LONDON – Prime Minister David Cameron’s effort to describe his own Christian faith at Easter has backfired, with some critics accusing him of fostering “alienation and division” by characterizing Britain as a “Christian country.”
The fuss over the remarks fit into the debates on national identity that are going on all over Western Europe, in the face of increasing immigration, especially from non-Christian societies. The debate is particularly striking in Britain, an ancient kingdom that is also asking other fundamental questions: whether Scotland wants to remain within it, and whether it wants to remain within the European Union.
Cameron wrote an article for a weekly Anglican publication called Church Times, explaining that his own faith is deep, if “a bit vague” on the “more difficult parts of the faith,” and that his attendance in church is “not that regular.” He said he wanted to “infuse politics” with Christian values such as “responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility and love.”
That much seemed to pass muster. But he also wrote: “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organizations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.” Britain has an established church, the Church of England, which is Christian; Cameron is a member.
Cameron hastened to add that “being more confident about our status as a Christian country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgment on those with no faith at all.”
But his effort to head off criticism failed, and his article prompted a four-paragraph letter to the British daily newspaper the Telegraph, signed by 56 prominent people, including scientists, authors, broadcasters and comedians. They included the novelist Philip Pullman, a noted atheist; the anatomist Alice Roberts; Terry Pratchett, the fantasy writer; the novelist Ken Follett; Maureen Duffy, a playwright; the philosopher A.C. Grayling; and Peter Tatchell, who runs a foundation for human and sexual rights.
The letter accused Cameron of misrepresenting Britain. “Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established church, Britain is not a ‘Christian country,’ ” the letter said. “Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities. At a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian and post-Christian forces.”
By emphasizing Christianity, the letter went on, Cameron’s article “needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritized by their elected government.”
The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, defended Cameron during an Easter broadcast. “We do need to be more confident,” he said. “The confidence that he expressed in Christian faith is something absolutely that we agree with.”