Since former Prime Minister Tony Blair declared himself a Christian believer in 2007 and was received into the Catholic Church shortly thereafter—once he had left office—public declarations of faith by U.K. politicians have not gone down well among British voters. Contradicting his boss, Blair’s spin–doctor Alistair Campbell famously, and perhaps desperately, declared of the Blair administration, “We don’t do God.”
Contemporary Britain, like much of Europe, is thoroughly secularized. Thus declaring atheism or agnosticism is not a vote-loser as it might be in the United States. The junior partner in the recent coalition government, Nick Clegg, lost his early popularity this election season, but not because of his declared atheism. The current Labour leader and prime ministerial hopeful Ed Miliband has likewise declared himself an atheist.
Suspicion of Roman Catholicism is a thing of the past except on the wilder fringes of Ulster Orangeism. It had been rooted in the legacy of the Act of Settlement that followed the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the deposing of the last Catholic monarch, James II. That history, barely known, matters little in the 21st century.
Blair’s own crossing of the Tiber did not include, in the eyes of many, an entirely wholehearted embrace of recent Catholic thought. Like U.S. President George W. Bush, Blair appeared to ignore papal concerns about the Iraq war.
The underlying political calculus here appears to be that one’s religion should, at most, be seen but not heard. But this is rarely a principled and articulated separation of the sacred and the secular. Rather, we see among believers a relegation of faith to the private realm, while nonbelievers feel no need to listen for anything of value in, for example, Catholic social thought. In the United Kingdom, “We don’t do God,” but when political leaders decide that they are going to anyway, the results can be mystifying.
As the general election campaign reached peak intensity this April, for some reason the outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron produced an “Easter message” in which he lauded Britain as a “Christian country.” Christians, he intoned, do much good in the community: feeding the homeless and hungry (perhaps especially those whose hunger was caused by his government’s austerity policies).
Cameron went on to explain that the key values of Easter were “compassion, forgiveness, kindness, hard work and responsibility.” Quite how he extracted that insight from the passion and resurrection of Christ remains unclear. Perhaps he had in mind the forgiveness shown by Christ on the cross to the good thief. Who was he, an asylum–seeker or benefit cheat? Perhaps the hard work and responsibility cited was that shown by Simon of Cyrene. But the P.M. chose not to give these or any other examples. This was not so much bad theology as no theology.
Cameron went on to inform the nation that “like so many others, I’m a bit hazy on the finer points of our faith.” This, one had to assume, explained his sense that “Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children.” Yes, Prime Minister.
Cameron’s Easter exegesis could be counted a cynical attempt to woo the Christian vote, whatever that might mean in 2015 Britain, for Conservatives. As the United Kingdom goes to the polls on May 7, his gambit appears unlikely to pay off. Other politicians were even more egregious. The leader of the U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, was roundly condemned for asserting in a televised leaders’ debate that treatment for H.I.V. should be denied to immigrants, putting “our own people first.” Despite the consequent outrage, Farage stood by his remarks, asserting without substantiation that “it is a sensible Christian thing to look after your family and your own community first.”
Thatcher, on her accession to Number 10 Downing Street in 1979, churned many stomachs when she infamously invoked a prayer often erroneously attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony....” Most quasi-religious interventions by our politicians are more likely to dissuade Christians, let alone those of no professed faith. Yet it is for the followers of Christ to call candidates to account, not only for their policies, but also their cynical appropriation of the Christian faith.