Is Britain a Christian country?
David Cameron says yes; atheist activists disagree. Nick Spencer keeps score
How is it possible for two words to be interpreted so very differently?
David Cameron thinks Britain is still a “Christian country”. And a … bunch? gang? posse? What is the collective noun for a group of atheists? … strongly disagree. Many Christians side with the prime minister. Some go against him. Some historians will tell you Britain has not been a Christian country for centuries. Some theologians will tell you it technically never could be. And some wishy-washy fence-sitters will tell you: “It all depends…”
It all depends, to my mind, on what you mean by “Christian country”. The phrase could technically mean a country in which everyone, or at least the majority, know and believe in the Christian story and creeds. If it does, it is fair to say that Britain has not been a Christian country since the 19th Century, and possibly not since the 17th. Whenever the nation was last Christian in this sense, it certainly isn’t today. One-nil to the atheists.
“Christian country” could mean a country in which everyone, or at least the overwhelming majority, love, follow and obey Jesus Christ. In this sense, it is hard to say whether Britain was ever a Christian nation even when most people knew and believed the Christian story. Perhaps, if we are being a little less severe in our judgement, we might say that Britain has only ever been a Christian country in this sense in a very imperfect way. However severely we judge the past, however, we can be sure that by this measure, Britain is clearly not a Christian country today. Two-nil to the atheists.
Then again, a Christian country might be understood as one in which the majority of people associate themselves with the Christian religion. If this is the way we read the phrase, then Britain is still a Christian country with six in 10 people calling themselves Christian in the latest census. This is down from seven in 10 in 2011, so the direction of travel here seems pretty clear, but it’s still a goal for the PM, even if it only squeezed in off the post. Two-one…
This is an extract from the June 2014 edition of Reform.