Britain is Christian. Be glad of it

Is Britain a Christian country? Or a country in which increasingly few people regard themselves as Christian? Both. And it takes a Jew to appreciate it.

David Cameron’s Easter message, describing our country as Christian, caused quite a stir. He got support from the Arch-bishop of Canterbury but a letter from 50 “public figures”, including Polly Toynbee, Ken Follett and Nick Ross claimed that he was not only wrong (“Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities”) but also unhelpful (“constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society”).

There have been all sorts of dark hints about the Prime Minister’s motives. One of the letter-writers suggested on the radio that it was to divert attention from his un-Christian persecution of the poor. One blogger decided that Mr Cameron was really Jewish and had been persuaded to come out as Christian by his Jewish inner circle, in other words, ahem, by me. (Rather pleasantly, this fantasy also claimed I was president of Westminster Synagogue, which would be a nice office to hold.)

The truth is more prosaic. Mr Cameron was not making a big political play, issuing a great proclamation or providing spiritual guidance. He was making a historical observation, one that is obviously true.
This country and its institutions are shaped by Christianity. Any attempt either to record British political history or to describe current institutions, from the courts to Parliament, would be incomplete without proper consideration of the role of Christianity. Mere acknowledgement of the constitutional role of the Church, which is all the letter-writers are prepared to do, is grossly insufficient.

For this reason, Britain is correctly described as a Christian country. This reason and one more. Christianity is the formal, established religion and the Queen is head of the Church of England. This means that great national celebrations usually involve Christian religious services and that Christian leaders are accorded formal and informal precedence among religious leaders.

Yet, at the same time, it is true that fewer and fewer people describe themselves as Christians and that fewer of those who do are observant.

The point the letter-writers are failing to appreciate is that it is possible to be a Christian country in which not everybody, or even not all that many people, are faithful Christians. And perhaps they can’t see this because many of them were, well, brought up as Christians.

To a Christian, faith and practice are hard to tell apart, and practice and Christianity indistinguishable. That’s not how it seems to us Jews. It is quite possible, indeed common, for a Jew to harbour doubts about the major tenets of our religion while still practising, or to regard themselves as Jewish, and take pride in it, while neither having faith nor practising.

Now you might think that even if we, as Jews, can comprehend the idea of Britain as a Christian country, we would still be on the side of the letter-writers. I don’t agree.

I think that for Jews it is vital that the country understands what it owes to the development of religious doctrine and institutions. I think that if the country turns against its own religion, it is far more likely to turn on mine.

I think the greatest threat to my religious freedom now comes from those who oppose all religion rather than from those who think Christ was the son of God. Anglicanism has a great deal to be said for it, for those of us who aren’t Anglican.

Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times

Last updated: 3:02pm, May 16 2014