David Cameron's statement that Britain is a Christian country is both brave and wrong. He was of course right to say that many of our morals today come from the Bible, but does that make Britain a Christian country? He was also right to draw a contrast with France and point to how, in the contemporary context at least, establishment makes it easier for those of others faiths to receive public recognition - a point often made by the Chief Rabbi. But again, does legal establishment make Britain a Christian nation?
I think not for the reason that we must distinguish the public recognition of Christianity from saying we are a 'Christian nation' and thereby identifying Christianity with national identity. The former is open to including many faiths and people of no faith as contributing to the common life of this country, each in proportion to the other, so that at the present time, it is only accurate to say that Christianity has proportionally had a bigger impact in shaping this country than say Buddhism.
Christian customary practices such as carol singing and Christmas trees, as well as prayers in Parliament or council chambers are a legitimate part of our common life. However, to say we are a 'Christian nation' is to confuse what it means to be a Christian with what it means to be British and this is to confuse the 'nation' for the church.
In theological terms this confusion has a name: it's called 'phyletism' and was condemned by the Synod of Constantinople in 1872 as a heresy. What the Synod was condemning was a move whereby national identity and ecclesial identity become synonymous such that to be Greek is to be Orthodox and vice versa. This may all seem like a matter of semantics, but to understand why careless talk costs lives we must draw a historical analogy.
On the continent, around the turn of the last century, the church faced an existential challenge. On the one hand were the parties of revolution who judged themselves to represent progress and who were anti-religious. Some Christians sided with the parties of revolution while at the same time challenging their anti-clerical and anti-religious ideologies. Christian socialism was the offspring of this marriage. On the other hand were the parties of reaction who sought to defend the iniquitous and unjust status quo in the name of stability and order. Most Christians aligned themselves with the parties of reaction. For some this was out of a fear of anti-religious ideologies, others feared disorder, while others identified their interests with the status quo. The economic and political tumult brought about by the Great Depression resulted in widespread support for the parties of revolution, which culminated in communism, and for the parties of reaction, which culminated in Fascism.
Christian Democracy as a political movement was born out of a rejection of both revolution and reaction and came to power after 1945 in Italy and Germany in the ashes of Fascism and in resistance to Communism. Unlike the parties of revolution and reaction, post-war Christian Democratic parties, alongside Social Democratic parties, sought to be broad-based, drawing together the working and middle classes, Protestants and Catholics, socialists and capitalists. They refused the politics of fear, hate and paranoia that communism and fascism thrived on and called for a politics of the common good. It was this vision of politics that lay behind the formation of the Common Market (now the EU) by the likes of Jean Monnet. Yet now both the EU and Christian Democratic parties are at a point of crisis.
Arguably, the European church today is faced with a parallel challenge to the one it faced at the beginning of the twentieth century. Those who claim to represent progress adopt anti-religious rhetorics and promote tolerance for everything but religion. While those who represent the parties of reaction are increasingly trying to co-opt Christianity as a trope for racial and national identity while demonising and scapegoating Islam and immigrants for what are economic woes brought about by a crisis in capitalism.
In this country, the EDL and BNP do this most explicitly. On the continent, parties such as Front National in France, the Swiss People's Party, and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands adopt similar tactics. Careless talk about a 'Christian nation' plays into the hands of the contemporary reactionaries.
The three-fold challenge before the churches is how to utterly condemn Islamophobia and neo-fascism, challenge anti-religious rhetorics and intolerance by so-called progressives, and honour but not make an idol of the cultural heritage of Christianity. What is needed is a renewal of a broad-based politics of the common good, one that draws together all faiths and those of no faith; passionate critics and supporters of capitalism who together seek a more just and stable financial system; and radicals and reformers, both of whom are committed to the defence of a common life. In the UK London Citizens and its work of broad-based community organising best embodies such a politics. Such efforts need urgent multiplication.
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