24 Apr 2014
by Ryan Cartwright
On Monday 14th April, David Cameron made a statement that the UK is a “Christian country”. This, following on the back of his claim to be continuing the work of Jesus, created considerable fuss in the traditional media and, of course, social media. Apart from the fact that we seem to be in a rut of measuring the worth of everything by how much is Tweeted about it the fuss is quite interesting, not least because it’s not the first time our illustrious First Lord of the Treasury has said something like this.
There was first the inevitable cries that Mr Cameron was in danger of creating division and alienation by promoting one faith above others. This was swiftly (and equally inevitably) countered by those saying he was simply speaking about the basis of our country’s structure and constitution. Of course nearly all of the arguments neglected to define what they meant by “Christian” or even “Christian country”. Oh they threw around words like “establishment” and “history” and muddied the waters with “facts” about church attendance but in the large they neatly avoided a definition. This is mostly, I suspect, because there can be no such thing.
No such thing as a Christian Country?
Take “Christian” for example. What is a Christian? A follower of Jesus? A baptised person? A believer in God? A church-goer (which type of church)? Someone who has accepted Christ as their Saviour? All of those? Any of those? None of those? This is the problem, Jesus did not lay down a definite article of what constitutes a Christian. Actually he never used the term so he wouldn’t have. He did, however, talk about how those who followed him should behave and act. In Matthew 7 he spoke about how we can determine a false prophet by their “fruit”. It is who how we act and what we do that show who we are rather than what we say we are. Given that how can we determine if a nation is Christian? By what it does? Possibly but that’s equally hard to determine. Given that we have such a wide definition of what constitutes Christian behaviour how can we determine if a nation is behaving in a Christian manner? If we say a Christian must one who has accepted Christ as Saviour, how can an entire nation do that? If we say that a Christian nation is one where most of the people are Christians how do we determine that number? The truth is we can’t. We can’t accurately determine how many people are Christians unless we agree on what a Christian is. Using National Census data and surveys may be a start but then you get down to the problem of whether self-identification as a Christian is “enough”. To be clear, I’m not saying people must be discounted as Christian simply because they call themselves that. I am saying that if we allow people to self-identify (and we should) then we cannot accurately use that as a way to count how many Christians we have in the UK or whether that number makes this a Christian nation.
Is a country a Christian one simply because the Prime Minister (or anybody else) says it is?
I think to be honest that labelling any nation as “Christian” is a non-starter. As an example let’s look at our foreign policy. Is it the Christian thing to do to send troops to a troubled nation or is that a bullying tactic because we don’t like how different their ways are to ours? Of course you’ll say it depends upon the nation, the timing and the mission of the troops and you’d be right. So given that one, simple, example how do we determine if the UK is acting in a Christian way. Is a country that gives millions of pounds worth in foreign aid and also sells millions of pounds worth of weapons to the world, a Christian nation? Is a country a Christian one simply because the Prime Minister (or anybody else) says it is? I tell my children regularly that just because somebody says you are “stupid” does not make it true. Can we say the same about calling somebody, or a nation, a Christian?
Those who know me will know that I really dislike stereotypes and labels. Using the word Christian as a label is fraught with problems. I’ve covered the problems with determining how we apply such a label above but beyond that there’s the expectations that come once it is applied. When somebody declares their – for want of a better term – secular business to be a “Christian” one I start to wonder why they are at pains to make that distinction. I honestly can’t see why slapping a fish on your van makes you a better plumber. Sometimes I’ve ask the business owners why and usually get a response that they feel it shows they will treat their customers fairly. Interesting decision, given the bigoted, judgemental reputation the Church is too often associated with. Anecdotally, I have, in the past, asked some Christian and non-Christian friends about what they think when they see a “Christian” business. The non-Christians said they felt it meant that business would treat Christian customers better than others. The Christians pretty much said they’d expect to be either ripped off or that putting a label like that means as much as a preacher removing their watch at the start of a sermon. When you transfer the label “Christian” to a nation it has a bigger effect. So often I hear (as I did in the case of Mr Cameron) the phrase “Christian Country” embedded within an argument for enhanced rights for Christians, a cry that the church is being “persecuted” or – more commonly – a militant we-need-to-stand-up-for-ourselves rant. For the record, the Church is not persecuted here and we should be more worried about our responsibilities than our rights.
If we consistently tell ourselves that the Church is the people and not the building or the organisation then shouldn’t that apply to the country? We may have been a country where many people attended church regularly but I think we can all safely say that church attendance is by no means a safe measure of what makes one a Christian. We can determine if this is a multi-cultural nation from statistics but I’m not sure we can determine if this is a Christian one.
To be frank I think I’d prefer it if the UK were not described as a Christian country. As Mr Cameron has discovered it is unhelpful, antagonistic and jingoistic. Don’t get me wrong I long for my friends, neighbours, colleagues and the wider populace to discover Christ as Saviour and I rejoice whenever I hear of God’s work being done within the borders of my homeland but even if every single person in the UK described themselves as a Christian, I still wouldn’t want us to call ourselves a Christian Country.
Countries don’t make people Christian and people don’t make countries Christian but a country where people follow Jesus and do his work (by the way that’s not what you think it means, Mr Cameron) sounds like a place I’d like to live.