Again and again in the past few years, more and more politicians have been joining church leaders in popping up to declare that Britain is a Christian country, that we ought to be proud of this fact, and that we ought to proclaim and promote it. Sometimes this takes the form of claiming that everything good about Britain – from state education to democracy to the welfare state – sprang from a Christian root (questionable historical claims) and sometimes that we are literally a Christian people (dubious in light of the fact that polls and surveys show a majority of us do not have Christian beliefs, do not go to church, and when asked if we have a religion and what it is, most of us don’t say ‘Christian’). This week it all got too much and one group of non-Christians decide to respond. Reacting to the most recent comments by the Prime Minister, they sent an open letter to him which was published in The Telegraph.
Most people in Britain will surely agree with the sentiments in our letter. Most of us aren’t Christian in our beliefs and know that our society has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. Even more of us disagree with the specific use to which the Prime Minister put his ‘Christian country’ narrative. Elaborating on his main theme, the prime Minister said, it was his mission ‘to expand the role of faith and faith organisations in this country.’ He claimed that this has been a ‘consistent theme’ of his government and that ‘there’s more [government] can do to help make it easier for faith organisations.’ This divisive activity is unpopular and has negative consequences for the rights and freedoms of many in Britain. More generally, people certainly don’t want religion to have more influence in government – in a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll, “religious groups and leaders” actually topped the list of domestic groups that people said had too much influence on government. Domestically at least, the British people are content for government to keep out of the religious sphere and vice versa.
More generally, it’s the simple statement that Britain is a ‘Christian country’ itself which does harm. Some non-Christians – especially older people who grew up in a more Christian culture and leaders of other religions who value their relationship with a powerful established church – don’t mind it. But it alienates many of us who are not Christian, whether British for generations or newly arrived. In an increasingly diverse society and one with citizens of a range of religious and non-religious beliefs and identities, we need a national identity that will be inclusive not divisive.