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
]. 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.