British Prime Minister David Cameron made all sorts of headlines recently with a speech in Oxford in which he unapologetically asserted the notion of Britain as a “Christian country.”
It is saying something when this could be regarded as news. In America, for instance, where the Republican primaries are alternately horrifying and amusing us, no candidate gets anywhere without this on his or her manifesto.
In Britain, with an established Church whose supreme governor moonlights as the Queen and where the prayers said in Parliament and Radio 4’s Thought for the Day are almost a Christian monopoly, it is regarded as rather daring.
On the other hand, is it strictly true? At one level, certainly.
Apart from the examples above, Britain is culturally Christian in a way that it will never be culturally Muslim or Hindu or atheist.
That is what makes it so absurd when, for instance, a school refuses to allow Bibles to be distributed because “it might offend people” or “we can’t be seen to discriminate.”
If we aren’t allowed to define who we are, we will end up as nothing at all.
To that extent, Cameron’s statements are a rousing call to common sense. Christians are not necessarily better citizens or better people than non-Christians. But whether people believe in it or not, Christianity is the natural expression of national spirituality.
So far, so good. But the eclipse of liberal Christianity and the rise of evangelicalism over the last few decades have added another dimension to the debate about where Christians stand in relation to wider society.
Evangelicals – among whom most Baptists would probably wish to be counted – have an essentially confrontational approach to the rest of the world, arising from a deep sense of sin, grace and fellowship.
We have been made members of a new community; others have not. So we speak of the need for conversion, “becoming a Christian.” Either you’re in or you’re out.
The Church of England is not in a particularly happy place here; its large and prosperous congregations are thoroughly evangelical and sect-type rather than church-type.
The ethos it has inherited, however, is much more rooted in the Cameronian idea that it is the church for the nation, whether the nation attends its services or not.
Many of the fault-lines in its present polity can be attributed to this disjunction.
The howls of protest that greeted Cameron’s speech from the usual suspects, then, are entirely understandable.
They are a sign of evangelical success in defining Christianity as a choice, a whole-life, whole-hearted path of discipleship.
To stand out as a Christian is to stand out indeed, hence the prime minister’s need to qualify his faith so thoroughly.
He is “committed” but only “vaguely practicing” and “full of doubts” about the really big issues.
So it will go against the grain for many evangelicals even to consider this. But we should really think about whether this “success” has been all that helpful in building the Kingdom of God.
Faith, for many people, is not a sort of digital spirituality, either on or off, with nothing in between. People are much more complicated than that.
A sharp distinction between the saved and the lost runs the risk of repelling those who aren’t ready for such a sharp choice, rather than encouraging a step of commitment.
The adversarial tone of much debate about religion today is certainly driven by the new atheists, and their wilder accusations certainly need to be countered.
But open hearts, open doors and open minds are more likely to win the nation for Christ than stern admonitions to flee from the wrath to come.