What is a ‘Christian country’?

Is the UK a Christian country?

I don’t know. A lot of people are talking about it this week, thanks to David Cameron, and many of them are more angry than analytical – which is fair; politics should not exclude emotion any more than religion. However, I don’t really mind whether this is a Christian country or not (possibly I should – another debate!); what fascinates me is the issue of how we would decide. What would make a country Christian?

Generally, things which can be labelled ‘Christian’ are people, beliefs, practices, and some associated objects. You can have a Christian community, Christian doctrine, and Christian prayers; you can have a Christian book, a Christian church (building and group), and a Christian position, theology, or argument. These things are made Christian in different ways:  a person is made Christian by a ritual of baptism, a declaration of faith, and/or a practice of behaving in Christian ways – and the practice in turn is made Christian by association with Christian beliefs and being undertaken by Christian people. Objects and buildings may be Christian because they are created by Christians and/or used for Christian practices. A hymn book, for example, is written by Christians for use in Christian services (and remains a Christian hymn book even if it contains material originally not Christian – Jewish psalms, a tune written by an atheist, etc.).

Accepting that a country can’t be baptised like a person (although you could make a tasteless joke about floods if you wanted to), how can it be Christian? The community could, collectively, make a statement of faith. Given that we’ve never held a referendum on this -and if we did what on earth would be the question? – the best anyone can do is look at surveys and census questions to try and work out whether we would if we could – but understanding these results is complex, as Abby Day has written. Alternatively, you could use churchgoing or some other Christian practice as a measure, and although you’d have to average it across the population, you might manage to reach an answer. Church going is easier to count than, say, private prayer – but it isn’t what’s vital to the felt Christian identity which Cameron is talking about. He admits he’s “not that regular in attendance”, and knows that he’s in good or at least plentiful company in this.

So what, if anything, does make this country Christian? I think there are three themes in Cameron’s article, all picked up by Justin Welby in his response: history, establishment, and morality. These are bound together, obviously, and they go along with a general trend for British people to continue to identify as Christian – for, as Abby Day says, natal, ethnic, or aspirational reasons (Cameron personally seems to have a little of all of these in his article, as it happens). For a country, the natal is about the founding of the nation. This one is the easiest to determine, which is why other commentators are falling back on it: the UK has a Christian history, it is full of Christian heritage – in art, architecture, law, and language – and it has an established church. If this is what you mean by ‘Christian country’, then Britain is one.

The ethnic remains an undercurrent in Cameron’s piece, but in an age where other religions – especially but not only Islam – are heavily racialised in public discourse, this has to be a factor. Liberal commentators who are critiquing Cameron’s claims are often concerned about this aspect: that saying that the UK is a Christian country appeals to xenophobic voters (the people who might vote for UKIP or similar parties, the people who are being tempted away from Cameron’s Tory party…). This is hard to untangle – back to census results and the problems with interpreting them – but I think that this alone is not enough to make a country a Christian country. A nation could be majority Christian in this sense and secular, although if it’s majority Christian for long the historical aspects mentioned above will begin to build up.

Finally, Cameron’s Christianity is moral and aspirational. He knows that faith is “neither necessary nor sufficient for morality”, but he likes the way that lots of Christians and Christian organisations do charity work. (Work that, one might think, should be done by the government with taxes rather than by volunteers who also have to pay taxes, but that’s another debate again.) A nation can be based on Christian moral teachings – although since you’d have to get Christians to agree on those, and then compare them with the current law, working out if it still is could take a while. A nation could easily be Christian in another practical sense, however – relying on the actions of Christian groups to keep it running. Even if these tasks (schools, food banks, other services) were opened up to other religious groups, the nation might be religiously-reliant but not Christian.

What could make a country Christian? History, culture, public understandings, political desires, legal situations… at the very least – and the impressions given by each of these can easily conflict with the others.

Is the UK a Christian country, then? In some senses, no; in other senses, yes. Should it be? Is that even a question, given that some of the definitions (historical, for example) would be difficult or impossible to change? Under other definitions (about establishment, for example), it seems like a very live question.

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