Britain's state of faith: What started this war of the pulpits, for heaven's sake?

The recent fuss has all the hallmarks of cynical electioneering

You know how sometimes, when you go on holiday, you miss a big news event and, as a result, spend much of the next few weeks in a fog of confusion, trying vainly to understand what on earth is going on? You'll be lying on a sun lounger, absorbed by an airport thriller, and, back home, a newsreader will be admitting to shoplifting or a school will be caught putting Ritalin in the chips. Then, when you get back, you see acres of think-pieces about middle-class kleptomania or the plague of childhood hyperactivity and you don't really understand why. The root cause has vanished as quickly as your tan, and all that remains is the pontificating. Until you're back up to speed, everything in the public sphere feels trumped-up and meaningless, a school debating competition inadvertently broadcast on the News at Ten.

So it has seemed to me for the last few weeks. At some point when I wasn't paying attention, an influential public figure must have said cheerily that he thought Britain was a country whose heritage was strictly irreligious, and advertised his hopes that laws would soon be passed to outlaw all superstitious beliefs. Only natural, then, that there should be such a clamour of devout voices in response; no one should be expected to let such prejudice go uncorrected. After all, you can't just conjure a political firestorm out of nothing, can you? When this whole argument started up, I must have been asleep by the pool.

So I thought to myself. Then I remembered that I hadn't actually been on holiday at all and, if Russell Brand or the Lord Chief Justice had called for the immediate resignation of all Christian cabinet ministers, I probably would have heard about it. And yet the pontificating has ensued all the same. It has been relentless and very one-sided indeed.

So where did it really come from? Well, if David Cameron's Easter article for Church Times was the messianic moment, it is perhaps appropriate that he had a John the Baptist of his own, in the unlikely form of Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities. It was Mr Pickles who said, three weeks ago, that "militant atheists", a sinister-sounding bunch, were "imposing their politically correct intolerance on others" and needed to "get over it" and accept that "we're a Christian nation" – adducing as evidence for their rampaging ambitions an obscure attempt to stop prayers being a part of council meetings. This was irritating at the time, but it was only Eric Pickles.

Now things have moved up a gear, with Mr Cameron finding something to love in both halves of the term "bully pulpit". His article for Church Times was so head-scratchingly premised that you might imagine that, as other writers affix an inspirational quote to their pinboards to keep them focused as they work, so the Prime Minister sticks up a picture of a straw man. Or, rather, some straw people. Those were the buggers, he explained, whom he was obligated to take on. "Some people feel that in this ever more secular age we shouldn't talk about [Christianity]," he wrote. "People who … advocate some sort of secular neutrality fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality." Who are these people? Can anyone point them out? Ah, who cares! It's time they stopped silencing Christians.

In the days that followed, I started to feel that my pool-side doze might have turned into a case of chronic narcolepsy, so often did I feel as if I had missed another shameless atheistic provocation. There was one significant intervention that I did spot – a letter in last Monday's Daily Telegraph signed by 50 prominent secularists who objected in rather mild terms to David Cameron's characterisation of Britain as a "Christian country" on the grounds that hardly anyone actually goes to church. But it is worth bearing in mind: the letter was a response, not an act of incitement. It made no attempt to overwrite the Christian foundation of our culture and legal system. It didn't even object to the existence of an established church.

From the tumult that resulted, you might think it had been penned by the devil himself. On Tuesday, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, weighed in, fretting that Christians were becoming reluctant to express their faith and telling atheists they were "deluding themselves". Iain Duncan Smith agreed, indignantly describing claims that Britain isn't a Christian country as "absurd" and in defiance of "both historical and constitutional reality", and, curiously, leaving church attendance out of his argument. Another letter to the Telegraph, signed by a group of Christian intellectuals, including Roger Scruton, reminded the beastly atheists of their responsibility to "exercise liberal tolerance". Mr Grieve will have been moved to see that they managed to find the courage to speak up for their beliefs in such a hostile atmosphere.

Nick Clegg did reiterate his view that there should be an end to the link between church and state, but it was said it in such modest and apologetic terms that you could tell he knew it wasn't ever going to happen. He also defended David Cameron's description of Britain as a Christian country.

Just in case you thought the whole business was lacking in spiritual authority, the Archbishop of Canterbury topped it all off with a terribly reasonable blog of his own. Christianity, he suggested regretfully, was facing "hatred and opposition". These loudmouthed atheists should stop ignoring historical facts just because they found them "unwelcome" and "uncomfortable". According to Justin Welby, it is the "generous hospitality" of this Christian country that "protects atheists as well". I find that choice of words telling. Hospitality, after all, is not something you need in your own home. Atheists and members of other faiths, by his formulation, are mere guests here, welcome but also reliant on the largesse of their hosts. Well, Your Grace, forgive me if I don't say thank you.

It's funny: as the whole business has unfolded, there has been much talk of whether or not British politicians should "do God". But doing God, it seems to me, might be understood as governing according to the moral principles of your faith, and publicly placing your leadership within the framework of your religious belief. We can argue about whether that's a good idea or not – but it's not what's happening here. Mr Cameron is not "doing God"; he is doing "doing God". No one is talking much about religion. Everyone is talking about how angry they are that they aren't allowed to talk about it.

So. Let me be clear, as Mr Cameron might say. I am happy for the religious to talk about their faith. I have no objection to the existence of an established church. Nor, I think, do most people; it's just one of those classically British fudges that works perfectly well and might as well stay as it is for convenience's sake. (As Mr Clegg himself pointed out, after all, this is "not something that's discussed in the pubs and [at the] kitchen tables of Britain".) I am likewise entirely amenable to having a prime minister whose moral convictions are born of his beliefs, even if they are as hazy as Mr Cameron's Magic-FM-in-the-Chilterns variety. What I object to is the idea that people such as me, a lapsed atheist quietly going about his business, should be accused of being the source of the trouble – when in fact neither I nor any of the other "people" under fire disagrees with the Prime Minister and his cohorts about much at all.

Reduce the argument to its essentials. One lot thinks that Britain is a Christian country because it has a Christian heritage. The other lot is a bit bemused to be asked but, if pushed, thinks that Britain is not a Christian country because most people don't go to church. Fine. This is not a matter of principle but of terminology. Everyone is describing the same country. We are just using different words for it. This is probably why no one was really arguing about it before the Prime Minister came along.

This being the case, you might expect the fuss to die away again. I fear it will not. The Ukipification of British politics will not allow for that; and Lynton Crosby, the Conservative election guru, has a strong taste for identity politics at the best of times. It is not unduly cynical to think that the threat posed by Nigel Farage, on the one hand, and the opportunity presented by the metropolitan Jewish liberal Ed Miliband, on the other, will embolden him more than ever. So we must adjust our expectations, remembering the American model, and steel ourselves for the assertion that we are in a culture war, in which conscientious objection will not be tolerated. All things considered, it may be time for me to book that holiday. I'm not coming back until the election's over.

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