Christian self-pity about a secular Britain is rubbished by official deference to religion
April is the cruelest month for Michael Gove, judging by his cover story in the Spectator. Not only do his fellow Christians have to mark the death of their saviour Jesus Christ over Easter, but they have to endure ‘pity, condescension and cool dismissal’ from the rest of British society.
The Tory chief whip and former education secretary’s article, (the first in a possible return to journalism after the election), argues that Christianity is looked down upon in modern Britain and subject to a wave of mild hostility that overlooks its deep value. As he puts it:
“The contrast between the Christianity I see our culture belittle nightly, and the Christianity I see our country benefit from daily, could not be greater.”
(Gove spent last week trying to sneak a motion through parliament to unseat the speaker of the house. I’m not sure which Christian values were motivating him on that occasion. Perhaps something to do with separating the goats from the sheep?)
The argument itself was addressed well by comedian Robin Ince last year in response to a more extreme version of it by the the Telegraph’s Christine Odone. While the meat of Gove’s piece is standard Christian apologetics – Christianity is the basis of western civilization, Christians have done moral things etc. – the newspapers have scooped it up with glee.
But on the same page (page 2) as the Telegraph ran ‘Gove: Christians in the UK are cowed’ is a story of a row between the Church of England and David Cameron, with the prime minister at pains to show how Christian he is.
As the second story reports, writing in a magazine called Premier Christianity, our own premier looked to soothe tensions with the Church over his social policies, after it roundly criticised them in a 50-page booklet (for which the church was slammed as ‘left-wing’ by the Tory press). Cameron insisted that, while the Church might disagree with his policies, this doesn’t mean they are devoid of ‘moral content’:
“I’m an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country. […] in the toughest of times, my faith has helped me move on and drive forward. […]
“the Christian message is the bedrock of a good society.”
In other words, the head of government is debating social policy with the established church in public, in terms of its adherence to Christian values.
Though it’s true the only prophet he cites is Winston Churchill, and there is an election coming up, the PM has spoken like this before. In his Easter message last year, Cameron spoke of the ‘peace and guidance’ he derives from his Christian faith, saying his big society ethos was invented by Jesus 2,000 years ago, and referring to the Bethlehem babe as ‘our savior’.
The curious pairing of the two stories comes as the government overrides a High Court decision to pass legislation allowing for councils to open meetings with prayer as part of their official business. Or as local government secretary Eric Pickles phrased it last April:
“I’ve stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings if they wish,” said Pickles.
“Heaven forbid. We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don’t impose your politically correct intolerance on others.”
Got that? Then there’s the Queen, supreme governor of the Church of England and defender of the faith, (prohibited by law from being a Catholic), who in 2012, the year of her diamond jubilee, met with representatives from nine (count them) ‘faith communities’, to expound the virtues of the Church as protector of ‘all the faiths in this country’:
“Our religions provide critical guidance for the way we live our lives and for the way in which we treat each other.
“[…] we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life.”
As the Reverend Pickles rightly says, we have an established church, headed by the Queen, who is also head of state. Seats are reserved for Anglican bishops in the upper chamber of parliament, the House of Lords, as a right, where they can propose, scrutinise and pass legislation that binds the whole country, regardless of conscience. The Church makes public interventions in debates over policy, without any accountability to the public. Politicians from the prime minister to secretaries of state enforce the elevated role of religion with the law.
And while these statements and articles betray anxiety about the increasingly secular nature of British society, with 25 per cent of people ticking ‘no religion’ in the last census, it remains the case that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, still hold a position of incredible privilege – however embarrassed Christians feel about their faith.
Happy Easter bank holiday.
Adam Barnett is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow MediaWatch on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.