David Cameron’s comments on Britain being a “Christian country” have sparked debate. But, there’s been less debate on what he thinks ‘Christian’ means. I think that this is where the challenge for Christians really lies…
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, marked Good Friday with an article in the Church Times, speaking about “our status as a Christian country”, as opposed to “some sort of secular neutrality”. This has been pretty widely debated, with the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini giving what I think is the best response, discussing the ways in which Britain is and isn’t a Christian country. Particularly he draws a distinction between a Christian country (one whose culture is shaped in all sorts of ways by Christianity) and a Christian state (some sort of theocracy).
As Baggini notes, and as Cameron implicitly acknowledges, the largest faith group in the UK is actually those of “vague faith”. Cameron essentially talks about the ways in which the Church of England can connect with the ‘vague faith’ group, which seems to include him, through pastoral care, the transcendent beauty of the buildings and so on. Cameron also talks about the links he has to the Church of England, which is encouraging and thought-provoking for how we seek to link with the ‘fringe’ and how we can help people go from ‘vague faith’ to personal faith.
As Cameron mentions (and seeks to, rather vaguely, link to the “Christian values” that he mentions), this government does deserve more credit than it has received for meeting the target of spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on aid. Equally, I’m unconvinced that all of this governments policies can be said to have been inspired by the values that he lists. However, the problem I really have with Cameron’s statements is that it secularises and universalises Christianity.
As I’ve written already, I’m uncomfortable with the list of values that Cameron credits to Christianity: “responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love”, which as he goes on straight away to note “are shared by people of every faith and none”. Which raises the questions on what, if anything, he sees as distinctive about Christianity? What about the call to holiness and sacrifice, of self-giving love? As Archbishop Justin writes in response:
Christian faith is much more vulnerable to comfortable indifference than to hatred and opposition.
Cameron obviously isn’t indifferent, but I suspect that his comfortable vagueness, his irregular attendance, his lack of interest in “the more difficult parts of the faith” is widespread and a challenge that the church needs to consider in more detail. Also, Cameron concludes:
If we pull together, we can change the world and make it a better place. That to me is what a lot of the Christian message is about.
It’s a ringing conclusion, but it’s wrong. The basis of the Christian message is that what will really change the world is God’s kingdom, which has been brought in by Jesus’ death and resurrection and which we can look forward to and take part in, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit:
creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
Instead, I’d encourage Cameron to reflect on the challenge of the prophet Micah:
what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Justice, mercy, humility. If those virtues were at the heart of government then I’m pretty sure quite a lot of the policies would be different, as would how they are implemented. It would certainly be interesting to hear politicians from all the parties seeking to base what they do on them!