I have always squirmed when hearing talk of a ‘Christian country’, and it was no exception when David Cameron wheeled the concept out once again the other day. There is a lot of conjecture around why he did it, including potentially to placate the majority of evangelicals after legalising same sex marriage, but I wanted to use this short article to outline some of the reasons Christians like myself are very uneasy and even outright critical of attempts to align our faith with our nation. While this issue is perhaps more pronounced in the USA, there are important political and (Christian) theo-political reasons we should avoid talk of Britain as a ‘Christian nation:
1) It is questionable whether a human-made entity such as a nation can be described in such anthropomorphic terminology. Being a ‘Christian’ implies having some form of relationship with God. While it is possible for a nation to have Christians in it I question whether a nation can be Christian itself, especially when a large minority (41% at the last census) do not associate themselves with Christianity.
2) Some argue that clearly we’re a Christian nation because we have holidays around Christian festivals and we have a monarch who is the head of a church. I would suggest the ‘Christian’ element within these has essentially been watered down so much they have become what many call ‘culturally Christian’, which I’d argue is a pale imitation of Christianity.
Christmas is a good example: who could argue that on a national level Christmas is much more than a cultural event now (as opposed to the supposedly revolutionary idea that God was incarnated as a human being)? Jonathan Freedland certainly said so this Christmas when he argued in the Guardian that Muslims and Jews are now embracing Christmas as they never have before:
‘What’s helped is that non-Christians have come to realise something that was not always obvious, to us at least: that most of what happens at Christmas is not Christian at all. The very thing that dispirits the churches – the secularisation of the festival – is what makes it open to those who are not followers of Jesus. So now we can separate out the bits that require Christian belief, put them to one side, and embrace instead those things which suggest a cosy winter festival – one that’s less faith and more family, food and the fireside.’
For me, Christianity is at its best when it is (non-violently) radical, demanding its followers die unto themselves (see Mark 8:34-45) not woven into the safety of non-threatening cultural niceties where nothing is really demanded of its adherents.
3) If Britain is a ‘Christian’ nation with a need to revive traditional ‘Christian values’, as Cameron suggested, we need to be clear what ‘Christian values’ we are talking about. While there are some aspects of British culture I admire and might align with my own Christian values (e.g. a legal system which, broadly, attempts to promote justice (compared to many other countries in the world), and the fact that we do not have the death penalty), there are many values which I certainly wouldn’t align with Christianity: embedded and soulless commercialisation, neoliberal capitalism and endless wealth acquisition, and individualism I see at odds with a relational, triune God in whose image we are made.
I wonder whether Cameron would be happy to speak out against these as un-Christian values?
4) If being a ‘Christian nation’ is truly about values, then there’s nothing particularly ‘British’ about them. As I’ve argued before, truly ‘British’ values are in fact no more than cultural practices: cricket on the village green, fish & chips etc. True Christian ‘values’ – love, self-sacrifice and worship of God are values which transcend nations and cultures. They can perhaps be done in British ways but they are not British as of themselves.
5) It’s not far from arguing for a ‘Christian nation’ to a greater sense of Christian nationalism or patriotism. Soren Kierkegaard, a Christian polemicist from the 19th Century had a lot to say on this writing various tracts critiquing Christian nationalism (see here for an interesting audio discussion on his thinking).
He criticised the idea, common among his fellow Danish Christians, that God had somehow chosen Denmark to be a nation above all nations and that Christendom had reached its peak in their country. According to academic Stephen Backhouse:
‘A huge part of his analysis of ‘Christendom’ is wrapped up with the way that the Christian religion and culture has made Christianity essentially a moral, civilising set of ideas. Christendom has tied itself closely to the notion that history is progressing, and that a nation’s success or disaster is somehow connected to the quality of its (christianised) culture and morality. Thus, focus on the personal, individual and unsettling nature of Jesus’ incarnation is by-passed in favour of a triumphalistic commitment to the inevitable rise of groups and movements.’
The earliest Christians were, in fact persecuted as they did not adhere to the pagan virtue of patriotism and were actually called ‘atheists’ as a result as they did not fit into any existing religious frameworks. Their insistence that their allegiance lay not with an earthly ruler or nation but to another kingdom, the Kingdom of God set them entirely apart in the first centuries. This Kingdom not only had another ruler (God), but had entirely different values to the competing contemporary Roman kingdom – ultimately expressed in the emptying of oneself for the sake of God and others which proved so attractive that a small sect in a corner of the Roman empire after Jesus’ death had millions of followers just a few centuries after.
Ultimately language such as Cameron’s is damaging both to Britain as a pluralistic democracy (which I support) and Christianity. I do not think for one second from either perspective that we should do away with the concept of countries – I think there is a lot of value in celebrating the various cultural aspects of being British. But ultimately these should be relativised in the context of greater values which can be seen to transcend the borders of nations – whether speaking from a secular or faith perspective. Concepts such as citizenship, I would suggest, are also more fruitful in bringing people together than talk of nations.
As a Christian, I would emphasise this to an even greater degree as my allegiance is ultimately not to a nation, political party or ideology but to God and her Kingdom.