Personally, I’m not all that upset. I don’t tend to get upset about these kinds of religious disputes anyway – my analysis is that religion is pretty much irrelevant to almost everyone’s daily life, so I can see little reason to get involved. As I’ve mentioned before, I may be a secularist, but my mind boggles slightly at the idea that anyone could regard campaigning for secularism as any kind of urgent priority. The Prime Minister is pursuing policies that have made nigh-on a million people dependent on charity if they want to eat, but it’s some obviously self-serving guff about his own and others’ Christian faith that’s worth sending a letter to the papers over?
Because of course that’s the other reason I’m not upset about this – it’s so obviously politicking. His support for marriage equality has allowed Cameron’s enemies on the right (i.e., UKIP) to portray him as hostile to “traditional values”, and the emphasis on religion is an absolutely blatant attempt to counter that. It’s a low- to zero-cost way of signalling “I’m one of you” to his erstwhile base (and hopefully picking up a handful of positive headlines in the rightwing press – especially if it seems to be getting push back from a “liberal elite”). Although, actually, he needs to be careful how far he takes it – overtly religious politicians tend not to impress the electorate, in part because it makes them seem alien to the great bulk of the population, who don’t do church, even if they feel in a vague way that it’s right and proper other people do.
Now, I’m not going to write one of those poorly-researched comment pieces which argues that Britain or the UK is a Christian country as a matter of literal fact, because the Church of England is an established church. The CoE is only in England (you’d hope the name was a clue, frankly), and the arrangements are different elsewhere. You can make the argument that England is a Christian country as a matter of constitutional fact, but since the official state churches have been disestablished in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland you cannot make the case that the UK or Britain is constitutionally Christian. (In the year of the Scottish independence referendum, you might hope that English columnists would have finally got out of their bad habit of assuming that England makes up the whole of Britain and the UK, but apparently not.)
But I do think that Cameron can make a rational defence of his claim that the UK is a Christian country in another way. The most recent census indicated that 59.5% of the UK population define themselves as Christian, as do a majority of the population in each of the constituent nations (ranging from 82.3% Christian in Northern Ireland to 53.8% in Scotland). Of course, this census when compared with the previous one also indicated a rapid downward trend in the number of Christians (a fall from 72% to 59% in England & Wales, for example), which suggests that the UK may not be a Christian country for very much longer. Clearly, as well, there’s a difference between declaring yourself a Christian on a census form and actually practising the religion – at least one survey suggests that the number of people who regularly attend Christian worship is in long-term decline, and currently stands at around 6% of the population.
So much for number crunching. There’s something else that ought to be true of a Christian nation, of course, which is that – by and large, and on balance – the people who live there ought to conduct themselves in accordance with the teachings of Christ. You know, teachings like this: