Contemporary Britain, Americans understand, is a secular place. Weekly church attendance is quite low. Although in surveys majorities continue to identify themselves as “Christian,” most observers dismiss this as evidence of merely vestigial attachments, like the crosses on the Union Jack (left). When Americans think of religion in Britain, they tend to think of stories like sociologist Peter Berger’s, about the time he asked a London hotel concierge for the nearest Church of England parish. Not only did the concierge not know where the parish was; he didn’t know what the Church of England was.
It’s always a little surprising for Americans, then, when Britain’s Christian identity reasserts itself, as it did on two occasions this month. On Sunday, the BBC broadcast the traditional Queen’s Christmas Message, which ended with a meditation on the “great Christian festival” of Christmas and a prayer “that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.” Not so secular.
Now, the Queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and I guess most people, if they thought about it, would expect her Christmas message to be, well, Christian. Earlier in the month, though, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a remarkable address, on the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible, which also highlighted Britain’s Christian identity. “We are a Christian country,” he declared, “and we should not be afraid to say so.” He did not mean to minimize the contributions of Britons of other faiths, or of no faith, he insisted. But there was no reason to hide the fact that the Christian tradition, including especially the King James Bible, had helped shape British culture and values. Cameron rejected state “secular neutrality” as “profoundly wrong,” both in its assumption that acknowledging Britain’s Christian identity would disparage followers of other religions and in presuming that a state could remain neutral about morality without inviting social disaster. “Tolerance,” he said, was not the same thing as secularism, quoting in support a passage from President Barack Obama’s autobiography.
What is one to make of this speech? Cameron is not himself a particularly religious man, apparently, and skeptics say his speech is just a sop to the traditionalist wing of his party. (“Put not your trust in princes,” the King James Bible warns). Whatever Cameron’s personal beliefs, though, one doesn’t get to be Prime Minister without having a sense of public opinion, and Cameron likely understands that his words appeal to something deep in British culture. Perhaps reports about secular Britain are exaggerated.