Cameron decides to do god
Regardless of whether Britain is a ‘Christian country’ or not, says Eddie Ford, communists fight for the separation of church and state
Alastair Campbell famously said that the Blair government “didn’t do god”, implying that it was a rather vulgar American habit to allow religious convictions to set your political agenda.
Of course, this is not entirely true. Tony ‘his holiness’ Blair shared prayers with George Bush just before the Iraq war (nothing like a bit of divine guidance) and was a devout Anglican - until he became an even more devout Catholic. Under his watch we had an explosion of faith schools, accounting for about one third of the 20,000 state-funded schools in England - including those that regarded creationism as a legitimate ‘theory’ and hence should have a place on the curriculum. Gordon Brown never tired of reminding us that his moral rectitude was inherited from his upstanding father, John Ebenezer Brown, a minister of the Church of Scotland.
But it was certainly the case that Blair himself tended to eschew public pronunciations on matters concerning faith or theological doctrine - perhaps anxious not to upset the applecart in the multicultural and institutionally anti-racist UK. Most British politicians appear to be agnostically inclined or ‘soft’ non-believers like Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg - atheists who bend over backwards so as not to offend religious sensibilities. And up until now most had more or less assumed the same about David Cameron. Sure, he went to church now and again - but only because that is what a Tory politician has to be seen doing, not due to any deep religious commitment.
Indeed, Cameron had previously stated that his faith was “like reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns” - it “sort of comes and goes”. Colleagues who have known him since he entered parliament have told journalists that they had never heard him talk about religion or god - but he sometimes called the department of work and pensions the “department of worship and prayer”, a presumably uncomplimentary reference to the avowed Christian faith of Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary of state, and Steve Webb, the pensions minister. Cameron, it seemed, just did not do god.
Get over it
Not any more, however. Over the Easter period many were surprised, if not slightly astonished - especially in the liberal commentariat - with a succession of statements that portrayed him as a man of faith, driven by the spiritual teachings of Christianity. Almost a proselytiser.
It would be a mistake though to think that this came like a bolt from the blue. At the beginning of 2012, baroness Warsi - then the Tory Party co-chairwoman and the first Muslim to serve in a cabinet - warned that British society was suffocating under a rising tide of “militant secularisation” that “sidelined”, “marginalised” and “downgraded” religion in the public sphere. Instead, she argued, Britain and Europe as a whole needs to become “more confident” about Christianity. Then only a few weeks ago Eric Pickles, the local government and communities secretary, sternly told “militant atheists” that they should “get over it” and accept that Britain is a “Christian nation” that has an established church (he changed the law in 2012 to ensure that English parish councils could not face legal challenges for including prayers in public meetings).1
Anyhow, Cameron on April 9 at his Easter reception in Downing Street declared that his ‘big society’ agenda (thought long dead) had actually been “invented” by Jesus 2,000 years ago - so naturally the prime minister was just carrying on his good work - and invited his audience to think of him as a “giant Dyno-Rod” trying to clear the moral drains.2 He also claimed, without presenting any evidence, that Christianity is now the “most persecuted religion around the world”.
We then had, of course, Cameron’s rambling and largely incoherent April 16 article in the Church Times.3 Here, like baroness Warsi, he exhorted us to be “more confident” about Britain’s status as a “Christian country”, “more ambitious” about expanding the role of faith-based organisations and “more evangelical” about a faith that in his opinion “compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives”. Naturally, being a liberal chap in such matters, he was at pains to stress that this renewed Christian confidence does not involve “doing down” other faiths or “passing judgement” on non-believers. God forbid. In fact, he writes - making no logical sense whatsoever - it is “easier” to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain, as opposed to a “secular country”, because the “tolerance” that Christianity demands provides “greater space” for other religious faiths too.
However, for Cameron, the “Christian values” of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, love, etc are “shared by people of every faith and none” - making it a bit of a mystery as to what is specifically Christian about such values or why Christianity is needed at all if everyone, believer and non-believer alike, can be like Jesus. At the same time he went on to condemn those who advocate “secular neutrality” for failing to grasp the role that faith can play in “helping people to have a moral code” - although he immediately, and contradictorily, popped in another desperate bid for inclusivity by adding that “faith is neither necessary nor sufficient for morality”. Dave loves everybody.
He also went on to remark that he “welcomed the efforts” of all those who help to feed, clothe and house the poorest in society - work which “for generations” has been done by Christians - and that he is “proud” to support the continuation of this “great philanthropic heritage” in our society today. A shame though that he did not tell all this to his constituency office, which called the police on the bishop of Oxford and around 40 others, when they attempted to present him with an open letter on food poverty signed by 42 Anglican bishops and more than 600 clerics.4 Or why he did not tell Iain Duncan Smith and his department officials to shut up when they attacked the Christian-based Trussel Trust - Britain’s biggest food bank provider - for “misleading” and “emotionally manipulative publicity-seeking” rather than praising it as an organisation that gets out there and makes a difference.5
Cameron’s vapid remarks in the Church Times earned him a rebuke in the form of a short letter to The Daily Telegraph on April 21 from dozens of luminaries - including Philip Pullman, Tim Minchin, Anthony Grayling, Nick Ross, Virginia Ironside, Steven Rose, Peter Tatchell, Steve Jones, Terry Pratchett, Susan Blackmore, Polly Toynbee and Dan Snow.6 They collectively argued that, apart from in the “narrow constitutional sense” of having an established church, Britain is not a Christian country, as “repeated” surveys and studies show that “most of us as individuals” are not Christian in our beliefs or religious identities: we are a “largely non-religious” society, apparently. Cameron’s new emphasis on the importance of Christianity, worry the authors of the letter, “fosters alienation and division” in society - they say it is wrong to “exceptionalise” the contribution made by Christians to social action, as “most” British people do not want religions or religious identities to be “actively prioritised” by the government. To do so, the writers conclude, “needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates” and has “negative consequences” for politics and society.
In the same vein, Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, complained that the call to give religion a greater role in public life could threaten “social cohesion”. Alastair Campbell uncharitably remarked on his blog that Cameron’s sudden proclamation of faith was because he needed a “new talking point” after the Maria Miller fiasco, reminding him of Cameron’s Arctic trip to “pose” with huskies and announce that he would lead the “greenest government ever” - ie, it was purely a cynical exercise in spin and PR (Campbell should know, you could argue).7
Those even more cynically minded have suggested that Cameron’s ‘conversion’ is due to the electoral threat posed by United Kingdom Independence Party, recent studies indicating that an emphasis on religion is likely to appeal to those Tories - and potential Ukip voters - who have become disillusioned by the growing ‘anti-religious’ stance of the party leadership, as exemplified by gay marriage.
How do communists react to claims and counter-claims about the UK being a “Christian country”? Well, the 2011 census showed that the number of people in England and Wales who describe themselves as Christian plunged from almost 72% in 2001 to just over 59% - a decline of 4.1 million people. Further analysis revealed that even that fall masks the scale of the underlying decline, because the number of believers was bolstered by mass immigration, with 1.2 million foreign-born Christians coming to Britain from more strongly religious countries, such as Poland and Nigeria.
Research by the House of Commons Library in 2012 found that the number of non-believers will overtake Christians by 2030 - though you should take the findings with a large pinch of salt, predicated as they are on the assumption that present trends will continue uninterruptedly. Nor should we ignore the Church of England’s own figures, which show that only 800,000 people went to church on a Sunday in 2012 - half the number that attended in 1968. Having said all that, the claim that today’s Britain is a “largely non-religious” society is a huge overstatement. Most people’s lives are not exactly guided by their religious faith, but surely religious belief, on however primitive a level, still affects the majority.
In other words, the open letter to the Telegraph somewhat misses the point - however much we may sympathise with the general sentiments. If it is true that the majority do have some form of attachment to Christianity, some would say that makes the UK a ‘Christian country’. But the crucial point is that religion should have no official or state role, and that would still be true even if 90% or more of the population were staunch church-goers and prayed to Jesus every night. From that communist perspective, Britain can be both a ‘Christian country’ and a secular one - as long as the church and state are strictly separated, belief (or non-belief) is treated as a purely private matter, and there is fundamental equality between followers of all faiths and those of none.
Therefore we call for the disestablishment of the Church of England, the confiscation of all its property not directly related to acts of worship, the end of all state subsidies for religious institutions, and so on. Of course, not being liberals, Marxists ultimately aspire not just to freedom of religion, but freedom from religion. Hence we do whatever we can to overcome superstition and religious prejudice, which in the very last analysis is a diversion from the class struggle and is used by the ruling class as an antidote to socialism.
However, we are utterly opposed to the idea of a ‘war against religion’ - we no more want to live in an atheocracy than we do a theocracy. Nor do we espouse the elitist and overly pedagogical approach seemingly adopted at times by Richard Dawkins and his followers - the great man who will guide the ignorant masses to the path of rationalist enlightenment.
By contrast, Marxists emphasise how liberation comes through the collective struggle from below to liberate ourselves from all forms of exploitation, oppression and inhibiting superstition.
1. The Guardian April 6.
4. The Independent April 23.
5. Daily Mail online April 17.
6. The Daily Telegraph April 21.