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Cameron, Conservatives and a Christian Britain: A Critical Exploration of Political Discourses about Religion in the Contemporary United Kingdom

Department of Social Policy, Sociology & Criminology, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK
Societies 2018, 8(1), 5;
Received: 27 October 2017 / Revised: 13 December 2017 / Accepted: 20 December 2017 / Published: 10 January 2018


In the British setting, the deployment of the phrase ‘doing god’ has become increasingly common to refer to an emerging trend whereby religion has acquired an increasingly prominent role in political spaces and discourses. This was particularly prominent while David Cameron was Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party. While historically, religion has not had a prominent place in either the former Prime Minister David Cameron. Here, the findings from critical analyzing a series of Cameron’s public pronouncements about religion—and Christianity in particular—is set out to try and better understand his own adherence to Christianity (the personal) how this intersected with his politics and role as Prime Minister (the political), and more importantly how this shaped his views about Britain being a Christian country (the national). Contextualized within the embryonic scholarly literature relating to the phenomenon of ‘doing god’ in the contemporary British setting, this article concludes by considering alternative and analogous frames through which greater elucidation of the true motivations of his pronouncements might be understood.
Keywords: British politics; Christianity; David Cameron; religion; identity; United Kingdom; doing god; British Muslims British politics; Christianity; David Cameron; religion; identity; United Kingdom; doing god; British Muslims

1. Introduction

In the British setting, the deployment of the phrase ‘doing god’—and conversely, ‘not doing god’—has become increasingly common over the past decade or so. Gaining traction in political, media and academic spaces, the phrase has become something of a shorthand way of referring to an emerging trend whereby religion would appear to be acquiring an increasingly prominent role in the discourses of British politicians as also in the policies that their respective political parties can be seen to be wanting to implement [1]. One of the first studies to explore this was Allen’s [2] who did so through juxtaposing the outgoing British New Labour government’s public reticence to openly speak about religion and faith to the incoming Conservative-led Coalition government’s somewhat more public and confident approach about ‘doing god’. The main findings were reaffirmed in a similar study by O’Toole [3] a year later. For Allen [2], there was recognition that were this trend to be ongoing as opposed to anomalous to the New Labour and Coalition governments, it would be highly likely that religion would continue to have an increasingly significant impact on the British political—and by consequence, public—spaces in the not too distant future. In reflecting on successive British government’s since the publication of that piece—firstly, the Conservative-led Coalition with the Liberal Democrat Party (2010–2015) followed by two majority Conservative Governments (2015–2017 and 2017 onwards)—Allen’s conclusions would appear to have some credence.
There are some notable differences however in the way in which subsequent governments have sought to ‘do god’. While New Labour was publicly reticent despite most definitely ‘doing god’ [3], its preference was decidedly multi-faith whereby it was rather more inclusive of all faiths and none. However, under the three Conservative-led governments since there has been a marked shift whereby the previous multi- has been replaced by a much greater emphasis being placed on the mono-. This has been most evident in the discourses of the two Prime Ministers to have led the Conservative Party during this time, David Cameron from 2010 to 2016 and Theresa May from 2016 onwards. Both have oft made speeches that have included explicit—and unprecedented—references to Christianity; the impact it has had on their own personal and political lives and aspirations as also in terms of national identity and their assertion that Britain is a ‘Christian country’. Such candor is unusual because as both Bruce [4] and Cooper [5] both note, almost all British Prime Ministers and senior politicians have historically been either unsure of the benefit of bringing religion into the political spaces or have chosen to keep their personal faith separate from their political lives. As Spencer [6] goes on, British Prime Ministers have rarely ever expressed anything more than mere lip service to the Church of England and Christianity more widely.
To build on existing scholarly knowledge about ‘doing god’ [1,2,7,8] two themes emerge that warrant further investigation. The first is the unprecedented confidence to publicly ‘do god’ by the Conservatives. The second, the shift from ‘doing god’ under New Labour [2] to a much more particularistic approach under Cameron and the Conservatives, maybe even from ‘doing god’ to ‘doing Christianity’. This article seeks to critically reflect on these two themes. In doing so, this article begins by setting out how ‘doing god’ has been manifested in the British political spaces to date before giving some consideration to New Labour’s approach to ‘doing god’, the etymology of the phrase and how it has been utilized. From here, a consideration of how the Conservatives have been ‘doing god’ will be set out focusing primarily during the period of government from 2010 to 2016; placing a greater emphasis on the Conservatives under the leadership of Cameron given that May’s tutelage is ongoing and still relatively new. Consequently, a critical analysis of Cameron’s public speeches will be undertaken as a means of trying to better understand how his own adherence to Christianity (the personal) can be seen to have intersected with his politics and role as Prime Minister (the political). In addition, not only will the arguments for—and against—Britain being described as a ‘Christian country’ be considered but so too will some consideration be given over to whether such discourses and declarations have a potential political function. In conclusion, the Cameron and Conservatives approach will be contextualized within the existing albeit embryonic scholarly literature relating to the phenomenon of ‘doing god’ in the contemporary British setting as also considering alternative and analogous frames through which a better understanding may be available.

2. ‘Doing God’ before Cameron and the Coalition

As Bruce [4] puts it, neither has British political culture ever been particularly pious nor showing any fondness for linking British national identity with any particular religion. While so, those such as Furbey et al. [9] argue that over the past few decades, the voices of religious actors and organisations have been increasingly evident in the public and political spaces. Largely driven by reforms to public service delivery and greater diversification and involvement of the third sector, those such as McLoughlin [10] note the catalyzing effect this had on some within the Church of England towards a greater ‘social activism’. As he goes on, this subsequently catalyzed other Christian denominations as also some minority religions. In doing so, religious actors and organisations began to explore new ways in order to engage politicians and government. One early development of note was the 1992 collaboration of the Church of England with the Interfaith Network for the UK to create the Inner Cities Religious Council (ICRC). Premised to work collaboratively, the ICRC sought to “[tap] into religious communities’ resources—people, networks, organisations, buildings—as a part of urban regeneration” [10]. To this extent, the ICRC was the first structure through which formal representation and consultation took place between government and religious organisations in the contemporary setting [2].
It was after New Labour came to power in 1997 however that governmental engagement with duly increased to previously unprecedented levels. A number of different explanations have been posited to explain this including: the inclusion of a voluntary question about religion in the British 2001 Census [2]; the disproportionately high levels of social deprivation experienced by some religious communities [11,12]; rising levels of anti-religious—especially anti-Muslim—discrimination and prejudice [13,14]; a growing terrorist threat from those claiming to act in the name of particular religions [15]; and demographic changes following on from mass migration and the establishment of non-historical religious traditions [16,17]. However as Richardson [18] notes, greater engagement with religious actors and organisations ideologically dovetailed with New Labour’s ‘Third Way’ approach which has to be acknowledged as another important driver. With its emphasis on inclusion and cohesion, New Labour’s Third Way justified trying to harness the agency of religious actors and organisations as was evident in 2005 when senior New Labour figures publicly effused the same for being enablers of better community cohesion [3].
For Harris et al. [19] however, it was another factor that was the primary driver for New Labour ‘doing god’. According to them, New Labour’s greater receptivity was underpinned by “the personal moral and Christian commitment of several members of the government including the prime minister[s]” [19]. Crines and Theakston [8] agree. In support of this relates they explain how Gordon Brown, New Labour Prime Minister between 2007 and 2010 had Christianity so ‘hardwired’ into his character that his political persona as much as his political trajectory were heavily indebted to his faith’s morals and values. While so, they go on to note how during his time as Prime Minister he became increasingly reluctant to speak about his Christian faith for fear of a media backlash similar that experienced by Tony Blair. Like Brown, Blair was a committed Christian prior to becoming Prime Minister and for whom faith had gone on to shape and inform his political career [8]. Unlike Brown however, Blair was rather more comfortable giving voice to this [20]. This caused some controversy while he was Prime Minister between 1997 and 2007. Having been unequivocally told by senior advisers not to discuss his personal religiosity in public after expressing a desire to end his 2003 address to the nation following the invasion of Iraq with the phrase “god bless you” [8], Blair was asked later that year about his Christian beliefs during an interview for Vanity Fair. Before being allowed to answer, Alistair Campbell—Blair’s director of strategy and communications—intervened by saying: “we don’t do God … I’m sorry. We don’t do God” [2]. Campbell later explained that he intervened because “God was a disaster area … British people are not like Americans, who seem to want their politicians banging the Bible the whole time. They hated it” [21].
While the notion that successive New Labour governments did not ‘do god’, a number of commentators disagree [2,3,8]. Far from the American model that Campbell referred to, New Labour could be seen to ‘do god’ in rather more low-key and less overt ways, preferring to focus on faith rather than religion [2]. Indicative evidence of this includes the appointment of a ‘faith tzar’ in 2001, the publication of good practice guidelines to support better engagement between local authorities and religious actors and communities, the establishment of a ministerial working group to consider the best ways for religion to influence and inform policy-making procedures, and the creation of the Faith Community Liaison Group which spanned government departments for Education, Culture, Media and Sport, and Trade and Industry. Given the impact of earlier public sector reforms and the shift towards greater diversification of both services and providers, so opportunities for religious actors and organisations to be involved also increased thereby—albeit inadvertently—establishing what has become known as the ‘faith sector’ [22]. In line with New Labour’s political ideology, the faith sector was seen to offer added value to the third sector and therefore civil society more widely [23].
According to Bhavani et al. [24], two types of policy interventions exist: formal interventions which can be categorized as new written policies or legislation and informal interventions which are far more fluid and include different types of projects and initiatives as also certain discourses and narratives. In terms of the latter, one of New Labour’s most significant informal interventions was to oversee that governmental consultation and engagement procedures were improved as regards religious actors and organisations [25]. This was significant in that with this came substantial investment which sought to build the faith sector’s infrastructure. In terms of formal interventions, these were most apparent in New Labour’s centerpiece policy, Face to face, side by side: a framework for partnership in our multi-faith society [26]. Founded on principles of partnership, empowerment and choice, four building blocks were identified: developing skills to bridge and link; shared spaces for interaction; supporting dialogue and social action; and opportunities for learning to build understanding. With this came further investment including £13.8 million for further capacity building, £50 million for local interfaith initiatives, and £7.5 million for ‘faith in action’ projects [2]. Interfaith underpinned this also. New Labour identified interfaith as the key to increasing and improving participation and communication thereby having the potential to “address the kind of destructive trends which undermine national and community cohesion …” particularly where “… the transmutation of religious identities into the service of identity politics fuels communal conflict” [27]. So too did New Labour overhaul the equalities framework, extending the same protections available to those discriminated on markers of ‘race’ and ethnicity to those discriminated on markers of religion or belief [3].
Despite New Labour’s reticence to admit that it did ‘do god’, O’Toole [3] argues that both the formal and informal interventions put in place by New Labour had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the role and engagement of religious actors and organisations in the political spaces. As she goes on, this was not exclusive to the Church of England or even Christians per se but all religious actors and organisations that desired to be more politically engaged. Allen [2] agrees although suggests that ‘doing god’ presents a problematic dichotomy. Given that ‘doing god’ goes against many majority social trends about religion in the contemporary British setting, he asks whether religious actors and organisations should even have a role in the contemporary political spaces. While so, he acknowledges that religion continues to perform a significant function for a significant minority in contemporary Britain and so should be duly excluded from the political spaces on this basis. Because of this he goes on, it is extremely difficult to easily or completely dismiss religion out of hand thereby concluding that irrespective of whether New Labour was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to ‘do god’, “a significant part of the legacy of the New Labour years will be how it was responsible for bringing religion … into the political and social spaces” [2]. For Spencer, “even if the deity is unlikely to be such a prominent resident of Downing Street after Tony Blair’s departure, at least for the foreseeable future, he seems to have a bright if not uncontroversial future in the public square” [6].

3. Results: Cameron and the Conservatives’ Discourses

3.1. Demarcating the Conservative-Lead Approach to ‘Doing God’

For O’Toole [3], the Coalition government—most notably the Conservative majority—was far more confident in expressing a desire to ‘do god’ than its predecessor. In fact it was only days after winning the general election in 2010 that the Conservatives’ former Chair—Baroness Sayeeda Warsi—made this clear. As she told an audience of Church of England bishops:
“If anyone suggests that this government does not understand, does not appreciate, does not defend people of faith, dare I even say does not ‘do God’, then I hope my schedule this week will go some way to banishing that myth”.
Such a declaration did not occur in isolation however. Soon after, she publicly announced that there could be no doubts whatsoever that the Coalition government intended to be a government that was content to be seen to ‘doing god’. Two years later, she again asserted something similar. Addressing Pope Benedict and the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy at the Vatican, Warsi spoke about the role of religion in contemporary Britain: “faith has a proper space in the public sphere … People need to feel stronger in their religious identities, more confident in their beliefs …”. She went on, “… this means individuals not diluting their faith and nations not denying their religious heritage” [29]. Seeking to clearly demarcate the Coalition from New Labour, Nelson [30] argues that Warsi was largely responsible for the Conservatives’ newfound religious ‘zeal’. Having been appointed Minister of Faith, her role included overseeing negotiations about a framework for ‘doing God’ which included the need for government to promote the ‘normalization’ of religion as a means of countering the growth of ‘secular fundamentalism’ [30].
To suggest this may be to somewhat overstate Warsi’s influence especially if her ever more publicly acrimonious relations with David Cameron—as also the Conservative Party more widely—is anything to go by [31]. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that the Conservatives while part of the Coalition ‘did god’. In terms of informal interventions, a number of those implemented via the Department for Communities and Local Government can be found on two flyers that were widely circulated around 2013. Titled, Harnessing the Power of Faith Groups the Coalition boasted among others protecting the rights of councils to hold town hall prayers, implemented sharia-compliant help to buy mortgages and start-up loans, championed Mitzvah Day led by Jewish communities, invested £1.1 million into the Inter Faith Network, and made the persecution of Christians and minorities abroad a human rights priority. As with its New Labour predecessor, there was also a more formal centerpiece policy. Named Near Neighbours, it was launched in 2011 with the announcement of a £5 million investment: £3 million with which to fund a number of larger religious organisations already engaged in cross-faith activities, including the Christian Muslim Forum, the Council of Christians and Jews, the Hindu Christian Forum, and the Christian-run project, The Feast; £2 million with which to provide religious actors and organisations with small grants up to £5000 to undertake small, highly localized projects which encourage social cohesion through social action and interaction [32]. A partnership between the Church Urban Fund and the Archbishop’s Council, the program’s most distinctive feature was how the £5 million budget for localized projects was to be managed and delivered by the Church of England. In doing so, applicants were required to obtain the counter-signature of a parish vicar near to where the project was to be delivered.
Three considerations emerge. The first is the extent to which Near Neighbours was merely the Conservatives’ much maligned Big Society albeit with some rebranding. A core theme in the Conservatives 2010 general election campaign, the Big Society focused on community-based initiatives that sought to empower local communities, redistribute power, and promote a culture of volunteering [33]. In doing so, Conservative political ideology could be seen in the idea that ‘big government’ could be duly transformed into ‘big society’ [34]. While so, the Big Society was drastically unpopular with voters and so became less prominent in subsequent Conservative Party rhetoric. While some differences are apparent between the Big Society and Near Neighbours, there are also some similarities. The second not only focused on the unprecedented level of governmental partnership afforded to the Church of England but more so the extent to which that partnership had a political function. Those such as Fox [35] suggest that when political actors and governments adopt a functionalist approach, it is typical for religions, religious actors, organisations, and religious institutions to be reduced solely to what function they are able to perform for politicians and their aims. As he explains, given the function is determined and imposed by political actors and government as opposed to the religions and the actors and organisations associated with them, so any partnership or engagement becomes entirely driven by political ideology and is rather more imposed than engaged. For Near Neighbours, the Church of England clearly provided the infrastructure and administration that would have otherwise been provided by a governmental department and so in this respect it was undoubtedly performing a political function. With this comes another issue however. Drawing on Spencer [6], one consequence of this could be that the religious institutions, actors and organisations that perform a function for politicians become ever more accountable to them thereby potentially forfeiting their role as critics of that same government, its policies and practices. This latter point is especially important given the historical willingness of British governments and politicians to sever ties with religious actors and organisations that criticize or challenge governmental policy [12].
The final consideration relates to potential barriers that might have been imposed through the involvement of the Church of England as delivery partners. Given the lack of knowledge that exists about the quite specific parish system that applies to the Church of England, the need to get applications counter-signed by parish vicars would have likely presented a serious challenge to non-Christian religious actors and organisations. So too, albeit to a significantly lesser degree to Christian actors and organisations that were not affiliated to the Church of England. O’Toole [3] seeks to lay claim about the exclusion of non-Christian religious actors and organisations by highlighting how in east London, almost all Near Neighbours funding was awarded to Christian organisations. As she goes on to explain, not only did this cause some unease among non-Christian religious actors and organisations but so too as DeHanas et al. [32] put it, it also caused unease among a number of Church of England clergy. To support this, they offer two arguments. From their research, it was first shown that Muslim actors and organisations definitely did not know which Church of England parish they resided in and so felt that Near Neighbours was an undemocratic programme. Second, and quite irrespective of whether participants felt that Near Neighbours was a good or bad programme, many felt wholly uncomfortable about the control and power afforded to the Church of England. Most felt the Church was afforded a somewhat privileged position.

3.2. Cameron and the Conservatives: More Confident, More Christian

An argument to support the privileging of Christianity and the Church of England in particular is maybe best exemplified in Cameron’s discourses about his personal faith and the role of religion in contemporary Britain. Showing an unprecedented willingness to talk publicly about Christianity, not only did Cameron demarcate himself from his New Labour peers but so too did he, as Bruce [4] rightly notes, demarcate himself from almost all previous British Prime Ministers. Referencing the reluctance of Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher to speak about religion—either theirs or the country’s—Bruce [4] states that John Major was the only former Conservative Prime Minister to have spoken about his Christian beliefs. Noting how this only occurred on a handful of occasions, he draws attention to the fact that on the most prominent occasion that Major spoke about his religious beliefs, it was rather more humorous than confessional, quoting the socialist author George Orwell to illustrate his point. Cines and Theakston [8] also suggest something similar as regards Thatcher also. They explain that when criticized by some churches and Christian groups following the publication of the Faith in the Cities report in 1985, she responded by publicly recounting the story of the ‘Good Samaritan’ and how the Samaritan had needed to get rich before he could ever have been charitable. As they go on, Thatcher was never interested in big theological questions or sharing her religious views. Instead, she was rather more inclined to ensuring that her ethics were put into practice. Similar might be argued of Major also.
Cameron’s public confessionals therefore need to be understood as being almost entirely anomalous in the British political setting. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, it is worth noting how Cameron used the metaphor of a poor radio signal—“it sort of comes and goes”—to illustrate his Christian faith [36]. Three years later during his speech to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, a dramatic change was evident. In it, Cameron referred to three broad elements which became increasingly prominent in most of his ensuing speeches about Christianity: the personal, the political, and the national. Concerning the personal, having stated that he was little more than a “vaguely practising” Christian, Cameron subsequently—and maybe contradictorily—added that he was nonetheless a “committed” Christian albeit one that was not “on a mission to convert the world” [37]. Regarding the political, Cameron addressed the issue of ‘doing god’ specifically by stating that he disagreed with those “people [who] often say that politicians shouldn’t ‘do God’…” before adding that “… to me, Christianity, faith, religion, the Church and the Bible are all inherently involved in politics because so many political questions are moral questions” [37]. Concerning the national, Cameron made the explicit link between the King James Bible and Britain. Arguing that the language of the King James Bible was so deeply embedded in all aspects of British culture and heritage, Cameron asserted that “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today” [37]. This he went on, was proof alone that Britain was an undoubtedly “Christian country” something that politicians as indeed all members of society “should not be afraid to say” [37]. In direct response to this, the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, insisted that copies of the King James Bible were sent to every state school across the country [38].
An important theme to have emerged out of Cameron’s discourses about Christianity and the nation were those relating to ‘values’. Having previously stated that Britain was founded on ‘Christian values’ he went on to state that the British had for too long been unwilling to put those same values into practice, not least as a means “to distinguish right from wrong” [37]. Referring to the perceived problems of British society and those he believed did not want to be a part of who ‘we’ were, he added that Britain had “to be confident in saying something is wrong …” adding that doing so was “… not a sign of weakness, it’s a strength” [37]. In doing so, some questions arise. For instance, to what extent might Cameron have been suggesting that all who live in Britain should be expected to uphold Christian ‘values’? Similarly, to what extent was Cameron inferring that Christian ‘values’ were in some way superior to other values and the religious traditions from which they derive? Despite seeking to incorporate assurances that those with non-Christian or no religious beliefs—and values—were not excluded from what it means to be British, Cameron did state that in the past, the British had been reluctant to criticize or condemn those who were ‘wrong’, some making excuses for them on the basis that they merely maintained “different lifestyles” [37]. Vague and unclear, it would be easy to conclude that Cameron was equating ‘different lifestyles’ with those who were either non-Christian or who came from non-Christian heritages.
As before, it is important to remember that there has been a general reluctance in Britain among politicians to associate a particular religious identity with being or what it means to be British. While so, Bruce explains that “once a faith becomes part of what distinguishes one people from another, it can do the important ideological work of making those people feel justified …” before adding how “… religion can provide a satisfying explanation of privilege and power” [4]. In this respect, it is interesting to note the language preferred by Cameron during a speech to Christians attending an Easter gathering at 10 Downing Street in April 2014. As before, Cameron again focused on the personal, political and the national. Personally, Cameron once again asserted his Christian credentials: “[I am] proud to hold a reception for Christians here in Downing Street and proud to be a Christian myself and to have my children at a church school” [39]. Once again going beyond what might have been expected of someone who previously claimed to have a Christian faith that ‘comes and goes’, Cameron spoke about a “special moment … that will stay with me …” before going on to describe a “pilgrimage” he undertook to the Church of the Holy Nativity, a site where as Cameron put it, “our Saviour was both crucified and born” [39].
As regards the national, Cameron’s discourse was similar in content and tone to what he had used previously. Reiterating the message in his King James Bible speech, Cameron stated that “we are a Christian country …” before subsequently adding that “… we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so” (emphases added) [39]. While it could be argued that Cameron’s use of ‘we’ was little more than an inclusive acknowledgement of his audience, Leudar et al. [40] disagree. As they argue, when such demarcations are evident in political discourse they are typically used as membership categories that implicitly divide and separate ‘us’ from ‘them’. The use of membership categories relating to the ‘we’ was also evident in his focus on the relationship between Christianity and the political. Suggesting three ways to do so, Cameron said “we can do more of in our country when it comes to Christianity”. The first of these referred to the Big Society and how Christianity had the potential to be a catalyst to bring about:
“a huge culture change, where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace, don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities”.
As he went on, this was because the principles and values of Christianity and the social activism that Christians are involved in on a daily basis were equitable with those underpinning the Big Society. Maybe somewhat facetiously, Cameron added that “Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago” [39].
The second way Cameron suggested Christianity could do more in British society was to work together to the stop the persecution of Christians elsewhere around the world. As he went on, as a Christian country Britain had a much greater role to play on the global stage, thereby acknowledging the need to have a more prominent Christian identity on the global stage. It was however Cameron’s third way that was most interesting. Noting that it was ‘controversial’, Cameron explained how he believed that challenges facing the different churches were similar to those facing political institutions [39]. Noting factors that included bureaucracy, policies, programs, statistics and measurements Cameron announced that to find the solution, “what we both need more of is evangelism” [39]. As he explained:
“we can get out there and actually change people’s lives and make a difference and improve both the spiritual, physical and moral state of our country, and we should be unashamed and clear about wanting to do that … real moments of evangelism, enthusiasm and wanting to make our world a better place”.
Adding that “there are some really big things that this government is doing which are about that improving state of the world and evangelism”, Cameron concluded his speech by adding:
“I hope that I can enthuse political institutions, my party, my government with a sense of evangelism about some of the things we’re trying to change in our country and in our world … if we pull together, we can change the world, we can make it a better place. That to me is what a lot of the—what the Christian message is about”.
It is interesting that at the same time, Cameron reiterated much the same in an article for the Church Times, a British based newspaper for members of the Church of England:
“Some people feel that in this ever more secular age we shouldn’t talk about [religion]. I completely disagree. I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives”.
The use of the ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelism’ is striking especially in a political setting that has historically been devoid of personal and political religiosity. As regards personal faith, evangelism typically refers to a Christian preaching the gospel with the intention of seeking to convert others to the faith. In itself, this is extremely problematic and far removed from the atypical British Prime Minister that offers little more than mere lip service to the Church of England [6]. As regards the political, the use of the term evangelism would appear equally inappropriate. As Hetzel and Beck [41] note, the coupling of evangelical with the political occurs most prominently in the United States whereby it largely refers to the ‘New Christian Right’ for whom a biblically-based and theologically conservative form of politics is distinctively associated. It would be difficult to argue that this would apply to either Cameron or the Conservatives’ political ideologies and so it becomes even more interesting as to why he chose to use the term more than once. Such is especially interesting given that he juxtaposed his personal faith as “a member of the Church of England, and, I suspect, a rather classic one: not that regular in attendance, and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith” alongside greater Christian evangelism in Britain and its political arenas. Sitting somewhat uneasily with someone categorically stating that he was not a regular attendee at church nor that he had good knowledge of his faith, Cameron once again asserted that ‘we’ need to be “more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives” [39].

3.3. A Christian Country in Context

There are few counter arguments to the suggestion that Britain has historically been a Christian country [42]. This history has a legacy which continues to be evident in the contemporary setting. Institutionally for instance, this can be seen in how the ruling British monarch continues to be both head of the Church of England (and by extension, the worldwide Anglican Church) and ‘Defender of the Faith’. Likewise, the Church of England’s establishment and institutional influence can be seen in how its bishops continue to sit as unelected representatives in the House of Lords. While Davie [16] is right to highlight the extent to which the Church’s influence has significantly waned over the past half century, it still provides something of a religious ‘backbone’ for the country in terms of its institutional and civic function. It is true that Britain’s Christian past has a legacy in terms of its culture too, evident in a myriad ways including the country’s calendar and its major public holidays, almost all of which coincide with traditional Christian festivals. Similar too traditional notions of the ‘working week’ and the need for Sunday trading laws given that day has historically been in the context of Britain and its Christianity, culturally conceived as a day of rest. So too is Christianity’s cultural influence evident in terms of the education sector where in addition to churches being the first institutions to provide free schools for all to attend, both the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church continue to oversee the running of more than a third of all state-funded schools. It is possible to infer similar as regards the provision of social welfare more widely, through the institutions and organisations that evolved out of various churches that continue to work towards alleviating poverty, providing healthcare and supporting those experiencing the highest levels of poverty and deprivation [42].
While that history and heritage cannot be denied, the emphasis of Cameron and the Conservatives discourses have been that Britain continues to be a Christian country today. In response to this, evidence can be identified which seeks to support arguments both for and against Britain being a Christian country to the extent that both are rendered somewhat invalid or at least inconclusive. Arguments against Britain continuing to be a Christian country in the contemporary setting might typically focus on how Britain has evolved since the middle of the twentieth century from being something of a mono-faith country to one that is rather more multi-faith. It is not just the growth in numbers of those identifying as being non-Christian but so too the decline in numbers of those choosing to identify as being Christian. The most obvious illustration of this comes from Census data which soundly illustrates that over the past two decades, the number of people—as also the percentage—of those who identify with non-Christian religions of non-Christian has increased [43,44]. In stating that Britain was a Christian country however, Cameron did not deny this noted change in religious identification and the associated demographic. On the contrary, he actually stated that “societies do not necessarily become more secular with modernity but rather more plural, with a wider range of beliefs and commitments” [39]. While so, underpinning this is his view that it is because we are a Christian country that has allowed other religions and faiths to flourish; due to “the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society” and the fact that “religious freedom is an absolute, fundamental human right” [39].
Focusing solely on the data, an argument could be made that Cameron was right to describe Britain as a Christian country on the premise that a majority identify as Christian. In the 2011 census, the percentage was 59.2% of the population [44]; in 2001, it was 71.6% [43]. Undoubtedly a significant drop, those who continue to identify as Christian have to be acknowledged as significant especially when the second greatest number of people to identify with a specific religion are those who identify as Muslim which constituted at the time, less than 5% of the population [44]. However, if the 25.1% of the country that chose not to identify with a religion are taken into account, the gap between Christians and those—in sum—who do not becomes much less substantial. Consequently, Britain would appear to be moving away from identifying as Christian thereby questioning the extent to which ‘Christian’ is an appropriate descriptor for the country as a whole. If such a decline continues, then it is likely that the majority of the population will—within the foreseeable future—choose not to identify as Christian. Which illustrates the paradox of a growing emphasis on Britain being a Christian country at a time when trends would seem to suggest the country is becoming increasingly less so.
Aside from the noted decline, there are some that challenge the legitimacy of the data relating to how a majority continue to identify as Christian. Take for instance the British Humanist Association (BHA) and its concerns about how the question about religion and identification are asked not least for them, this has the ability to shape and determine respondent’s answers [45]. For the BHA, the outcome of this can be that an individual that is not particularly religious and maybe never practices their religion could respond with a positive identification as to their religious identity solely because they have a religious heritage. Likewise, the BHA argues that because the religion question was the only voluntary question on both the 2001 and 2011 Census, those who were not religious could have chosen not to answer therefore being excluded from the reported data. As Allen rightly notes, “despite the high numbers [of Christians], the figures can be misleading as there is a significant disparity between identification as Christian and those that regularly practice their faith” [2]. At best, he intones, it is therefore far more likely that many of those who choose to identify as being Christian are—at most—merely culturally Christian. To this extent, this is what Cameron himself may have been referring to when he stated that he did not attend Church regularly albeit while continuing to consider himself a Christian [46]. Like Cameron’s discourses therefore, the situation in the country would appear to be far from straightforward.

4. Discussion

Unlike Harris et al.’s [19] observation that underpinning New Labour’s increased receptivity to ‘doing god’ was the deeply held personal faith of many of its most prominent political figures, the same would not appear to be true of Cameron at least. His public willingness to speak about his personal faith is therefore as unprecedented as it is paradoxical. In terms of being unprecedented, given Cameron described his personal faith as being akin to a poor radio signal Crines and Theakston [8] are therefore right to suggest that the regularity with which he spoke about his Christianity was far more often and recurrent than one might have expected. So much so that Cameron refuted the clearly identifiable and evident trend inherent among British Prime Ministers for either being sceptical of religion or keeping their personal religious beliefs well away from the political spaces [5]. While Blair maybe tried to baulk this also, Cameron’s public statements and discourses were far more overt and wide-reaching than anything that had preceded it. Some broad arguments can be put forward as a means of trying to explain this. Graham [20] for example suggests that politicians typically invoke religion—in particular the values associated with religious traditions—as a means of conveying a sense of trustworthiness to their publics. By communicating the extent to which they hold such ‘values’ dear, they deploy them in order to try and convince those same publics that they are good even when that sometimes goes against other aspects of their personality, character and politics. Maddox agrees by observing how “religious values, even if we don’t ourselves share them, promise sincerity, right-mindedness and safety …” before adding how they are seen to be “… stronger and reassuring … when the world beyond our vulnerable borders is portrayed as teeming with a religiously fanatical, potentially criminal ‘Them’” [46]. It is interesting to note the suggestion here that religion and religious values can be utilized to reinforce the construction of a ‘them’ given that the recurrence of membership categories within Cameron’s discourses had been highlighted previously.
Cameron’s discourses were also paradoxical in that he simultaneously described himself as rarely participating and ‘vague’ in his understanding of Christianity at the same time as roundly calling for greater and more Christian evangelism. If a traditional understanding of the term is adopted, then it becomes extremely difficult to comprehend the extent to which someone whose personal faith is seemingly variable in intensity could also be seen to be making sincere claims about the need to preach and subsequently bring others to Christianity. While there is no obvious sense that Cameron was doing so, one explanation might be that Cameron was using evangelical and evangelism metaphorically. This too however is also somewhat problematic. If Cameron was being metaphorical and referring to the need to be more zealous or enthusiastic, what then might be the ‘thing’ that his audience needed to be more zealous or enthusiastic about? On scrutiny, there is very little scope for alternative interpretation and so it can only be concluded that Cameron was stating that it was Christianity that he and indeed others needed to be evangelical about. As shown here, every time he spoke about evangelism, he did so while speaking about Christianity to Christian audiences. Had he done so in a different context, then it might have been possible to have argued that he was using the term in an alternative way. Consequently, it can only be concluded that he must have always been referring to Christianity and thereby utilizing the concept of evangelism in its traditional, Christian context. Indeed, it is worth giving some consideration to how his various audiences might have sought to understand and interpret his speeches given their distinct Christianness; something that was obtuse to Cameron’s own faith and religiosity. Little evidence therefore exists that might go any way to explaining the paradox, why someone whose personal faith amounted to little more than vaguely believing and rarely practicing was so keen to call for others to be increasingly evangelical about exactly the same religion.
While noting the observations of Graham [20] and Maddox [46] about the benefits of invoking god and religion in the political spaces, invoking god and religion can also be seen to be divisive, excluding and preferential [2,20,47]. Consequently, the oft repeated and recurrent nature of Cameron’s discourses clearly had the potential to not only be detrimental but counterproductive as indeed counter intuitive also. Given the equally oft-cited wavering nature of his personal religiosity, so it would seem to have been even more risky especially as those such as the previous incumbent, Gordon Brown—for whom Christianity was seen to have been hardwired into his character and political persona [1]—chose not to speak openly about his personal faith in fear of the damage it might cause. While Crines and Theakston [8] suggest that Cameron utilized Christianity to discern how religion should manifest itself in society, it might be more appropriate to consider his discourses about his personal faith within a broader context. Drawing on Chilton and Ilyin’s [48] study, it is typical for political discourses to be implicitly used to encourage public audiences to think about situations that are new or complex while simultaneously seeking to establish common ground or maintaining a sense of reassuring continuity. If common ground therefore something that was being established then given the routine use of membership categories deployed by Cameron, it might be right to question the extent to which Cameron’s discourses about his personal faith were part of a wider political discourse which sought to create, as Chilton and Ilyin [48] infer has been historically possible, a common ground that also reassures in terms of establishing some continuity.
From the outset of the Conservative-led Coalition government, it was clear that it was far more overt both in terms of its intention and indeed credentials for ‘doing god’. From Warsi’s speech onwards, the same was variously communicated as a means of demarcating itself from New Labour previously. In this respect, it was not seeking to establish continuity with previous British governments. Both Cameron and the Conservatives went beyond mere words and discourses in order to ‘do god’ however, designing centerpiece policies through which their commitment to ‘doing god’ could be duly concretized. Given both the Coalition and New Labour governments did similar in this respect, O’Toole [3] argues that while it was New Labour which brought religion back into the British political spaces it did so with the lens squarely focused on the multi as opposed to the mono. As she goes on, it was however the Conservatives—as the majority within the Coalition—who duly went on to reject the multi in preference of the mono whereby the mono focused squarely on Christianity as opposed any other religion. Given this recognition, it would appear that the Cameron-Conservative-Christianity triptych had the potential of having an alternative function and purpose.
One way of understanding this continuation of ‘doing god’ albeit while shifting the emphasis away from a multi-faith Britain onto a somewhat more unidimensional understanding of Britain as a mono-faith Christian country is to frame it within the context of what Bruce [4] tentatively suggests is the perception that New Labour’s approach to ‘doing god’ embodied a pro-Islam bias. As he explains, given New Labour endorsed multiculturalism so the argument is that it favored minority communities—including minority religious communities—over the majority population and by default, the majority religious community also. This majority community one must assume has to be those akin to Cameron in that they were ‘vaguely’ Christian. While there is little if indeed any direct evidence to support such an argument, it is worth noting that Cameron as indeed numerous other Conservatives had not only been publicly opposed to multiculturalism for many years but so too had many gone on record to suggest that even the merest remnants of multiculturalism should be killed off [49]. If the Coalition view therefore was that New Labour had preferred the minority over the majority, then it is possible that the reassertion and reiteration that Britain was a Christian country could be seen to have had a rebalancing function to it and indeed analogous with some of the Conservatives broader and historical ideological policies and approaches.
It is within this analogous context that Cameron’s discourses about Christianity and especially his deployment of membership categories has the potential to be better elucidated and understood. Where this is most apparent is during his speech to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and the news stories that sought to report it most notably, ‘Be more British Cameron tells UK Muslims’ [50]. Despite the call to ‘be more British’ being somewhat meaningless—as indeed is for Britain to be more Christian or indeed more evangelical—such sentiments function by appealing to what might be understood as ‘common-sense’. If Bruce [4] is correct in suggesting that the Conservatives felt that New Labour had a pro-Islam bias, by establishing—albeit discursively—a common-sense notion that Muslims are different and separate from who ‘we’ are, so the argument would locate some legitimacy were it to be posited that making those different and separate Muslims more like ‘us’ would result in them being a ‘problem’ being duly ‘solved’. As noted of Gramsci [51], while common-sense appears coherent in that it ‘makes sense’ to the populace, common-sense is typically almost entirely politically-derived whereby it becomes an amalgam of social facts, historical notions and contemporary prejudices that serve to construct a narrative which seeks to capture and embody ‘everyday thinking’. Common-sense therefore tends to be overly simplistic in that it lacks sophisticated argument and intelligent reasoning. As Hall and O’Shea [52] note, giving the illusion that common-sense is derived from ‘everyday thinking’ and ‘real-life’ experience however functions by providing answers to the questions of what they refer to as ‘common people’: politicians thereby construct the questions and the problems at the same time as constructing the answers and the solutions. As Allen [49] notes, when it comes to Muslims and Islam in the British setting everyday thinking not only accepts that Muslims and Islam are indeed separate and different from ‘us’ but more importantly, it is their difference and separation that defines ‘them’. Irrespective of whether such notions are true or not, Hall & O’Shea [52] are therefore correct in noting that because political discourses infer that such are true, not only are they accepted without question but so too do they become established as common-sense and thereby concretized within everyday thinking.
Given that the discourses of political actors and their discourses tell us what we all already think [50], Cameron and the Conservatives’ discourses about Britain being a Christian country and the membership categories associated with therefore sought to routinely deploy hollow and meaningless notions of identity through which they were able to confer legitimacy on the process of demarcating ‘them’ from ‘us’. In doing so, one might suggest that the use of ‘Christian country’ here functions akin to what might be described as a form of ‘new’ racism. Conceived by Barker [53], his conception of discriminatory phenomena emerged from his analyses of the political discourses of Thatcher’s Conservatives from the late 1970s onwards. Noting how early race relations legislation had begun to criminalize and thereby curtail more overt expressions of racism, he identified a marked shift in how Thatcher’s Conservatives begun to refer to and subsequently employ discourses about minority groups. Instead of focusing on historically established markers upon which discrimination was founded—for instance skin color—Barker illustrated how the Conservatives political discourses increasingly deployed cultural markers of difference to demarcate ‘them’ from ‘us’. In this respect, Barker’s conception of a ‘new’ racism was such that it was a discriminatory process which functioned through the accentuation of just how different ‘they’—whoever ‘they’ might be at any given time and juncture—are from ‘us’. The process is threefold [50]: it enables political actors to navigate the new landscapes of diversity and legislation while avoiding explicit references to discriminatory markers; it affirms the difference attributed to ‘them’ is wholly problematic because it threatens ‘us’ and ‘our’ culture, values, way of life and so on; and finally, it continues to exaggerate both the difference attributed to ‘them’ and the consequences experiences because of that same difference. ‘Christian country’ clearly functions in this way. It avoids all explicit references to ‘them’ by referring solely to who ‘we’ are perceived to be; it affirms ‘their’ difference and the perceived threat presented by it through reiterating and repeatedly reaffirming not only who ‘we’ are but so too what ‘our’ norms are perceived to be; and finally, it exaggerates through both repetition and implication that ‘their’ difference—which is in itself exaggerated—continues to be an ongoing and ever more pressing concern. All of which is possible because the political debate and discourse is framed within the context of it being common-sense. If ‘we’ are Christian and we need to be able to practice ‘our’ religion and be more evangelical about it, then there is obviously a need to do so. That need, by consequence, has to be the threat posed by Muslims and Islam and the difference that defines them within everyday thinking.
It is for this reason that Cameron’s discourses can be paradoxical in that rather than referring to his own personal religiosity or faith, he is instead referring to the notional and symbolic religiosity and faith of ‘us’. Through the lens of Cameron’s personal, political and national discourses about Christianity and being Christian, he and the Conservatives are speaking to the populace. In doing so, they are not overtly speaking about who ‘they’ are but instead, speaking about who ‘we’ are or at least who ‘we’ are perceived to be. While resonating with Barker [53], Cameron’s discourses also seem to invert previous conceptions of new racism through exaggerating who ‘we’ are in terms of religion—here, Christianity—in order to highlight and demarcate who ‘we’ are not. The discourses therefore not only fail to make any explicit references to who ‘they’ are but more so completely bypasses them. It would therefore seem that the at least the discursive element of the Conservatives—and by consequence, the Coalition’s—approach to ‘doing god’ was somewhat more pre-conceived than may at first have appeared. Far from shaping or promoting a Britain that might be relevant and appropriate to today’s increasingly diverse society, Cameron and the Conservatives ‘Christian country’ discourses—and potentially its wider, ‘doing god’ agenda—instead focused on conveying and establishing in the everyday thinking of the populace a construct of today’s Britain that sought to demarcate ‘us’ from ‘them’. Unfounded and untenable in today’s Britain, Cameron and the Conservatives drive towards an ever more discursively recognized and accepted ‘Christian country’ can be seen as something of a forceful and detrimental political mechanism that seeks to differentiate, demarcate and subsequently discriminate.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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