My “hermeneutic of suspicion” always jumps into a different gear when I hear politicians attempting to equate national identity with being Christian. Are they standing up for the Christian faith? What is their understanding of this faith and most importantly the faithfulness that it demands?
So what does the Prime Minister (David Cameron) mean when he urged Britons to be “more confident” about their “status as a Christian country”? Sure he noted that this is not a call on “passing judgement” on those with no faith! On previous occasions Cameron did declare himself an “evangelical“, criticising those who are not believers for failing to grasp the religion’s role in “helping people to have a moral code”. In my view his contribution to a recent issue of Church Times suggests just a degree of awareness of the extent of the complexity and demands of the Christian vocation.
Churches and religious leaders have come out in support of PM Cameron. On the other hand a group of intellectuals (50 scientists and public figures) have criticised him for claiming Britain as a Christian country noting the possibility of causing further alienation in society and negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders. While the current Archbishop endorsed the statement of the PM, his predecessor Rowan Williams reminds his listeners that Britain is a post-Christian country – not a nation of committed believers but one in which much of the vision is still shaped by a Christian ethos.
The matter of defining what we mean by “Christian” is not insignificant in this discourse. If we are to take the PM at his word that believers should be more confident in spreading their views and make a difference in people’s lives, then we can with integrity ask him some critical questions about the policies of his government which claims to have many Christians in its midst: why for instance a wealthy Christian nation such as ours has people who are homeless, cannot feed themselves, with many are unemployed, and the gap between those who have and those who do not is widening? If all of us, as he claims subscribe to the same principles of love and justice why must tens of thousands of older people make a choice between eating and heating each winter and how do we account for the many families whose earning power has remained stagnated while the price of food has gone up by 30% in just over 4 years? And what about closing our doors to the foreigners and strangers in our midst and what will be the PM’s response to immigration policies that have lost a sense of moral conscience?
What the PM missed about the vocation of people who walk the talk of the way of Jesus is the prophetic edge/function of the gospel – largely critical of all that contribute to deny people full and flourishing life for all. Sure, the Churches desire and often seek to be partners with the government: but we are also independent of the state and when conscience calls or dictates, we shall dissent and stand up against policies and the governments that hide beyond them.
The Christian message certainly inspired many Western values and some of it are still worth defending – freedom of the conscience, as one example. And this may be one reason why it is wise that we do not speak of Christian nation(s). Having done so in the past, history is replete with what the West ended doing through an assumed arrogance and on behalf of others. At the same time denying the important role (often ideological) Christianity played in the history of the West is not very honest.
In the final analysis Christianity is not about nations – it is about those named after the one we have decided to walk after and follow. The danger in identifying with Cameron’s statements is that it can lead some of us (as we have already seen) into thinking that the Christian faith can be linked to his extreme neo-liberal political stand and the “conservatism” of the Tories. The message of God in Christ should never be equated, used or hijacked by or become enslaved to any form of political ideology. The bottom line of the message is about putting “heart” back into an unjust society (the realm/reign of God) where all Christians in faithfulness embody a commitment to full and flourishing life for all.
© words & image jagessar april 2014