Parliament, morality, law and education; its flag, national anthem, key texts, much of its literature, art and architecture; its health care, many of its charities and endowments, public holidays and festivals, the structure of its week and its place-names – all these and many more are Christian in origin. Prof Jim Al-Khalili, who led the signatures, derives his first name from an apostle of Jesus, as do his co-signatories the novelist Philip Pullman and the anti-religious fanatic Peter Tatchell, who is named, ultimately, after the first Pope.
Usually these connections are not meaningless vestiges. Britain’s entire political character today, with its idea of liberty based on Parliament, would be radically different if we had not become a Protestant nation in the 16th century. Without our religious history, our ancestors would not have explored North America or founded the United States. Scotland and England only united in the first place because they found a way of preserving their separate church structures, and their king produced a great Bible in English.
Our Queen, 88 yesterday, was crowned by an archbishop, and the same will apply to her successors. She is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, not to give her a pretty title but as a way of bringing peace and maintaining national authority in matters which can – and often did – lead people to kill one another. By the way she has lived her own life, she has shown how well she understands this.
So 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.
On the other hand, the angry atheists are surely speaking truth when they say that “we are a largely non-religious society”. If there is a battle in Britain nowadays between something explicitly Christian and something secular, the latter usually wins. Look at Sunday shopping, mass abortion, the growing desire to kill old people (sorry, let them “die with dignity”), divorce, surrogate motherhood and so on. For better or worse, religious objections couched as such tend to be disliked and rejected (unless they are made by Muslims, in which case people get scared of causing offence).
Even in his own Holy Week article for the Church Times that annoyed the atheists, Mr Cameron was careful to avoid anything about Christianity that was at all specific. Indeed, he was at pains to point out that being “evangelical” about Christianity did not in any way suggest that the Christian virtues are not shared by everyone else. The 55 accused him of “exceptionalising” the Christian contribution. He was so far from doing this that one sometimes wondered why he bothered to write the piece at all.
Except in tone, the view expressed in the Cameron article was not that different from the Telegraph letter attacking it. So is this argument really about anything? I think it is. First, it is political. Not only does Mr Cameron want (as has been pointed out) to beat back Ukip, he also wants to suggest, ever so politely, that he is personally different from Ed Miliband (Jewish by birth, atheist by belief) and Nick Clegg (atheist, married to a Spanish Roman Catholic). His tolerant, middle-of-the-road Christianity, shared by his wife, makes him that bit more British than his opponents – or at least, more English. He may calculate that being mildly, undogmatically Christian (which he genuinely is) is more attractive to voters than believing in nothing. The 55 signatories may be right that the British public resent any imposition of Christianity, but they resent the imposition of atheism much more.
Second, and much more important, Mr Cameron truly does think that the Christian roots of our society help explain and sustain us. They actually make us nicer to other faiths than if we had no faith at all (the C of E is particularly good at this). They make us more inclined to do good works and set up good schools.
He is surely right that what he calls “secular neutrality” is a discouraging thing for those who want to help other people, compared with the inspiring self-sacrifice of Christian compassion. For the majority of British people, Christian ideals help us have a more kindly and energetic idea of what we can do than we otherwise would. Far from, as the letter-writers complain, “fuelling enervating sectarian debates”, Mr Cameron’s words are part of a unifying, friendly story about what this country can achieve. But if Mr Cameron is right that Christian roots make the great British oak grow strong, he surely needs to think harder about what those roots are and how they work.
Of all the human institutions developed in the light of Christianity, marriage has been the most abiding. It is because of Christianity that marriage became a lifelong and increasingly equal bond between one man and one woman, chiefly in order to bring up children lovingly. Without Christian teaching, it was not much more than a property deal about women (with sex thrown in), made between men.
Because he wanted to be seen to modernise his party, Mr Cameron decided to introduce single-sex marriage. In rushing forward to do so, he made no attempt to reflect on the Christian heritage which he now extols. He never seems to have thought about why the relationship between a man and a woman might not, in fact, be the same as that between a man and a man or a woman and a woman.
Although an exemplary parent himself, he did not consider how refounding marriage on a quite different basis could endanger the rights of children. The people who framed his new law started – too late – to consider what marriage law actually involves and found that the law of consummation, central to the definition of marriage, could not apply to any same-sex act. Quite unintentionally, marriage has been redefined, with sex taken out of it. The good Christian Mr Cameron has trivialised and de-Christianised our greatest social bond without meaning to. Not surprisingly, he chose not to speak about marriage at all in his Church Times article last week: he would not have known what to say.
So what should people think as our Prime Minister is assailed by all those fierce believers in nothing much who have become so prominent in recent times? I hope they will defend him. He is a thoroughly unsectarian man, always interested in mobilising the best in British life for the common good. He has a moral generosity that his letter-writing critics lack.
But I also hope Mr Cameron will think more deeply about how the Christian heritage he holds dear is under attack. Until quite recently, Christians in Britain could assume the goodwill, if not the active belief, of the powerful in society. That assumption can no longer be made. Our beliefs are under attack from influential and militant atheists on the one hand and Muslim extremists on the other. To defend them, we have to work out much more carefully what they actually are.