David Cameron has gone all confusingly evangelical just in time for the Easter holidays. He has even videoed a special Easter message to the nation, extolling the virtues of having a “moral code.” Unlike their American counterparts, British politicians rarely speak in public about their religious beliefs, if they have any. It is not a prerequisite of office to be an attending church member, and in an ever more secular society, there is no “block vote” to go after. Religion is a bit like their sex life, you just don’t ask, talk or think about it, whilst accepting they might have one. It is therefore more than a little odd, and definitely highly unusual, to find the Prime Minister pinning his colors to his professed Christian faith, and spouting out about it whenever he gets an opportunity. So far, that’s three times this week.
It may seem bizarre to American readers, but for an English parliamentary leader to say, as he did this week, that “we should be evangelical about Christianity” is baffling. What is he playing at? Writing to a captive audience in the Church Times, he also said we should “pull together to save the world.”
David Cameron began, modestly enough, by stating that his much-trumpeted ideal of the “Big Society” was not his original insight at all. He owed the intellectual copyright to Jesus 2000 years ago. Whilst this credit where credit is due is to be welcomed, it appears there is a still some plagiarism and sleight of hand going on. Cameron does not want to adopt “Christianity” as his mantra, say analysts, he wants to purloin the conceit of “Christian values” and tag it onto the Tory party.
This is nothing new, the so-called Conservative Heartland of Home Counties and Middle England has always been Anglican, but even they hardly bother to turn up to church anymore. Congregations up and down the land are dwindling fast. This is one reason it makes no sense to ensnare the last few, straggling believers.
Cameron may well have another agenda. An outside rival has appeared on his event horizon. The Ukip party. Its leader, Nigel Farage, has robustly declared that Britain needs to mount a “more muscular defence” of our “Judeo-Christian heritage.”
Bruised by his support of gay marriage and his many public fallings out with the bishops and archbishops of the Church of England who detest how his welfare reforms are punishing the poor, Cameron has spotted some lost ground to be made up. He dare not secede it to Farage. Rabidly fed by the tabloid press, many voters allow themselves to become thoroughly incensed by such council initiatives as re-naming Christmas festivities as “Holiday Lights” and so on. They see the Christian foundations of Dear Old Blighty being blasted away by all these incomers and immigrants with their other faiths.
Cameron now calls to Christian Britons to put their best faith forward and come out in a confident affirmation of their, and his, views. This is in strong contrast to his predecessor Tony Blair, whose spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, declared did not “do God.” That was not to say Blair was not religious, he was, (as was Gordon Brown) but it was not seen to the benefit of the party to go on about it.
The other main party leaders in the UK are coalition partner, Nick Clegg, who is an atheist, and Ed Milliband of Labor, who said this week in Jerusalem that he was a “Jewish atheist.”
Indicative of the corner he may be painting himself into, Cameron has already had to explain that his pronouncement that “countless acts of kindness” are carried out by followers of Christ, is not a pre-condition for said acts of kindness. He had to explain that non-believers can have a moral code as well, and indeed, that many Christians do not appear to possess one. Its people who “advocate some sort of secular neutrality” he struggled to pin down, who don’t understand the role of faith.
It is all a bit fuzzy, which is ironic, as that is how the prime minister previously described his own brand of Christianity, like the reception to his local radio station in his country constituency, as, “it sort of comes and goes.” Evidently, he has got a clear signal at the moment.
He is still not very good on the doctrines, he admits and is a “bit vague” on “some of the more difficult parts” of the creed, but that does not prevent the church being able to do a lot more, not less, in improving society.
One well-known critic has been quick to round on Cameron, and accuse him of “not really” being a Christian. Richard Dawkins, writing in the New Statesman, primarily in opposition to the rise in faith schools, said all government ministers he had ever met, of all persuasions, were just “believers in belief.”
To clarify this, he goes on to describe how too many educated and otherwise intelligent people just vaguely take it for granted that religious faith is “good” and it is actually a form of condescension and very patronising. The sub-text being that what’s good for the common people is good for maintaining order and for instilling some sort of moral value to life.
Others have pointed out how Cameron’s vision sounds terribly retro. His version of his faith resides in charming sleepy villages in the leafy shires, where he grew up, and at St Mary Abbots in Kensington, where he likes to go to morning eucharist. Sung eucharist is beautiful, but it needs a well-trained choir and those choirs are composed of children from the same backgrounds as Cameron’s. Then they too will grow up and have the same sentimental feeling about church ritual and the same fond nostalgia for it as their parents. It is not classless.
Away from this idyll of High Church sublimity, the PM clearly sees that “Chritianity is the most persecuted religion in the world today,” but is he going to do anything about it?
This is why his sudden Evangelical zeal to exhort the electorate to join him in a happy-clappy resurgence of enthusiasm for Christianity is perturbing. If just a move to soothe the ruffled feathers of those in the home counties upset at gay marriage, he need not have gone so far. If a bid to placate the Anglican hierarchy furious about the 163 percent rise in use of food banks he need not have put his heart on his sleeve so visibly. The clearest answer seems to be that he is trying to cut Nigel Farage off at the bows, before he gets too much credit for being the defender of the faith instead. Electioneering in the name of God is a tactic not taken by British politicians for a long, long time. Cameron may be about to find out why.
Easter is the most important date in the Christian calendar, Cameron says, and he is careful to sign off by wishing everyone, Christians and non-Christians, a very Happy Easter. With a UK population where only 59 percent still claim to be Christian, his easter message is the first step on his new evangelical crusade, wherever it may take him.
By Kate Henderson
Channel 4 News