Why is Eric Pickles trying to foment trouble out of nothing?

‘Atheism vs Christianity’ is a battle largely of the Communities Secretary's imagining

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Eric Pickles is trying desperately to alert us to the attack on Christianity in this country, and to go by his doom-laden warnings, it is only getting worse. The godly were facing an onslaught from the forces of “aggressive secularism”, he told us in 2012. This weekend, the Communities Secretary  gave those malevolent unbelievers an upgrade: today, he says darkly, the problem is being posed by “militant atheists”.

I’m not sure I’ve ever met an actual militant atheist. But they sound scary – probably armed, and certainly dangerous. They sound like they search your house for Bibles, or stand outside churches on a Sunday morning waving placards and booing anyone who goes in. So what, exactly, is Mr Pickles concerned about? The dire threat, he told the Conservative Spring Forum, comes from those rabid Dawkins-ites who want to ban prayers at council meetings. “Heaven forbid,” he said. “We’re a Christian nation. We have an established Church. Get over it. And don’t impose your politically incorrect intolerance on others.”

It is, in one sense, a useful indication of how basically peaceable a place Britain is that when heaven, and indeed Mr Pickles, are called upon to do a bit of forbidding, the subject is something so anodyne as the proper procedure at council meetings. All the same, I find the intervention deeply troubling. I don’t actually believe Mr Pickles is worried about Christianity being marginalised: after all, as he points out, we have an established Church in this country – and despite the vanishingly small percentage of people who actually attend on a Sunday, that institution still has an enormous influence on public life.

What’s really going on here is part of a deeply distasteful phenomenon that’s showing up more and more often on the right of the political spectrum: an attempt to foment a culture war in a country that simply isn’t all that interested. Mr Pickles and his cohorts appear to be following the Fox News playbook. But at least Fox is talking to a constituency that already exists.

Over here, the pattern is unmistakable: find an emotive subject that most people don’t much care about, and then try to haul it into the mainstream of political debate. So it has gone with abortion, with the EU, with the suggestion that Ralph Miliband was “evil” instead of something more moderate like “mistaken’” And if Mr Pickles has his way, so it will go with public prayer.

Does this persuade those in the centre? No. But it may make a narrow political sense all the same. As Ukip has risen and David Cameron has been derided among the truest blues for his alleged preference for the Liberal Democrats over his own backbenchers, the need to shore up the Tory base has become more pressing. And so their concerns move ominously into focus – even if the silent majority is scratching its collective head over why anyone would obsess over such trivia when there’s the economy to worry about.

So, take this ridiculous business about prayers at council meetings as an example. I suppose, if I think about it, which I usually don’t, I’d prefer if there weren’t prayers said when our elected bodies meet. But I don’t feel terribly strongly about it either way. And I’m so hopelessly vague about religion that I think the best way to describe myself is as a lapsed atheist.

There are, I suspect, many among the 59 per cent of this country who identified as Christians at the last census who feel the same sort of thing on the other side; a mild tendency to believe that public prayer is a good idea, and nothing more intense. I’m sure they’d be just as bemused by Mr Pickles’ hysterical tones. After all, only about one in 50 of them actually go to church on a regular basis. They are as militant in their Christianity as I am in my atheism.

Mr Pickles isn’t interested in this polite, friendly, tolerant, and irreducibly British middle. Instead, he elides atheism and secularism, as if they’re the same thing; as if it isn’t eminently possible to be religious and a secularist. Tellingly, in the same remarks, he erected another straw man: the English Defence League, militant Islam and the “thuggish hard left”, he said, are “all as bad as each other”.

Where is this thuggish hard left? What trouble have they been causing? I am only aware of one significant example, the 66 minor injuries inflicted after a TUC march more than three years ago. I’m pretty offended by the idea that such people are somehow part of the same problem as this allegedly militant atheism. Such rhetoric is designed to whip up a disillusioned base that, thanks to Nigel Farage, suddenly has somewhere to go other than the Conservative party.

If the rest of us find Eric Pickles hard to understand, we shouldn’t be surprised. He simply isn’t talking to us. Next time he wants to intervene, perhaps he would be so good as to put it on a sandwich board, so that we know exactly how much attention to pay.

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