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Christianity is not a prop for politics

25 April 2014

First the godly, then the godless, then the godly again. The public debate about whether Britain is indeed a Christian country, which the Prime Minister kicked off with his article in the Church Times saying that Britain should be evangelical about its Christianity, took legs when fifty-odd self-important atheists took issue with his remarks in a letter in the Telegraph and now the debate has a new spin after a group of academic philosophers wrote to the same paper (lucky letters editor) to contradict the atheists.

“In important ways Britain remains a Christian country, as the Prime Minister has rightly claimed”, they wrote. “The establishment of the Church of England enshrines Christian humanism as a public orthodoxy, which continues to inform a good many of our laws, institutions and public rituals. This Anglican establishment is liberal, imposing no civil penalties on non-Anglicans, which is why so many non-Anglican Christians and non-Christian believers support it.” The philosophers conclude by calling on the atheists to exercise “liberal tolerance”.

Well, plainly they’re right that British culture is still infused with Christianity. Our morals are not primarily taken, as the atheists suggest, from the pre-Christians (Cicero? Aristotle?) and the post-Christians (Voltaire? Paine? Their good selves?) passing Jesus on the way. The Good Samaritan, the widow’s mite, the notion of being my brother’s keeper powerfully underpins our sensibility to the extent that we never really question it. Our whole conception of human rights as well as more obvious bits of the landscape – churches, Christian names, swear words – are self-evidently Christian, and so, as Dominic Grieve points out, are our laws. It may be an implicit Christianity rather than the religion of the baptised, and far more evident among older people than younger ones (you’ve seen the current RE curriculum?), but it’s still there. (In fact, while we’re at it, Christian humanism, which the philosophers talk about in their letter, is tautologous; all of the original Renaissance humanists were Christian apart from one rather odd individual with a penchant for classical paganism.)

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Nick Clegg, an unbeliever who, unlike quite a few participants in the debate actually goes to church, chimed in the argument on the Anglican side, declaring that “one of the great Christian values is tolerance, respect for other people, other nations, other faiths, other views so I think our Christian heritage sits very comfortably alongside our plurality, our tolerance as a people”. Which more or less puts a Lib Dem spin on the creator. Far be it from me to give comfort to the unbelievers but I fear it’s not quite the case. Christianity, for quite a bit of its history after Constantine, did not conspicuously respect other faiths – nor indeed did they respect us. It had a keen sense of its function as a means of salvation; it tended to identify the creeds of the unbelievers as errors to be refuted, not as perfectly decent alternative world views.

Mind you, I expect Mr Clegg has in mind the Anglican settlement after 1688 when a more gentlemanly take on Christianity obtained. I’ve just been reading Terry Eagleton – perhaps the most impeccably orthodox intellectual in public life just now – discuss the tamed and respectable Christianity that was fashionable from the eighteenth century in his cracking new book, Culture and the Death of God: “The Earl of Shaftesbury put in a plea for what he called ‘complacency, sociableness and good humour in religion’.”

And indeed, in the defenders of Christianity right now, there’s a good deal of wishful thinking about the faith as essentially the bulwark of a decent, hard-working middle class; it isn’t; not really. As Terry Eagleton rightly points out, “the New Testament has little or nothing to say of responsible citizenship. It is not a ‘civilised’ document at all. It shows no enthusiasm for social consensus. Since it holds that such values are imminently to pass away, it is not greatly taken with standards of civic excellence or codes of good conduct. What it adds to common or garden morality is not some supernatural support but the grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities.” It is, in fact, neither a prop for conservatism nor socialism.

Anyway, to return to the original debate, there’s a remedy for those people who feel strongly that Britain is a fundamentally Christian country. Fill those pews. Become active members of a parish, not passionate partisans of the Church of England from outside. If you want to demonstrate the Christianity of British culture, why there’s a church somewhere near you. Go to it.

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  • Common Sense ✟ كافر

    It is a Christian country but letting in endless millions of Muslims, a large amount extremist, into the country does not exactly help!

  • Mike Purves

    Regarding Clegg’s disestablishmentarian ramblings, I take a rather flauccinaucinihiliphictory view.

  • cartimandua

    All our great culture in art music and literature is entwined with Christianity.
    You just cannot have a year zero. Indeed we should be teaching all our youth high culture and with it Christianity. They don’t have to believe it but they cannot understand our high culture(and of course folk culture)without knowing something about it.

  • Matt Kovach

    theocracy sounds better than Christian country imo

  • tjamesjones

    I’m not sure if you and Terry Eagleton are right to say that “the New Testament has little or nothing to say of responsible citizenship. It is not a ‘civilised’ document at all. It shows no enthusiasm for social consensus.”

    The NT is not seeking a political revolution, see e.g. Romans 13:

    “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”

    “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.”

    “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.”

  • Iain Hill

    Implicit? An establishment debating trick!,

  • EschersStairs

    I suspect what David Cameron means when he says that Britain is Christian, is that he thinks that the set of values that the British people hold are essentially Christian in origin.
    I think the more pertinent question actually starts from the other direction: does Britain continue to derive it’s values from Scripture.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    The only reason Christianity should and is being supported by Authority, is as a bulwark against fast encroaching Islamization. Not my problem Britisher pals. Suggest you take the necessary steps to ensure it`s no longer yours.
    Jack, Japan Alps

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Bishops unelected members of the House of Lords as of right. Gimme a break. If that`s doesn`t qualify for a top 10 ranking on your, “Emigrate, reasons to” list I don`t know what does.
    And the Queen as Head of the Church of England”. That`s a knee-buckler. Doesn`t anyone ever question this?
    Jack, Japan Alps

  • Smithersjones2013

    Christianity is not a prop for politics

    But it tends to be a crutch for politically inadequate politicians……..

  • Bonkim

    Christianity in Britain as in other countries is shaped by history, and culture. There needs to be some other definition of political and cultural Christianity that is distinct from the Christianity of the Bible.

    If man shaped his religion, is there a God or better still, should there be a God?

    British society is naturally tolerant, and humanist in its outlook. Its traditions are largely derived from history. The real question is whether Christianity shaped Britain or whether British success over three hundred years of Empire gave it the confidence to mould its own brand of Christianity.

    • Alison

      I think you answer yourself, but the fact is it was Christianity that we were shaping and that was shaping us in return. We cannot change history, we are historically a Christian country, we can change the future, but as a Conservative I would recommend history to anyone thinking of trying to do so and history in Britain and morality in Britain are entwined with Christianity.

      • Bonkim

        No problem with that – that is how human societies are shaped.

        Equally you have to admit the history, culture, religion are all evolving continuously and will continue to do so.

        The only good part is that people are free to choose today which they could not do in previous centuries when the Church or the Ruler could dictate what you should do and don’t and if found guilty of contravening Church or state rules suffered harsh penalty including death or banishment.

        It was easy to brand someone a heretic or burnt at the stake for witchcraft, etc. People often obeyed Church and state out of fear or social compulsion.

        Even as late as the 1960s many villagers in England looked down on unmarrried mothers and if you lived in a tied cottage or on a country estate thrown out of your home.

        • Alison

          It is too easy for Christians to speak of what has been done in the name of Christ as not being Christian, but it is also true. This is the great dilemma, man is pretty poor at governing himself without recourse to some notion of an external moral force. Even where he refers to that notion, in our case the Christian idea of Christ and God being love, he still messes up, so is Christianity useful? I don’t pretend to know but to find the answer surely we should look harder at our Christian morality and learn from our history, not just where we got it right but how we would act differently now. We are still becoming, we cannot say now is the moment we have reached the state of absolute mind. I suppose that begs the question can we know when we ever reach that state, but I think we only progress towards it when we are aware of the foundations on which our reason and morality are built.

          • Bonkim

            Christ and God being love – looking at the deeds – the Crusades, the 100 and 30 Years’ wars, the Inquisition, etc, etc, you would not have said that.

            God is love comes from the last two centuries of Empire when the easiest way to tame the natives was to profess God’s love and throw in schools, medical, and feeding centres, to trap them into the arms of the Missionaries. God’s love even overcomes slavery, and racial segregation never mind the slaves had to go to their own Churches and inferior races having to sit in the back rows. God loves all – black and white.To the late 20th century the horrible WW2 showed just what man’s inhumanity to man did, and from now we are all one – desegregation and civil rights in the US, slow death of overt racism in Western Europe, etc, the real question is where was God’s love all these centuries?

            The answer simply is – God has been sham ever since man invented him in pre-history and through millennia of evolution – each generation painting God in his own image.

  • MichtyMe

    There are no Christian countries. The Christian churches ignore or contort the content of the NT. It is impossible to be Christian. Have you folk read the NT. “turn the other cheek”, “take therefor no thought for the morrow” etc, etc, all sort of impossible stuff, do we really want government to do as it says in the Bible, heaven forbid.

    • EschersStairs

      “It is impossible to be Christian”

      Quite correct. But that is precisely the point of all OT/NT theology.
      Should government seek to attain those ideals? Of course it should. Governments pretend to be able to do impossible things all the time, at least this might help them to focus on something a bit beyond how to win the next election.

  • Elliot Page

    Christianity and religion have always been political weapons, even before Christs time.

  • you_kid

    The Church not a political institution?
    The reason for the split from Rome just a matter of love and deep moral turmoil? The reason for a Head of State to govern a state religion that the subjects no longer *choose* to worship not comprehensively inconclusive and flawed?

    ‘Belief’ doesn’t come into any of that. It’s pure politics.

  • Alrich

    “The Good Samaritan, the widow’s mite, the notion of being my brother’s
    keeper powerfully underpins our sensibility to the extent that we never
    really question it. Our whole conception of human rights…” None of which quite accord with militant evangelical Cameronianism I should have thought …

    • HookesLaw

      You talk rubbish

  • Jonathan Sidaway

    Terry Eagleton very plausible, but there is the notion of the useful idiot when reacting to thinkers of his kidney – see Maurice Cowling vol 3, I think. Good article, but Christ was born into human history, thus we should be unsurprised at the partiality of his detractors and of his adherents.

    • Bob

      Jesus was inserted due to design and being an oath keeper, he was Yahweh in the flesh.

  • telemachus

    You would not have thought us a Christian Country 2 days ago with racist messages from Ukip screaming from all television News casts

    • HookesLaw

      sadly you are right for once

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