Saturday, June 14, 2008

Are we 'a Christian country'?

I'll let others decide how relevant a question this is in other countries, but I doubt this is just a question here in the UK!

in the UK this question has become part of a big debate about national identity, and various people, including but not exclusively church leaders, are using the phrase 'we are a Christian country' as a background to make various points in this debate. the idea seems to be that because 'we are a Christian country' politicians ought to make certain moral decisions on embryo technology, or what we should or should not see on TV, or, post 9/11 et al the place of Muslims in society. But what does this phrase mean? is it true? has it ever been true? and perhaps most importantly does this claim help or hinder the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?

if the phrase means a nation of people who are Christians, well how is this defined? if we mean people actively pursuing the Christian faith as essential to their own lives active in the Church community and becoming more 'Christ-like' as they seek to follow Jesus; well this has always only applied to a minority of people in the UK. i leave you to judge how it is in other places, but offer one observation; even in nations in which the majority go to church regularly and nearly all profess Christian faith, how deep that faith goes into the lives of some followers might well be an issue of concern. on this basis we certainly have never been a 'christian country'.

what we have been however is an 'officially Christian country' for centuries, so when people appeal to this identity, what is it they are appealing to? i think it is the 'two pronged approach' of Christendom. This occurs when the political elite declare the country to be 'Christian' and thus tell all its citizens they are now members of the State church. the church then seeks to enable these citizens to practice the faith they are now officially a part of. the definition of a Christian then tends to become 'a member of the Church' and depending on the tradition of the state church this is measured by things like Baptism, often of infants, paying church tax, often in the past at least obligatory, or simply living in a parish and thus being seen as the parishioner of a local church. Such approaches can define a country as Christian, but not at all mean that it is a country of Christian people.

Needless to say this approach is very much that of Europe, and to a lesser extent Europe's one time colonies, though many of them, like the US threw out this model after independence. However even countries without a state church tradition can operate a form of Christendom, and i would suggest the US does for instance. in these countries 'Christian values' are viewed as part of the social fabric, and churchgoing is just as 'expected' as if the state told people to go. in such places there may also be many people who claim Christian adherence, even perhaps go to Church yet seem to posses a faith that is more about good social standing and being a good citizen than anything else.

now there are things in many western societies that have been shaped by it's Christian heritage, whatever form of 'Christendom' we are talking about. these include attitudes to human dignity, law, science etc...though some of these had to fight Church opposition in some quaters to emerge as a legacy of that Christian tradition. and i think part of the 'we are Christian country' appeal is to this legacy, and i think there are good things here to look back on.

But here's the problem. the appeal to being 'a Christian country' is therefore two things, an appeal to a positive legacy of what has happened in the past due to the role Christianity has played in our country; and an appeal to a Christendom identity which has led to that shaping of society in the past, but has never been a personal identity of many of the people in that nation. this is why De Tocqueville suggested, looking at America, that democracy would be the end of Christendom. once people become active in asserting their own views in the political process and increasingly operate as individuals in the social and political sphere they want society to reflect there personal identity. from this perspective being told 'we are a Christian country' looks not like a statement of a shared identity but an imposition on my personal choice and self-identity. Equally the appeal to history Can also be contested and is. for many today the Christian legacy is viewed as violence, oppression, sexism, destruction of the planet and the resistance of social and scientific progress. to many people 'we are a Christian country' sounds like 'can we go back to the middle ages please so the Church can have all it's power back and oppress you some more'.

let's face it, why are some people wanting to continually remind 'we are Christian country'? Because the Church has largely lost its power and influence, for good or ill in nations where it once could both bless or oppress that nations citizens through considerable power and influence.

at this point i know some in the Church will want to say things like 'but in our last national census 72% of people said they were Christian' and 'surveys have shown that most people want our nation to be run on Christian values'. both these things are true, but what do they mean? well ask people in a survey if they support traditional religious morality (this has been done) and they will resoundingly tell you they don't. so how does all this square up? i think the key is this, a certain legacy based on the idea that i should love my neighbour and value fairness and justice is seen as part of a Christian legacy, and this is what people mean by Christian values. people who identify with this are happy to call themselves Christians, though actually this label is being used less and less by successive generations. this is the root of the classic phrase i have often heard when taking funerals. the deceased i was often told, never went to church and wasn't religious, but 'was as good a christian as the next person'. this effectively meant they were a nice person who tried to make a positive contribution to society. what might 'we are a Christian country' mean to such a person. well the answer is it all depends on what is being defended or promoted on this basis. if it agrees with their view the person using the phrase will be defended for 'speaking out for our traditions and national values'. if however the position being supported on the basis that 'we are a Christian country' is not to a person's own liking, and would thus be labelled 'traditional religious morality', then the person using the phrase is attacked for meddling in politics, and likely to be tarred with the image of the Church as historical oppressor. and we are back with De Tocqueville.

the reality is that a modern democratic society can never by identity be a 'Christian country' and the use of this phrase does not promote the Church's influence i think it actually undermines it. it simply serves to remind everyone that the church is a thing of the past, that we used to be a Christian nation and that whilst some bits of that legacy where good we no longer need the Church to tell us that, we the citizens now decide what are 'good Christian values' and what are 'bad traditional religious morality'. anyone caught using the phrase 'we are a Christian country' is at best well meaning but irrelevant and at worst a power mad oppressor who wants to run the country their way and not our way. Christians need to wake up to this and start admitting we are not a Christian country.

But does this mean the Church or Christians have nothing to say to society or ought, as some like to tell them, to stick to people's spiritual lives? absolutely not. I began this post talking of the identity crisis that is the context for such claims. with that goes some sense that there are things in our past we have perhaps lost, like good relationships with our neighbours, streets in which doors can be left unlocked and no-one will rob you, etc. there are also current issues we don;t know how to face, globalisation, food shortages, global warming, increasing social diversity, and more. as a Christian i think there is much from my faith tradition we have to offer by way of vision when facing such questions. Churches have much to offer in their locations as a positive influence.

when we stop trying to claim some privileged position because 'we are a Christian country' and admit we are not we then get freed up to start fulfilling a calling to offer vision in our nation in the only way we can, by inspiring individuals, whether in government or in the local street, by what we say and what we do. if this country or any country has a Christian future it will not be because of any status the church or the religion holds in society, it will be because people encounter the vision of the Kingdom of God and see it transforming the lives of Christians so that people in our society say ' i want to be like them' and 'i want our society to be just like that'. and perhaps here is the sobering truth, the claim to be 'a christian country' is something the church Can hide behind because actually it fears it cannot be valued simply on its own merits. ironically whilst this may be a well placed fear, there is also much going on that if bought out into the light would in fact commend much of what Christians are doing as indeed inspirational.