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:
And behold, a man came up to him, saying “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” […] Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Matthew, Chapter 19: verse 16, and verses 21-22
That same interaction is attested to in two other gospels (in Mark, Chapter 10 and Luke, 18), meaning that it appears in three of the four overall. And it immediately precedes one of the most famous passages of the Bible: the “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” bit.
So this isn’t some obscure little backwater of Christian philosophy I’ve ferreted out with the intention of embarrassing right-wing Christians, it’s a bang-on, central aspect of Christ’s teaching. It’s not a parable (which might be open to different interpretations) and it doesn’t make use of a metaphor (which might have changed its resonances in the succeeding millennia, as with the ever-circling debate about whether Jesus meant a literal camel and needle). This is a clear instruction direct from the mouth of one whom Christians believe to be God, and it could not be less ambiguous: ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor’. It cannot be misinterpreted, or reinterpreted, and it can only mean one thing – the wealthy should distribute their wealth amongst the poor.
Now, Christ leaves some wiggle room, as he often does. Selling your possessions and giving to the poor is not an absolute requirement for followers of Christ, but it is something that a perfect person would do. To use a modern politician’s turn of phrase, Christ’s comments indicate an “aspiration”, not a “target”; a direction of travel, not a destination. So while no-one would demand that everyone who calls themselves a Christian should sell everything they own, reducing themselves to utter destitution in the process, it is the case that a Christian should be uncomfortable with the hoarding of private wealth, and should ensure that whatever excess wealth they have is used to alleviate the poverty of others. That way they may still fall short of perfection, but they can at least be sure that they are heading in the right direction, as indicated by their God.
As with individuals, so with countries. A Christian country ought to be a country which is uncomfortable with the hoarding of wealth. A country in which money that is surplus to requirements tends to be used to improve the lot of the poor (at home and overseas), not to make life ever more luxurious for those who are already well off.
So does that sound like Britain to you? The country where, according to official statistics, the wealthiest 10% of households combined are worth four times as much as the poorest 50% combined? The country that has contrived a bedroom tax to penalise poor people who “under-occupy” their homes (often through no fault of their own), but pretty much rolls out the red carpet for super-wealthy international “investors” who buy entire mansions and leave them mostly empty? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, if ours really was a Christian country, it would be a more equal one.
Opinions may vary as to whether Christ is or is not divine. There may be dispute and discussion about whether the Jesus of Nazareth figure as depicted in the gospels ever actually existed, or if he is an amalgam of several people who lived across a large sweep of time. But there is no getting away from the fact that the Christ figure portrayed in the bible is deeply radical, and the solutions he proposes to problems of inequality and poverty are such that any present-day Conservative politician would disown them. The needy should be fed, clothed and housed with the assets of the rich, not demonised as work-shy scroungers who deserve to suffer? Why, that’s practically Marxism!