In these times of upcoming European elections, Scottish independence and looming general elections, the question of identity is back at the heart of the public debate. What is Britain? – Who is Britain? – What should Britain be?
David Cameron’s statement in theChurch Times that Britain is a Christian country has come to feed this voracious debate and sparked many hungry mouths to voice their say on the question. We have heard it all before – values, tradition, tolerance and multiculturalism, these concepts lie at the foundation of our definition of nation, and echo throughout the arguments of both pro- and anti Cameron’s assertion.
Religion’s powerful capacity to inflame public debates could not have made of Cameron’s Easter message anything less than a bomb-shell polemic.
Both sides of the argument have by now been largely exposed, and it appears difficult to distinct any kind of consensus. Whereas the more conservatives put the emphasis on Britain’s heritage and history as a Christian country, other liberals stress the reality of decline of Christian observants.
It is quite clear that the debate on the place and role of religion in our society is today essential. We need to remove the lid from the boiling water before an eruption occurs. In the meantime I believe that there is another urgent debate which deserves to be addressed.
Indeed, little has been said on Cameron’s positioning as Prime Minister through his thought-through declaration on Christianity. Cameron’s political manoeuvre, which aimed at boosting his popularity among the nationalist fringe of the conservative party deserting towards the Ukip bastion, is also telling about our understanding of the interaction between politics and religion.
There is a strange paradox in the fact that religion is increasingly perceived by the population as something which belongs to the private sphere, and yet the transformation of religion into a political tool.
This is what is truly shocking: in spite of claims of tolerance, and in the name of multiculturalism, the Prime Minister, allegedly representative and responsible for the United Kingdom’s population, talks on its behalf about the country’s religious nature.
Cameron’s faith is no secret. However, the distinction should be made between the observance of his faith as an individual and the weight of the message he conveys as Prime Minister. Whether or not one agrees that Britain remains a Christian country, it was not in his place as Prime Minster to take such a stand without previously opening a debate on the place of Christianity in Britain today.
Religion remains a political topic. And yet, politicians when speaking under the cap of a public figure, should not be the ones to make such conclusions but should open discussion and drive the debate. In this case, Cameron’s role as Prime Minister is to listen to the voices of the people of Britain. Cameron as a British citizen can take any stands he likes.
Since 1905, France separated the matters of the Church from those of the State. Although this has not, by far, resolved the problem of the integration of non-Catholic faiths in France, it does prevent the kind of situation Cameron has just put himself into. Cameron has however rejected the proposition made by atheist Nick Clegg to apply a similar law to England. On the contrary, he reasserted that Britain upholds the status of a Christian country which respect and welcomes all other faiths.
The separation of the Church from the State would certainly be a drastic measure and one difficult to implement as long as the Queen remains the head of the Church of England. Nevertheless, politicians should be bind to leave their religious affiliations outside of their politics so as to fulfil their role as representatives of the British voters.
Religious neutrality is one step further in the process of multiculturalism Cameron does not seem ready to make. However, the question is urgent. Last week’s statement has sent the wrong message to both religious communities and to the political class which therefore has to align itself to the fact that Britain is, supposedly, still a Christian country. In such conditions, a Muslim Prime Minister is inconceivable unless Britain adopts Islam as its established faith. And yet, in a political system of religious neutrality, the possibility of a Muslim leader no longer appears an absurdity. Is Britain ready to accept it?
Today, Britain doubts its multiculturalism. If however multicultural is still the way Britain wants to define itself, then it still has a long way to go.