LONDON — Even the Anglican Church admits that Britons are not exactly known for their regular religious attendance.
So when Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that the UK is a “Christian country” that should be “more evangelical” about its faith, it definitely stood out – and stirred controversy.
Now, Britons have found themselves debating whether they should be “proud” of Christianity, or whether such talk risks sowing “alienation and division” in a more pluralistic society. But Mr. Cameron also appears to be playing politics, to stave off criticism over his government’s policies on poverty and shore up his party’s vote ahead of next month’s European elections.
The controversy arose last week in a commentary Cameron wrote for the Church Times, an Anglican weekly newspaper, saying “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”
While admitting that he was not a regular church-goer and that he was a “bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith,” Cameron said Christianity was “part of who I am.”
“Some people feel that in this ever more secular age we shouldn’t talk about these things. I completely disagree,” he added.
Although Britain does have a state religion, the Church of England, the question of whether it is a “Christian country” depends on one’s perspective. In Britain’s last census in 2011, 33.2 million or 59 percent of the population considered themselves as Christians – a drop of 4 million from 2001.
But according to the Church of England, only around 1.7 million people take part in its services each month. And 11.4 million Britons claim no religion, according to the 2011 census.
Several prominent non-religious figures signed the most high-profile critique of Cameron’s remarks, in a joint letter published in Monday’s Daily Telegraph, from a disparate group of 55 broadcasters, humanists, and authors among others. Signatories to the letter – which include authors Philip Pullman and Sir Terry Pratchett, broadcaster Dan Snow, philosopher A.C. Grayling, and human rights activist Peter Tatchell – claimed Cameron risked sowing “alienation and division” in what they claim is a more plural society.
“We wish to object to his repeated mischaracterising of our country as a ‘Christian country’ and the negative consequences for our politics and society that this view engenders,” they wrote. “Repeated surveys, polls, and studies show most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities and at a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces.
“We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives and a largely non-religious society. To constantly claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society,” they warned.
Cameron’s commentary has caused some surprise. Elizabeth Oldfield, director of the religion and society think tank Theos, says the article was more “evangelical” than she would expect. And Wyn Grant, a professor of politics at Warwick University, says “It shouldn’t seem unusual for the prime minister of a country with its own religion to speak about it, but it is when it’s done quite candidly.”
A political motive?
But Ms. Oldfield also notes that Cameron has recently come under fire from religious leaders – including Anglican bishops – for a reported increase in poverty under his government’s leadership, which has seen more than one million people this year turn to food banks for hand-outs. His comments may be an attempt to placate the bishops she says – and perhaps, draw a distinction between himself and his political rivals.
“What he said isn’t a massive departure from what previous prime ministers have said,” she points out, noting that Tony Blair played down his faith while in office, and has since become more openly religious. “I think [Cameron] is trying to differentiate himself from the other leaders, Ed Miliband [of Labour] and Nick Clegg [of the Liberal Democrats], who are either a bit vague about their religion or non-believers.”
But Mr. Grant notes that Cameron likely has one eye on the anti-Europe right-wing UK Independence Party, or UKIP, ahead of next month’s EU elections.
UKIP, which espouses a “defense of Judeo-Christian culture,” has been chipping away at the Conservatives poll numbers over the past year. Grant says that many of UKIP’s supporters are disaffected right-wing Conservatives who Cameron needs to woo back before the May election and next year’s general election.
“There haven’t been any detailed studies, but I suspect more right-wing Tories are also more religious,” Grant says. “By appealing to them, Cameron is reaching out to supporters ahead of two important elections.”
Oldfield points out that there may be a political aspect to those criticizing Cameron as well. She notes that several of those signing yesterday’s open letter have critiqued Christianity in the past, and argued they are being disingenuous by claiming they were mainly concerned about community cohesion now.
“Most of them don’t like Cameron as a politician and as an individual,” she says. “And I think that has as much to do with this letter as their criticism of Christianity.”