I was probably one of the few people of faith among the fifty-five to sign the open letter to the Daily Telegraph on the Prime Minister’s claim that Britain is a “Christian Country”. We have been assailed as “atheists”, “secularists” and shamefully by a Conservative MP as “un-British”. This proves the point about the dangers of conflating religion and nationhood. As I heard a prominent Baptist say; individuals can be Christians – followers of Jesus - not countries.
Whilst religious humanism has a long history within the spectrum of beliefs of the Unitarian Movement I signed because the issues raised undermine the sort of multi-cultural and multi-religious society that we are attempting, albeit imperfectly, to build. This brings all sorts of challenges; not least of immigration and social inclusion in many of our urban areas; and politicians have a responsibility to speak wisely.
Unitarians have had a long commitment to civil and religious liberty the world over. Of all the Churches they found it easiest to understand and embrace the reality of science and modernity. Orthodox Christianity struggled for decades and whilst maintaining the vestiges of power and influence, most notably Establishment, a large role in education and Bishops sitting in the House of Lords, lost all the major intellectual, political and social battles.
To claim therefore that Britain is a Christian country just does not match the lived experience of most people. All the evidence shows is that Britain is a secular society and one in which people of all faiths and of none can live and work together for mutual benefit. No one faith should be privileged. This does not mean that faith does not influence individuals and communities in their actions; however, attempts to impose religion-based viewpoints on others must be resisted.
Of course the impact of Christianity over the long history of our nations is obvious. This is not disputed. However, other influences too played their part; the pre-Christian pagan cultures overlaid by the Church, the classical values of Greece and Rome, the Enlightenment and growing secularisation and more recently the spirituality of the East. This makes us what we are today.
Such a claim is also not helpful to the Christian Churches conveying an out-dated impression of their role and influence. The reality of plummeting attendances. financial pressures, fewer clergy and a myriad of other problems may not get the attention they deserve when the rhetoric is of a Christian Britain and things are alright then!
In my view whilst I can see the attraction to those of other faiths who welcome the use of the term “Christian Britain” as reinforcing their own position, they unfortunately fail to fully understand that its appeal is invariably to those who tend to question the multi-cultural and multi-religious nature of modern Britain and want to turn the clock backwards.