The Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism, said Harold Wilson. That was more a rejection of ultra-leftism than an endorsement of religion’s role in politics and it has pretty well always been that way. The United Kingdom was founded as an explicitly Protestant nation but successive waves of immigration – Irish, Jewish, Italian, Asian – have made this a country of many faiths. The twist, in this century, has been that the fastest growing faith is “no faith”.
Silently, but by mutual consent, we have become a secular nation.
Now, this is all part of the great strength of Britishness – its fundamental pragmatism. It seemed that was also at play when David Cameron successfully took gay marriage through parliament against the noisy opposition of some in his party.
He has – effectively – told churches that they should allow gay and lesbian couples to be married. The churches, in response, have indicated broadly that it shouldn’t be a problem.
It is then, something of a shock to hear the Prime Minister talking passionately about Christianity. Back in 2008, the one thing that stopped the fluent Opposition leader in his tracks was a question about his beliefs, saying: “I believe, you know. I am a sort of typical member of the Church of England…religious faith is a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes.
“That sums up a lot of people in the Church of England. We are racked with doubts, but sort of fundamentally believe, but don’t sort of wear it on our sleeves or make too much of it. I think that is sort of where I am.”
That is not unattractive as a position – a man with belief, but also with doubts. All reversed over recent days by a full-on campaign about Christianity. First, his nomination of Jesus as a great social innovator. Not for the creation of one of the world’s great religions. Nor for the radical social equality he preached and practised. No, it was because – apparently – “Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago.” Which is a bit like saying that the miracle of the loaves and fishes is the first recorded food bank. But this wasn’t a slip – it was a remark intended for the PM’s Easter reception but not for broadcast.
It is, apparently, a strategic repositioning. Cameron has now told the Church Times that “we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country”. This is like a stray dog in a multi-storey car park – barking on so many levels. For a start, the UK is not religious. Surveys vary, but they broadly agree on religious attendance. About 18 per cent of the population are regular attenders, and around 70 per cent are non-attenders – of those, half have never been religious. Ours is an overwhelmingly secular nation.