Our political roots are Christian but what is growing from them less soby Elizabeth Oldfield / January 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
Who cares if Britain isn’t a Christian country? Lots of people, evidently—or we wouldn’t keep having debates about it. The problem with these debates is that we are often talking at cross-purposes, using different definitions without our realising.
The constitutional component of the question—regarding bishops in the House of Lords, the monarch’s coronation and church schools—can be a distraction. Constitutionally speaking, we are a straightforwardly Christian country. It would be a giant task to unpick the settled fabric of our national institutions. With many other important issues currently on the economic and geopolitical agenda, it seems unimaginable that any government will devote the time and resources required to alter the consensus. The various threads of the establishment might be pulled out one at a time, over decades, but they do not in themselves decide the question of whether we are a Christian country.
It’s not even, at heart, a question about the Christian make-up of the population. Polling figures are useful headline fodder, but of little lasting interest. Committed Christian believers, tending as they do to think Christianity is good and true for the individual as well as for society, want as many people as possible to properly ascribe to the faith. Whether they care or not about the rapid decline in “nominal” Christian believers—the shift from “Christian” to “no-religion” as the default choice for those who have not given it much thought—will depend on their theology.
Committed secular atheists tend to be satisfied with the shift, seeing declining numbers of declared Christians as good news. But if it was only that tug of war over how big a chunk of people tick which box, most people, neither hostile to nor very at home in church, would not particularly care. The fact that they do is not primarily for demographic or constitutional reasons. They care because it goes deep into the heart of who “we” are, indeed if we think there is such a thing as “we” at all. And it’s this component that has made it an enduring question.
TS Eliot asked the same question in 1939. He also rejected the definition of a “Christian Society” as primarily about the makeup of the population or the political structures. He asked instead what is the “‘idea’ of the society in which we live? to what end is it arranged?” Fundamentally, what are the things we hold dear, the “values” which we are prepared to define ourselves by?
Eliot asked the question in the shadow of Fascism, with a disturbingly strong version of national identity looming on the horizon. We ask it now, with the hard-edged religio-political identity of Islamic State (IS) again making our fuzziness look like a potential weakness. We are told that to fight extremism, we need better “narratives,” a more attractive national story we can invite diverse groups into. In 1939 and onwards, even those not particularly Christian themselves (ie Churchill), were able to call on a fundamentally Christian story. Despite David Cameron’s occasional seasonal efforts, the story is no longer an especially unifying one.
We care if we are no longer a Christian country because we’re changing, but we’re not at all sure what we’re changing into. Our moral, cultural, political, social, and intellectual roots are Christian, but what is growing from them less so. We are not moving (demographically at least) from Christian to secular atheist, but from Christian to a state of deep difference. The already fragile consensus around democracy, liberalism and live-and-let-live good manners has not yet found a way of rooting itself in different soil.
It is not only Christian thinkers who worry about this. In France, the novelist Michel Houellebecq has caused consternation by arguing that liberal secular commitments are not enough to defend liberalism. He’s building on legal philosopher Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, who argued in 1967 that “the…secular state lives on premises that it cannot itself guarantee.”
Perhaps the most interesting question is then not, who cares if we aren’t, or choose not to be, a Christian country, but, if we are not a Christian country, what will we be instead?
The British Academy event “Who cares if Britain isn’t a Christian country?” is taking place at the Royal Society on Thursday 28th January at 6.30pm, chaired by Prospect’s Arts and Books Editor Sameer Rahim Click here for details.