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‘A Christian Country’

By Luke Brinker

“Britain is a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so,” UK Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday in a ceremony commemorating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

Courtesy of the Guardian, here is more of what Cameron said to assembled Church of England clergy members in Oxford:

Cameron said there were three reasons why the King James Bible was as relevant today as any point in its history.

“First, the King James Bible has bequeathed a body of language that permeates every aspect of our culture and heritage. Second, just as our language and culture is steeped in the Bible, so too is our politics.

“Third, we are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so. Let me be clear: I am not in any way saying that to have another faith – or no faith – is somehow wrong.

“I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have areligion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger. But what I am saying is that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

Cameron added that while faith was neither a “necessary nor sufficient condition for morality” it could be a “helpful prod in the right direction”.

Predictably, Cameron’s remarks became the target of secularist fury. But as a nonbeliever (who nonetheless enjoys Anglican ceremonies and hymns, much like noted atheist and biologist Richard Dawkins), I still cannot find much to quibble with in Cameron’s speech. To see why, it’s useful to unpack Cameron’s  points listed above.

First, the King James Bible, published in 1611 at the behest of the flamboyant King James I, is something of which Britons, religious and secular alike, should rightly be proud. Earlier this year, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote a magnificent essay for Vanity Fair hailing the King James Bible’s contributions to literature, language, and culture.

Second, it’s technically true that Britain is a Christian country. The Church of England is the established state church. Queen Elizabeth II, the head of state, is the Church’s supreme governor. That doesn’t mean that the government forces Britons to attend Sunday services. (Indeed, attendance at Church of England services has steadily declined in recent years.) But many Britons look to the state church as a cultural as much as a religious institution, so much so that the term “Church of England atheist” is not uncommon.

Finally, Cameron displayed a sensitivity to those of both non-Christian faiths and no faith at all. From a Conservative Party prime minister, that’s more than audiences are likely to hear from any politician, Democratic or Republican, in the United States. It’s all well and good to pay homage to “people of faith” in minority religions, but voicing support for the choice not to believe is a bridge too far. We must constantly hear our leaders conclude their speeches with the insincere, “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”

It’s also important to consider the source of the comments. Cameron is indeed a Conservative, but that doesn’t quite mean the same thing in Britain that it does in the US. To be sure, his austerity agenda places him firmly right-of-center on economic issues, but Cameron also supports abortion rights and gay marriage. Candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party don’t have face questions over whether they believe in evolution, because unlike in the US, Darwin’s theory is broadly accepted for what it is – the basis for modern biology. The significance of these positions within the context of Cameron’s Oxford speech is that unlike US politicians who call ours a “Christian country,” Cameron isn’t harnessing his nation’s cultural and religious heritage to support a set of anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-science policies. That’s the agenda pursued by candidates like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, who assert (falsely) that the US was founded as a Christian nation. So while their sanctimonious drivel offends me, Cameron’s speech does not.

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