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Sayeeda Warsi, secularism and the Pope

In complaining about "militant secularisation", Warsi is talking the Catholic leader's language.

In the absence of a formal portfolio, Sayeeda Warsi seems to have allotted herself a place in government as the minister for promoting faith. Today she's in Rome at the head of a grand ministerial delegation, ostensibly to celebrate 30 years of full diplomatic relations between Britain and the Holy See and to return the compliment of 2010's state visit by the Pope. She's taken the opportunity to reiterate her theme, not only delivering a major speech to Vatican officials later today but taking to the Daily Telegraphto call for religion to take a more prominent place in national life.

Warsi writes of her fear that "a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies". When she complains that "signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings", or criticises states that "won't fund faith schools" she's obviously not talking about Britain -- a country in which the state remains at least formally Anglican. And her "astonishment" that "those who wrote the European Constitution made no mention of God or Christianity" appears to betray a misunderstanding of what that ill-fated document actually was.

Still, Warsi's main preoccupation is with the role of faith in British politics and its alleged marginalisation at the hands of those semi-mythical bogeymen the militant secularists, whom she accuses of demonstrating "similar traits to totalitarian regimes." (The British Humanist Association's Andrew Copson described this as "surreal"). She promises the Pope her "absolute commitment to continue fighting for faith in today's society." Constitutional purists may wonder whether it's appropriate for a minister of the Crown, especially one who isn't a Catholic, to be making such commitments to the Pope. But she evidently sees in him a kindred spirit, recalling a meeting with him during his 2010 visit to Britain in which he apparently encouraged her to carry on beating the drum for faith in the public sphere. She even refers to him as "the Holy Father."

In complaining about "militant secularisation" Warsi is, of course, talking the Pope's language. Objection to the supposed marginalisation of Christianity in the West has been one of the idées fixes of Benedict XVI's papacy, along with liturgical neoconservatism. Last month he fortified American bishops ahead of their forthcoming battle with the Obama administration's health reforms, denouncing "powerful new cultural currents" that were "increasingly hostile to Christianity as such".

And if that's how he views the United States, comfortably the most religious developed nation in the Western world, it's not surprising that he has an even more jaundiced view of Europe. Late last year he lamented what he called the "crisis of faith" in the continent, which he contrasted with the "joyful passion" he had experienced during a visit to Africa. He even linked the financial crisis with an "ethical crisis," ultimately traceable to the loss of Europe's self-conscious Christian identity. So he will no doubt be pleased to find a Muslim politician arguing for "Europe to become more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity".

Baroness Warsi's comments, though, are far more than just a case of buttering up her hosts. She has long been engaged, if it is not inappropriate to use the word of a Muslim, on something of a crusade on the issue. The debate about the appropriate role of religion in public life is, of course, highly topical in the wake of the Bideford prayers judgement, a decision based on the strict interpretation of the 1972 Local Government Act which was nevertheless widely seen as yet more evidence of the "marginalisation" of faith. Warsi's personal feelings aside, the Coalition sees faith-based organisations as key to the success of its Big Society (i.e. small government) agenda. David Cameron has made similar noises himself, most notably in his speech in December celebrating the anniversary of the King James Bible.

But no amount of ministerial or even prime-ministerial exhortation can hide the fact that Britain, and most of Europe, has long ceased to be religiously devout. Even many who self-identify as Christian go to church rarely and read the Bible less, as new research carried out on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Foundation has confirmed. This lack of religious commitment may not be new, and in any case can scarcely be blamed on "aggressive secularists" pushing religion out of public life. What it does suggest is that the cultural heritage of Christianity is not the same thing as private religion. The point that both secularists and religious apologists miss is that there's no reason why it should be.

Warsi can describe the secularist project as "denying people the right to a religious identity" only because in recent years religion has increasingly been seen as a source of personal identity, or as a source of group identity within a multi-faith society. But in Europe, and certainly in Britain, state religion (or the lack of it) had more to do with citizenship and belonging than with individual belief.

The Anglican establishment long embodied the spirit of Lord Melbourne's dictum that "things are coming to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade private life". Queen Victoria's first prime minister would have found it very strange that a non-believing councillor should be offended by prayers being offered during council business, but even stranger that a government minister should feel the need to promote private religiosity as an instrument of public policy.