Earlier today, as Westminster reacted to Boris Johnson’s announcement that he will stand for parliament in 2015, David Cameron carried out the mini-reshuffle necessitated by Baroness Warsi’s resignation. Baroness Anelay, previously Lords Chief Whip, has replaced the Tory peer as Minister of State at the Foreign Office (attending cabinet), and Lord Taylor has taken Anelay’s old post. Lord Bates has replaced Taylor as Under Secretary of State at the Home Office.
But the most eye-catching change is the transfer of Warsi’s faith brief (which she hung onto after her demotion in 2012) to Eric Pickles. The Communities Secretary has regularly used his platform to attack secularists, declaring earlier this year that Britain is a “Christian nation” and that “militant atheists” should “get over it”. That outburst was prompted by a legal bid by the National Secular Society to prevent local councils including prayers as part of their official agenda. He said:
I’ve stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings if they wish. Heaven forbid. We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don’t impose your politically correct intolerance on others.
It would have been reasonable for Pickles to describe Britain as a Christian state (owing to its established Church), but it is simply wrong to describe it as a “Christian nation”. The 2013 Social Attitudes Survey found that 48 per cent do not belong to a religion (up from 32 per cent in 1983) and that just 20 per cent belong 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 (including in areas such as council prayers). Religious believers who oppose such a move should look to the US, where faith has flourished despite the country’s secular constitution (Thomas Jefferson’s “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. But with Pickles as Faith Minister it is one that is ever less likely to be explored.