Given the shallowness and political opportunism of David Cameron’s manufactured conversion, his suggestion that Britons should ‘ be more confident about our status as a Christian country’ has provoked a surprisingly vigorous debate, with critics and defenders rising up to pronounce upon Lord Snooty’s assertions.
The ‘against’ group includes Alastair Campbell, the Rationalist Association, the National Secular Society and the more than 50 writers and public figures who penned an open letter to the Telegraph yesterday accusing Cameron of ‘fostering division. On the other side there is the Church of England, obviously, the religious blogger Archbishop Cranmer and the Telegraph.
Somewhat more unexpectedly New Labour’s dreary former foreign policy plotter Jack Straw has told the Today program that:
‘There has to be a clear understanding that this is the UK and there are a set of values, some of which I would say to the letter writers to the Daily Telegraph are indeed Christian-based, whether they like it or not, which permeate our sense of citizenship.’
To say that the arch-conspirator is not the most thoughtful or insightful of politicians would be understating it considerably. But his sneering suggestion that ‘Christian-based’ values are crucial to ‘our sense of citizenship’ which those who argue otherwise must accept ‘whether they like it or not’ touches on a crucial theme in the debates about religion that have permeated conservative and far-right politics across Europe for more than a decade.
In an interview with the Telegraph’s Christina Odone last year, Nigel Farage declared:
‘We need a much more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Yes, we’re open to different cultures but we have to defend our values. That’s the message I want to hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury and from our politicians. Anything less is appeasement of the worst kind.’
Though the Joker told Odone that he only goes to church four or five times a year, he nevertheless insisted that the UK’s ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ constituted an essential antidote to ‘ Notting Hill claptrap about diversity’ and a hallmark of a British national identity that was being diluted and threatened by the presence of ‘Muslims who speak no English and wear the veil’ and defenders of gay marriage who had ‘betrayed the family,’ among others.
For Farage, and for many of his peers in the conservative-populist-far-right political spectrum, the UK’s ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ is a merely one more building block in the ongoing construction or ‘defense’ of an exclusive and essentialist national identity that is supposedly under siege from Muslims, ‘immigrants’, multiculturalists, gays and lesbians and other alien intruders.
Other European far-right formations have also used Christianity in the same way. Last month, Marine Le Pen announced before the French local elections that Front National administrations would be ‘enforcing secularism’ in the towns they controlled, by removing halal food from school cafeterias, forbidding Muslim women in scarves to accompany children on class trips, and preventing Muslim women from renting public swimming pools after hours. Yet Le Pen also insisted that ‘France has Christian roots. They (the French) want to recognize their own country, recognize their lifestyle, their habits, their traditions.’
In a 2012 speech in Strasbourg, quoted on the ‘patriot’ website GalliaWatch ( a website ‘for those with a ‘limited knowledge of French and a boundless interest in saving European cultures from extinction’) Le Pen criticized a French politician who had denounced the special privileges still enjoyed by the Catholic Church, asking
‘But my friends, have they all forgotten that France is a country of Christian traditions? Have they turned us into nomads to the point where they brutally cut us off from our roots? Have they all forgotten that France is the land of the “white mantle of cathedrals”, that for fifteen centuries Catholicism was the religion of nearly all Frenchmen? Let us be proud of this history and let us stop denying it or avoiding it!’
For Le Pen, there is no contradiction between defending ‘secularism’ and extolling France’s ‘ Christian roots’, as long as these tropes can be used to shore up a homogenous monolithic French identity – the better to exclude and persecute certain groups that have supposedly brought France and Europe to the point of cultural extinction.
Mainstream conservatives have also engaged in the construction of these ‘imagined communities’ across Europe. Some emphasize secularism or liberalism as the essential defining values of their societies; others have stressed Christianity.
The latter tend to express very similar ideas; that Christians are a marginalized ‘endangered species’ who are becoming strangers in their own country; that Christian faith is declining while Islam is growing stronger; that ‘militant’ secularism and atheism have eroded the moral fabric of the nation.
Cameron’s designation of the UK as a ‘Christian country’ belongs to some extent to the same tradition. His call for Britons to become more ‘evangelical’ about their Christian roots was not explicitly aimed at Muslims – yet. Indeed, according to the Telegraph, His Lordship’s rediscovery of religion is partly due to the influence of his Muslim ‘minister of faith’ Sayeeda Warsi, who has condemned ‘secular fundamentalism’ and sought to restore the Tory party’s ‘faith in faith’ in the run up to the next election.
Nevertheless, his speech was a crude and reductionist attempt to answer the question ‘Who are We?’ that the conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington once posed about American national identity.
The answer should be that ‘we’ are composed of lots of things; that nations are the sum of all their components and the social arrangements they make to take full account of them; that Christianity is only one of the many forces that have shaped British history and society – both positively and negatively – and there is absolutely no reason to single it out as an essential marker of contemporary British society.
And politicians who make such claims should always be mistrusted, because, unlike Eric Burdon and the Animals, their intentions are never good.