By Morgan Griffith-David
When David Cameron declared that Britain is a “Christian country”, many people were outraged. He seemingly claimed that Britain was intrinsically a Christian country and should return to Christian values. Many believed this was a rosy-spectacled view of British history, blatantly ignorant of religion’s current state in Britain and offensive to secularists and theists of Britain alike.
But he has a point. I want to defend Cameron’s speech as one that was widely misunderstood, and mis-spoken. What Cameron really needs is a belief in Human Rights.
Britain is, historically, a Christian country. I’m not going to deny it. Well, the first people on our islands were Animists, or Druids, but we don’t like to talk about them. By the time “Britain” existed as a demos, its inhabitants would have been Christian. As a historical assessment, it is generally fair and true.
Christianity did indeed give Britain part of its identity. As Cameron said, our language draws heavily from Christian terminology, and “the King James Bible is a high point of the English language”. Our politics is devoted to Christianity – our Queen derives her powers from God, and is the head of our established Church of England. In the words of the House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales, our ‘constitution’ “is rooted in faith — specifically the Christian faith exemplified by the established status of the Church of England…The United Kingdom is not a secular state.” We have Bishops sitting in the House of Lords, bringing religious standpoints into our political system. By the way, the only other state with a similar arrangement is Iran.
Some have said that this is irrelevant today, and they may be right– religion’s standing in Britain has never been lower. In a 2010 British Attitudes Survey in 2010, only 43% of Britons claimed to be Christian, versus 51% of “no religion”. In a 2005 Eurobarometer poll, only 38% agreed “I believe there is a God”. However, it’s important to note that 40% agreed with “I believe there is some sort of spirit or life force”, and only 20% definitively disclaimed either.
But this is not what Cameron was actually supporting. People have, understandably given the speech’s context, at the celebrations of 400 years since the King James Bible, misinterpreted his point. He was claiming the importance of morality in politics, not Christianity.
Values and morals we should actively stand up and defend.
The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option.
You can’t fight something with nothing.
Because if we don’t stand for something, we can’t stand against anything.
Whether you look at the riots last summer, the financial crash and the expenses scandal, or the ongoing terrorist threat from Islamist extremists around the world, one thing is clear: moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it anymore
The absence of any real accountability, or moral code, allowed some bankers and politicians to behave with scant regard for the rest of society. And when it comes to fighting violent extremism, the almost fearful passive tolerance of religious extremism that has allowed segregated communities to behave in ways that run completely counter to our values has not contained that extremism but allowed it to grow and prosper.
The problem is that he has fallen into his own trap. He admitted that…
Faith is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for morality. There are Christians who don’t live by a moral code. And there are atheists and agnostics who do.
… many of the values of a Christian country are shared by people of all faiths and indeed by people of no faith at all.
But for people who do have a faith, their faith can be a helpful prod in the right direction.
And whether inspired by faith or not – that direction, that moral code, matters.
Morality does not derive from religion. Religion does not intrinsically create morality. The two can co-exist in a person, but they are, demonstrably, not the same trait. Cameron was arguing for a return to a moral code in Britain – he just picked Christianity as his starting point. It was a foolish move, one bound to cause problems, and probably designed to pander to core voters.
Machiavelli, the sarcastic state-builder, claimed that “the princes of a republic or kingdom must maintain the foundation of the religion they have; and having done this, it will be an easy thing for them to keep their republic religious, and, in consequence, good and unified”. This is what Cameron has tried to do.
In order to fight Islamic extremism, capitalism without a conscious, and general ‘immorality’, he fell back on our established faith. He seems to believe that morality is the way to fight these forces, and his simplest route is to support our established national faith (which, by the way, is a heresy – phyletism – which is to make synonymous a faith and a nationality i.e. to be Greeks is to be Orthodox etc).
But what Britain needs is not a return to Christian values, but to a non-religiously based code to which we can all feel drawn and feel loyal. I feel that this is perhaps what Cameron intended to say, but failed miserably to properly enunciate.
The Prime Minister has to find a solution to the crises he finds in Britain today – those of a society without a moral backbone (leading to rioting and greedy bankers), and that of fundamentalists on all sides of the religious debate who attempt to blame others for the problems of society. In his “Muscular Liberalism” speech in Munich, he said
A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things. Now, each of us in our own countries, I believe, must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty.
If these are the values Cameron believes we should adhere to in society, then it already exists, inherent in our legal system. Notably, in the European Convention on Human Rights – the code that Cameron is so desperately trying to develop is the same as the Human Rights concept that he is so desperately trying to subvert.
If Cameron is looking for a framework of values to create his laws, we already have them codified in the realm of human rights. No, they’re not perfect. But to use Christianity or generic Morality is a distinct weakness – one alienates all non-followers, the other is subjective to each individual. Human rights, as a concept, is a constantly evolving distillation of the basic precepts of our society, the values every sub-set of British life can subscribe to, for the purpose of preventing our governments, private companies and other individuals from interfering in our lives. It is less subjective, and more proactive.
If Cameron truly believes in the values he called for in Munich, he will help defend human rights – because those values don’t just belong to some, but to all. Only with this basic contract among all citizens, of all nations, faiths and creeds, to respect one another, to recognise the equality of one another, to protect freedom of speech, with our rights as humans, can we form a value-set which can help reconcile our society with those within it who are disenfranchised, who feel no responsibility to it, or who actively seek to destroy it.
Belief and faith, not in God (though this is not to prevent individuals from having belief in Christianity or any other faith), nor in one person’s moral code, but in our values of liberty, equality, free speech, democracy, and even freedom of religion, is the way forward.
It is not the Cross to which Cameron should turn, but the Scales. Our rights, the rights of each other, our laws… this is what must provide Britain’s moral code in the coming years, not our anachronistic faith.