David Cameron claim – not unusual for a British politician – that Britain is a Christian country has generated more responses. What is striking about the whole discussion is that on almost every point everyone actually agrees with the same liberal democratic and nationalist values. The main difference is that different interested parties label them differently and have slightly different claims on who was responsible for Good Things. In the Telegraph today, 50 public figures including Jim Al-Khalil, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Tim Minchin, Joan Smith, Polly Toynbee, A.C. Grayling, and so on wrote:
At a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society.
Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society. Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs. This needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.
Use of labels aside, this is not far removed from what Cameron thinks Christianity is. He had claimed that Christianity reflects a society where other faiths and none are welcome and that they more-or-less share the same values. On the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, he also claimed:
[From] human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy…the first forms of welfare provision… language and culture… [T]he Judeo-Christian roots of the Bible also provide the foundations for protest and for the evolution of our freedom and democracy…[They form] the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights, a foundation that has seen the Bible at the forefront of the emergence of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women… Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities these are the values we treasure.
The Bible (despite its contents) and Christianity (despite its pre-Enlightenment history) effectively represent tolerant liberal democracy and yet Cameron finished by adding (because he must be careful in excluding potential voters): ‘Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none.’ For all his talk of evangelising, Cameron will only really talk about Christianity and the Bible in terms of tolerance and liberal democracy and he won’t be demanding mass conversions any time soon. Hence, the liberal nationalism of The Fifty is not really that different to the liberal nationalism of Cameron: they just want a little more credit for the non-Christian contribution.
Labour’s Jack Straw weighed in this morning on the Today programme in a debate with the former school teacher and speaker for Muslim Council of Britain, Talha Ahmad (available on iPlayer for the next 7 days, from 2:38:00 onward). Again, despite the rhetoric, there was little sign of any difference. The underpinning assumption was the True Religion is liberal, tolerant, and democratic and that False Religion is not. Against The Fifty, Straw claimed that in the UK ‘there are a set of values some of which I would say to the letter writers of the Daily Telegraph are indeed Christian based whether they like it or not…there are a set of values which permeate our sense of citizenship’. Clearly, then, the only difference is the label. Straw does not mean conversion of non-believers, smashing enemy baby heads against rocks, preaching the imminence of the kingdom of God, or taking a whip to moneychangers, obviously. A similar sort of logic comes through in his comments on what Islam ‘really is’. He drew ‘a real distinction between [Muslim] people who are devout…and those very small minority, who are extremist…verging into militant extremism and to justifying violence.’ He added that what is unacceptable is that ‘those who proselytise Islam in an exclusive way, who claim that those who are not of the Muslim faith are infidel, or have fewer rights, also argue, for example that women are inferior and ought to have fewer chances in society than should men.’ Ahmad’s response shared these assumptions. Of Straw’s response to The Fifty, he claimed, ‘I don’t know of any decent Muslim who would disagree with that’. In response to a question of what it is to be ‘in pursuit of your faith’, Ahmad suggested that is ‘about respecting the space that everybody has’ and that Muslims are ‘obedient’.
So there you have it. Everything you thought you knew about the differences between Christians, Muslims, non-believers and whoever else, mean little as everyone is playing the same liberal democratic and nationalistic game as they defend their own interest groups and constituencies. For reasons why Cameron was actually using the dog-whistle of religion in this otherwise non-debate, see here.
Quote of the Day: ‘vague, that’s very vague, isn’t it?’ (John Humphreys, presenter of Today, Radio 4)