David Cameron used to be hesistant when discussing his Christian faith, once describing it (in a wonderful line borrowed from Boris Johnson) as being “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. He added in the 2008 interview with the Guardian: “That sums up a lot of people in the Church of England. We are racked with doubts, but sort of fundamentally believe, but don’t sort of wear it on our sleeves or make too much of it. I think that is sort of where I am.”
In this regard, he was the “heir to Blair” who, despite his passionate religiosity, adhered to Alastair Campbell’s dictum that “we don’t do God”.
But in the last week, Cameron has cast aside his previous scepticism of public expressions of faith. At an Easter reception at Downing Street, he declared: “Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago” and spoke of him as “our saviour”. He followed this up with a video message in which he said: “Easter is not just a time for Christians across our country to reflect, but a time for our whole country to reflect on what Christianity brings to Britain.”
Now, in an article for the Church Times, he has gone even further, declaring that “we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.” The man who once said of Christianity, “[we] don’t sort of wear it on our sleeves or make too much of it”, is now demanding evangelism. It has been quite a journey.
But while Cameron is now unequivocally “doing God” (almost certainly with an eye to those Conservatives alienated by his support for equal marriage), does Britain want him to? With apt timing, a new global study has found that little more than a third of people in Britain believe that religion has a positive role to play in our lives, compared to a global average of 59 per cent, while a quarter believe it has a negative impact.
As the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey showed, this is, increasingly, a secular country, not a Christian one. Forty eight per cent of respondents stated that they did not belong to a religion, up from 32 per cent in 1983, and just 20 per cent described themselves as belonging to the Church of England, down from 40 per cent in 1983.
This ambiguity points to the need for a clear separation between church and state. Religious believers who oppose such a move should look to the US, where faith has flourished despite the country’s secular constitution (spoken of by Jefferson as “a wall of separation) .
Indeed, in an interview with the New Statesman in 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, (who went on to famously guest-edit the magazine) suggested that the church might benefit from such a move:
I can see that it’s by no means the end of the world if the establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh synod, it didn’t have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that.
In an increasingly atheistic and multi-faith society, a secular state, which protects all religions and privileges none, is a model to embrace.