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.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried