55 secularists have written a letter to the Daily Telegraph complaining that David Cameron has referred to Britain as a Christian country. According to a YouGov poll, most people describe themselves as non-religious. According to the most recent census, most people in Britain describe themselves as Christian.
So who is right?
First, we should avoid putting words into Mr Cameron’s mouth: what he wrote in the Church Times was:
“We should be more confident about our status as a Christian country.
“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.”
If we begin from the position that ‘Christian Country’ is a status which can be obtained, like ‘Fair Trade Town’ or ‘licensed to drive goods vehicles over 10 tonnes (unladen)’, then it’s possible to argue the toss all day about whether the YouGov survey is right, or the census, or whether having an established church gives Britain this status, or laws in some way connected with the ten commandments. We could look at weekly church attendance, which runs around 10%, and argue that Britain is not Christian, or compare that 10% with all political parties, arts associations, visits to museums and libraries, and conclude that Christianity remains one of its dominating forces. Likewise, we could look at the influence of the Bible on our language and cultural life, and argue that Britain is Christian, or look at the daily output of television, radio and newspapers, and argue that it is almost entirely secular.
The letter to the Telegraph takes a slightly different tack. Although it asserts that Britain is not Christian, its real force is suggesting that the effect of David Cameron’s pronouncement is division. This is a clever shot, because it should be relatively obvious to everyone that Cameron wrote his Church Times article because he wants to produce a particular effect. The secularist letter argues that the effect will be the opposite.
Nonetheless, the letter accepts the same underlying question: “Is Britain a Christian country? Discuss”.
Historic Christianity is defined more or less completely by the New Testament, read in the context of the Old Testament. All Christian churches base their beliefs upon it, and none acknowledge any written authority above it. Contemporary Christianity exists in thousands of flavours, with believers in every one of the world’s 196 countries, expressing their faith in yet more culturally-relevant ways — but all look back to the New Testament for their teaching.
So, what basis does the New Testament provide for the claim that Britain is (or ever was) a Christian country?
Actually, none whatsoever. The early Christians never had any official connection with any state, except through the courts, during persecutions. Armenia claims to be the first country which was officially Christian, and that was not until AD 301. Not only did the early Christians have no opportunities for Christianising the state, they had no theology for it either. One of the rich contrasts between the ‘Old Covenant’, and the ‘New’ is that whereas the ideal Old Testament Jewish state was a theocracy ruled by God, the New Testament believers expected to live in a state which did not acknowledge their faith at all.
What proportion of a country would have to be personally Christian before the nation itself was Christian? In the New Testament’s theology, even 100% percent would not achieve that. The notion of a ‘Christian nation’ is — in New Testament terms — simply a category error. How hot must we heat lead before it becomes gold? Or, perhaps, how much red must we add to blue before it becomes Tuesday?
Christians can, and should, be good citizens in any country. The number of ‘evangelical’ Christians, to use the word with the meaning it had fifteen years ago (it now appears to simply relate to ‘enthusiastic’), in mainland China is reliably estimated to be rather greater than the entire population of Great Britain. Christianity does not need state sponsorship to prosper.
Nonetheless, the claim that Britain is, or ever was, a ‘Christian’ nation, is simply one that neither David Cameron, nor even Henry VIII, was ever genuinely entitled to make.
In the words of Jesus, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’.