Americans are used to politicians openly mixing their faith with their politics, but British politicians usually “don’t do God”, to quote the advice offered by Tony Blair’s spin doctor. This convention, though, is breaking down, with David Cameron’s Conservative-led government increasingly being proud to “do God”. Such religiosity is meeting a mixed reception in a nation that is increasingly secular and which is no longer in tune with the traditional privilege afforded to religion by the British establishment.
It is said that Prime Minister David Cameron found consolation in his Christian faith after the death of his disabled son, leading to a much more overt Christianity. Further, the Conservative Party fears that the anti-EU, anti-immigrant UKIP will siphon off votes at the forthcoming election, letting Labour in. It is thus pitching its appeal at older, more-Christian, UKIP-leaning voters, and perhaps it is calculating that there are not enough secularist Tory voters to worry about losing any.
Cameron has declared the UK to be a “Christian country” while his Christmas message says that “giving, sharing and taking care of others” are “very Christian values”, adding that “we [the nation?] celebrate the birth of Christ”, despite the fact that only 13% regard Jesus as an important aspect of their own Christmas.
Minister of Faith (why do we have one of those?) Eric Pickles uses his government platform to declare that “we must not forget … the birth of Jesus Christ”, that “the Christian faith is the backbone of local communities across the country”, and that “fairness, tolerance and respect … spring from [a] Christian ethos”.
And yet, nowadays, only 2% of the population attends a Church of England service on a typical Sunday, and 76% say that being Christian is not an important element of being British. While much of the nation retains some cultural affinity with Christianity, about half say they are not religious and that religion, overall, does more harm than good in society.
Despite this, the government is backing a new law to reinstate prayer at council meetings, while, yet again, recognition or representation of the non-religious at important national events such as the Remembrance Day commemoration is being blocked.
The mood music from the government is backed by policies that are totally unsympathetic to the increasing numbers of the non-religious. In England you can get married in the manner of any fringe religion, including Scientology or the Aetherius Society, but a humanist wedding is not allowed. Despite years of campaigning and widespread support, this is seen by the government as a “fringe” issue, that doesn’t align with their “Christian country” appeal to UKIP voters.
Similarly, requests for humanist views to be studied alongside religious ones in school curricula continue to be blocked by a Department of Education that prefers the plaudits of the churches. Yet again that Department is headed by a Christian, who sees it as her duty to oppose the “continuing creeping secularism in Britain” and says that her role in Parliament is “to remember the Word of God and serve the Lord”.
State schooling in Britain is still riddled with religious privilege. It may have been acceptable, back in the 19th Century, to ask the churches to run state-funded schools, but why are we still doing it? We’re doing it because such schools are popular, say the government. But they are popular because they have control over pupil admissions, and that enables them to pick the easy-to-teach kids from supportive families. Being socially selective means they have good academic and disciplinary standards, and so are popular. This success comes, not from the “faith ethos”, but simply from the selection of pupils. Meanwhile the “bog standard” schools get no choice in their intake and get given all the pupils that the “faith” schools won’t take.
The churches like this arrangement because it allows them to proselytize at the kids in religious-themed assemblies each morning, while they can demand that parents attend church as the price of admission. “On your knees to avoid the fees” of the private sector, is the maxim, and parents go along with it to get their children into the socially selective schools.
The non-religious families, of course, get the rum end of the deal, with a far worse choice of taxpayer-funded schools. But then governments don’t care. They calculate that the non-religious won’t make a fuss and won’t care enough to change their vote. So far they’ve been right, which is why none of the major political parties are opposed to faith schools. And, if none are opposed, then who do you give your protest-vote to? Even politicians who are not philosophically supportive regard “faith” schools as a fact of life that they can’t do much about. Indeed, Labour leader Ed Miliband and LibDem leader Nick Clegg are both atheists, but neither will oppose such schools.
Nor is religion confined to the “faith” schools. All English state schools are required to coerce religious worship. By a law renewed as recently as 1992, “each pupil … shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship”, where the worship must be “wholly or mainly of a Christian character”. While the parents have a right to opt their children out (the kids have no opt-out of their own), this deprives them of the community and social aspects of school assemblies.
While “faith” schools of other religions can legally alter this requirement, the non-religious cannot, since being non-religious is not an ethos that the government recognises. Despite this, many schools simply ignore this law. Having a law so bad that large swathes of schools ignore it has not stopped governments repeatedly renewing it.
In other forms of religious privilege, the government pays for chaplains in the armed forces, the health service and in prisons, but does not fund secular equivalents. The churches still get automatic charitable status and tax breaks. They get promotion and deference from the publicly funded BBC. And they get automatic places for Church of England bishops in the legislature — yes, really, they do — a concept, as is often noted, found elsewhere only in Iran. They even have medieval-era laws allowing them to charge non-believing house holders for church repairs!
Through all this, the UK continues to get gradually more secular. Is the obstinacy of the religious establishment a recognition that their grip is faltering, causing them to hang on grimly to everything they can? Extrapolating current declines and looking at their ageing congregations, senior bishops are themselves talking about “the end of the Church of England by 2050”. No wonder they are desperate to retain their control over large numbers of schools, forcing the children into Christian worship, even though the families drift away from church once the children are admitted, and even though the children usually turn out non-religious anyhow.
It may by that Cameron’s current government ends up being the last overtly Christian government the UK has. That might be too hopeful, but the secular, non-religious voters in Britain now outnumber those who regard religion as important. All we need do to stop the religious getting away with it is to use our votes.