Like all humanity, the religious are both good and bad. The PM pretends otherwise
Polly Toynbee Guardian/UK 18 April 2014
A surprise "Dear Polly" message lands in my inbox from the Conservative Christian Fellowship wishing me a blessed Easter and bringing with it a YouTube link to the prime minister's Easter message. David Cameron this week has been love-bombing the Church of England with a radio interview about his children's faith, a speech at an Easter reception for Christian leaders in Downing Street and an article in the Church Times.
It's mostly toe-curling stuff. "My government has a sense of evangelism" and even that "Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago". If Cameron's faith is, as he told the Guardian in 2008, "like reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes", it certainly came on strong this week. It matters little what he actually believes: let's not make windows into our leaders' souls, just watch what they do. His social liberalism winks on and off according to political exigency. For the Catholic Herald just before the election he was for cutting abortion times, anti assisted dying and he voted against lesbian motherhood without a father.
So why God now? His core message, "This is a Christian country", dog-whistles to key voters. Ostensibly, it soothes the noisy but electorally few affronted folk in the pews angry about gay marriage, whose fury he had underestimated. For them Cameron ladled out syrupy retro-visions of the C of E of his Oxfordshire upbringing, its liturgy and heritage, his love of early morning eucharist at his children's school's church. But his "Christian country" message is really whistling to the errant flock fled to Ukip. [UK Independence Party].
Naturally, Cameron is careful to say "this is not somehow doing down other faiths". But those who feel threatened on account of their non-Christian faith won't find Christian branding reassuring. This week, an article on this site described how the far right is using pork to persecute Jews and Muslims, as Marine Le Pen stops schools serving non-pork options in the French towns she now controls. More horrible still, members of the Flemish Vlaams Belang party reportedly stormed into a school and forced pork sausages into children's mouths.
Such abuse by the right in the name of "secularism" outrages British secularists and humanists who stand with Voltaire, ready to die for the right of anyone's beliefs, so long as they don't impose it on others. At a time of anti-Muslim attacks, when Islamist extremism is feared for its terrorist potential, Cameron's "Christian country" is soaked in white nationalist significance. He has great verbal agility in sounding eminently moderate and reasonable while planting darker ideas. Behind a harmless love for country churches is a whiff of culture war politics.
The C of E is a confusing creature. Even while it tussles internally between conservative and liberal wings on gay marriage or female bishops, polls of its members show it's no longer the Conservative party at prayer: more vote Lib Dem and Labour. Look at the 40 bishops' raspberry of an Easter message to Cameron, with their strong rebuke against the "national crisis" of hunger so much worsened by his welfare policies. They know because their churches house the food banks used by almost a million people.
Even the Rev Steve Chalke has taken up arms, though his Christian organisation runs contracted-out social services. He was incandescent at Cameron's refusal to let a girl at one of his schools stay in the UK just a few months longer to take her A-levels. "The Bible is clear: it is our God-given responsibility to take care of the widow, the fatherless and the refugee," he said. Which is why it's unwise for politicians to tangle with God.
How does "Christian" play politically in Britain? I suspect most people, religious or not, shudder at politicians pitching their tents on church turf. The WIN/Gallup International survey finds the UK among the least religious: only a third say religion plays a positive role. Asked in the 2011 census "What is your religion?", 59% said Christian – surprisingly few as most people saw it as a question of culture rather than belief. Asked by YouGov more specifically, "Are you religious?", only 29% said yes and 65% said no. That's good news for us humanists (I am vice-president of the British Humanist Association). Religion imposed on the rest of us is profoundly resented by the great majority. [Abridged]