Over the last couple of weeks there has been a flurry of discussion in the press and the blogosphere following David Cameron's speech to Christian leaders in Downing Street and his article in the Church Times. It does appear this prime minister unlike the last one does do God with a vengeance well actually not with a vengeance but a cuddly pastoral one wrapped neatly in the flag - perhaps not so much the Union Jack as the flag of St George.
Responses have ranged from the satirical ...and from the predictable anger of the militant secularists to the commentary of political hacks such as Alistair Campbell. Most of the responses are rather disappointing as they lack in depth of religious literacy. Two of the better ones come from Theos and from my Evangelical Alliance colleague Danny Webster though I think Danny has been rather too gentle in his posts. My response here is an attempt to critique the PM's intervention and a range of different levels, hopefully to give some greater clarity about the theological, political and sociological positions he seems to take.
DC's personal faith
Personally I welcome that the PM has testified to his Christian faith, and that even in the office he holds that he is willing to talk about it. I am willing to take it at face value and that he is sincere God sees the heart and alone will judge all of us for our small and big hypocrisies when they come to light. Clearly Cameron has experienced the comfort of Christian pastoral ministry and been blessed by his experience of worship. However, his description of his faith is rather tentative, and his Christian formation is of the college chapel, middle to high Anglican variety. There does not seem to be much claim, or a great deal of evidence that he is a "sold out" disciple of Jesus the Messiah, or that he has really applied himself to understand the Scriptures or to seek first the Kingdom of God. All of which makes his use and warm commendation of the word "evangelical" somewhat curious, to say the least.
DC's electoral agenda
The immediate political context of the PM's public statements about Christianity include the European and Local government elections and a General Election which is now barely a year away. Frankly the Tories are running scared of UKIP who are riding high in the polls for the European elections in particular, and who could easily take enough right wing votes in 2105 to prevent the Conservatives from taking enough seats to form a government. In particular the polls seem to show that a significant number of conservative evangelical Christians who would normally vote Tory have been so angered by the Government's support of legislation for same sex marriage that they say they will vote for UKIP, who were one of the few parties to oppose the proposals. At the same Cameron was needling to mollify the mainstream church by praising their contribution to society through their many programmes of social action. He is also no doubt aware that the Christian vote, though not a solid block in the way it used to be in American elections, is well worth having, and that the demographics of church goers, especially evangelical ones, predict they are just the sort of people who are likely to vote even in European and local elections, and that they may place their cross on the ballot paper - consistently with their Christian beliefs and values. If making positive noises about Christianity is to the Conservatives benefit, then we are entitled to suspect the Prime minister's motives.
DC's wider political agenda.... welfare cuts and the big society
For two decades now it has been commonplace for governments of various political flavours in the UK to encourage the involvement of faith communities in social action and charitable work in local communities. It has become more complex as the political agendas of community cohesion and anti-terrorism have been added to government priorities, and financial support for faith groups has not been in the form of free gifts. Increased regulation, performance management regimes with pedantic levels of monitoring and the implication that any verbal proclamation of faith to service users is taboo, have made many Christian churches, and others reluctant to partner in government programmes, though the PM urges him to call on him as "dynorod" if it all gets too blocked up. Under Cameron two new elements have emerged the re-branding of charitable action as the Big Society (though no-one is really sure what the concept actually means). Curiously the PM suggests Jesus invented the Big Society. Someone with a bit more Biblical knowledge might have traced it back earlier at least to Moses and the prophets, but maybe that will appear in the version of the speech to be rolled out to the Board of Deputies and the Chief Rabbi, while for Muslim audiences it will be attributed to Mohammed (PBUH).
Secondly the programme of austerity that means that voluntary action is increasingly pushed back to earlier models of charity supported by donations and public subscription. Welfare reform and the increased volume of rhetoric against the "undeserving" poor (which resonates with the concerns of the struggling workers of middle England) is one more element of the neo-liberal project begun in the 1980s whereby wealth and power is being concentrated even more strongly in the hands of a tiny capitalist elite. For these elites, it is the role of philanthropists, and the naively generous believers of various faith communities to give as much as they choose to whoever they care to help in order to ameliorate poverty and destitution. Economic and social justice, redistribution of wealth through taxation and state distribution of benefits to people in need are nowhere on Cameron's agenda. A minimal safety net is provide as long as it is politically necessary, but increasingly it is a safety net with large holes and of course Christians have a long history of mending nets, and being fishers of men, so the church can take up again its pre- Beveridge charitable role. Ekklesia among others have exposed the attack on welfare.
Why Christians don't trust DC
One suspects that the government political machine is well aware that Christians among others do not trust our political leaders. In the first place since the expenses scandals politicians of all parties are held in low regard. While Christians who cite Romans 13 may still respect leaders of the state because of their office, they may be sad and disillusioned about the evident lack of integrity in politics. Morally conservative Christians have said and written some extremely negative things about the PM for his promotion of same sex marriage, while socially active and more radical Christians, many of whom are also conservative evangelicals theologically, are dismayed at the assault on the poor and those who seek to serve them. Church leaders across the denominations have joined together to demand action on the scandal of food poverty in the UK and been met with more than mere indifference. Many of us are are appalled at the attempts by the Mail on Sunday to discredit the work of the Trussell Trust as the leading organiser of food bank provision. There seems to be a contradiction between what government says about the value of such Christian action in conversations with us and what it then proclaims against those of us who give so much in time and resources.
What could it mean to be a Christian nation?
So says the PM we are basically a Christian country. Whether that is true or not it is probably a political mistake for a PM to say it, as this is what raises alarm bells among many. First of all it suggests some notion of theocracy. And the track record of nations being ruled in the name of God from the Holy Roman Empire, Henry VIII, Philip II of Spain, to contemporary Iran and Saudi Arabia or indeed against the name of God as in the French Republic, the USSR or North Korea is a fearsome one. Secondly to be a Christian nation necessarily excludes, where is the place for Jews, Muslims, Hindus or atheists. I can certainly not be an equal one with Christian citizens, however they are defined. Thirdly while a minority of Christians would find it attractive, and seek to frame all laws in accordance with their understanding of Christian teaching for many of us it would bring discomfort. Christianity in Britain is diverse, and some of us with memories of Roman Catholic or Dissenting forefathers who were persecuted by the established church and monarchy would be much more comfortable with a secular state with freedom for all faiths and none.
Is England Christian?
So finally at the sociological level is David Cameron right to suggest we this country is a Christian one. It is the case that our cultural heritage has been shaped by Christian faith over more than 1500 years. Church buildings, the language of the Bible and prayer book, some assumptions of legal and political institutions, of monarchy and Parliament deeply rooted in our culture. In England the established church has a privileged position, in law, in representation in the House of Lords and in its chaplaincy role in many public institutions. Of course much of this is contested, and much of it may be eroded away in years to come. Most of the broad measures of Christian commitment remain in a trajectory of decline. Christian affiliation according to the Census declined from 72% in 2001 to 59% in 2011 with increased numbers reporting "no religion" and "Muslim". Various survey measures tell the same story. Church attendance figures are also in long term decline and congregations in general have a rapidly ageing demographic profile. A few areas such as cathedral worship, and churches in London seem to buck the trend, and migration from countries where the Churches are stronger has brought both numbers and vitality to urban Christianity in Britain.
Nonetheless Christianity in England maintains a strong presence, and a well organised institutional life. There are churches in most neighbourhoods, supported vigorously and actively by people of strong personal faith. Many work hard and effectively to serve their neighbours, and to bring Christian values into professional and community life. Generally they long for others to share the same faith, but find it hard to present their beliefs in a confident and convincing way. Compared with political parties, trade unions and most other social organisations the churches are strong. England may not be a Christian country but it is one where Christianity cannot be ignored. However David Cameron's intervention on the theme and the responses to it suggest that Christianity could be much better understood, and that among politicians that it could be better practised, rather than patronised and damned with faint praise.