David Cameron's recent comments on religion seem, on the surface, to be among the silliest of his reign. So what do they really mean, who are they really for, and what is their likely consequence?
First of all, let's deal with the comments themselves. Britain is a Christian nation, he says. Well, that's debatable. The British Social Attitudes Survey of 2001 found that 48% of Britons considered themselves to belong to one religion or another, and this number has declined ever since until, in 2009, the number of people identifying as Christian fell, for the first time, below the number of those identifying as non-religious. Interestingly, a YouGov poll conducted last April found that 55% percent identified as Christian and 40% as non-religious, but that if the question was framed differently – are you very religious or not really/not at all? - then only 35% fell into the former category (across all religions) with 63% in the latter one. Only 11% said that they attended a religious service once a month or more. And of course, there are many other religious groups in Britain besides Christians – at least 3% of the population is Muslim and 1% Hindu, with smaller but not insignificant groups of Jews, Sikhs and Buddhists (it's hard to get an accurate figure for those who follow Pagan religions because their self-descriptions are so varied and quite a few surveys exclude them altogether).
It might therefore be fairest to say that around half the British population is notionally Christian but that a significantly smaller percentage is actively so, with many people rejecting or ignoring the organised aspects of their religion.
In these circumstances, arguing that Britain is a Christian nation is likely to make a majority of people feel uncomfortable, excluded or outright insulted. A nation cannot be labelled as belonging to a particular religious group on the basis of a first past the post system (no matter what the new rulers of Tunis might like to believe). Britain is plainly a secular country where lots of different religious interests (and the interests of those who are not religious) need to be taken into account. And secularism has served Britain well – in fact, it serves everyone well. Rates of violent crime are lower in secular countries; whilst this may be seen as correlated to stages of development, it's no reason to turn our backs on an approach that's working well. Secularity does not, as various researchers have shown, reduce the risk of a nation being violent to others, but it does reduce rates of religious hate crime within that country. It promotes an ideology of respect between religious groups and individuals. It also, interestingly, correlates to lower rates of domestic violence and unprotected sex, and to higher rates of self-reported happiness.
78% of those participating the YouGov poll mentioned above said they think religion has no place in politics. Religious neutrality among politicians is art of how we protect our secular culture, as Tony Blair understood when he chose to try and separate his Catholic values from what he perceived as his ethical duties to the electorate. But if Christianity is an inappropriate thing for a prime minister to focus on, what about Christian values? Can't most of us agree that, for instance, compassion, good neighbourliness, honesty and abstention from violence are virtues worth aspiring to?
I think most of us can. The trouble is, can David Cameron? Many would contend that his recent reductions in support for disabled people, for example, leave him looking a little short on the compassion front; and he really stumbles when it comes to the rejection of usury. He must know that advocating Christian values in this context risks making him look like a hypocrite or, at best, a buffoon, in the eyes of a large part of the population. So why do it?
Does he really believe it? If so, he's kept remarkably quiet about it until now. Is he seeking political advantage? There lies the rub.
Cameron is nothing if not an opportunist, and he knows full well that when he says “Christian values” some of us think of the Bible but many more of us snap back to thinking of Margaret Thatcher's moral crusade, of the red top social virtues that have, even very recently, led certain newspaper editors to declare that they would not vote for MPs who cheated on their wives (presumably, given the politics of their papers, they're quite happy to vote for MPs who fiddle their expenses). This is a world where sex is the true sin and, especially, sex that other people are having – undesirable other people like the gays whose side Cameron simultaneously insists he is on. This is, quite simply, a tactic aimed at creating loyalty in particular groups of voters by reinforcing the myth of the pernicious other that has so often driven people into the arms of the right. Calling Britain a Christian nation is an excuse for seeking to drive out those who are not like us, and talking about Christian values perpetuates the notion that some among us are really other.
His couldn't be much further away from the ideals of the majority of Christians, but it plays well, and Cameron knows it. It impacts at an emotional level before people have really thought it through. The thing is, it doesn't impact the same way on everyone. Consequently, there is always the danger of a backlash, as when Gordon Brown foolish blustered about British jobs for British workers. So it's a risky move and it's one which, to be successful, must impact on a particular group of (swing) voters at just the right time. Women – especially mothers – are more likely to hold religious values than men, so this could be an attempt to win back unhappy female voters. It's also worth noting that, outside Scotland, people in urban areas are less religious than those living in the countryside. We can map this against areas where the Tories need to solidify their support and the picture starts to look interesting. This is a call to the heartlands – a test, perhaps, to see if wayward voters who have flirted with the LibDems or been seduced by New Labour are now ready to return to the fold.
The question is, why test now? Why take risks now with strategies only likely to work in the short term? If Westminster rumours are true, Cameron and Osborne have been discussing the prospect of a March election. It would be a big gamble; with jilted LibDems unlikely to return to the fold and the Eurosceptic bounce unlikely to provide a sustained bounce, it might well pave the way to minority government (if not outright failure). At any rate, Cameron will probably watch the odds for a while longer before he decides whether or not to make a move; but if he does then, even before an announcement, we can expect a few more audacious statements like this. It may be reaching the stage where we all need to decide just what kind of nation we want to live in.