The UK, the “mother country” of the US, is in a bit of a row over recent comments by Prime Minister David Cameron.* He said publicly that Britain should be “more confident about our status as a Christian country.”
Several public figures, including philosophers, journalists, novelists, and the head of the British Humanist Association, have published an open letter in an English newspaper warning that David Cameron could cause “alienation” with his comments about Christianity in the UK.
In the letter, the group says: “We respect the prime minister’s right to his religious beliefs and the fact that they necessarily affect his own life as a politician. However, we object to his characterisation of Britain as a ‘Christian country’ and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders. Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a ‘Christian country’.”
They said Britain was a “plural society” that was largely “non-religious”. “Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society,” the letter continued. Most Britons “do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government”, it concluded.
The British debate, of course, is quite like that in the US and is just another small chapter in the centuries-old interweaving of church and state that mark our common heritage. People who don’t like Christianity react to the idea of the UK or the US being Christian nations as if that meant everyone is supposed to be Christian. That’s not what it means at all. All it really means is that the shape of the social and governmental structures has evolved in a very closeknit interaction between church and state. The essential values embodied in both countries were derived essentially from two sources: The lesser source is the Greco-Roman tradition and the greater source is Judeo-Christian.
Ever since the Enlightenment, those in the West with great prejudice against God have tried to convince us all that, in the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley in the early 19th century, “We are all Greeks.” A study of history simply won’t bear such an idea. Our formal structures, that is, our government, owe much of their shape to the Greeks and Romans, but the underlying values — such as the value of human dignity and freedom from tyranny — are derived far more from our biblical heritage.
It is true that the Church — like any and every human institution — has often been corrupt. That does not mean we can dismiss the church any more than we in the US disbanded our government when President Nixon proved to be a petty scoundrel.
I live in a small town in the upper Midwest of the US. In the center of town is a small city park surrounded by half a dozen churches. Where are the Greco-Roman influences at the heart of my town? Well, there is a theater built in a modified Greek architecture. Across the street from it there is a library. Surely the public library is Greek in origin, isn’t it? Well, yes, the Greeks did develop libraries — especially at Alexandria — but we mustn’t forget that the Romans completely lost track of all the ancient Greek and Latin scholars. If it hadn’t been for the Muslims and the Irish monks and then the Christian scholars of the Middle Ages, we would know nothing of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.
The Greeks and the Romans were unable to establish cultural institutions which could withstand the vagaries of the human heart. They simply wore themselves out trying to fight human nature, while the Judeo-Christian tradition just kept evolving and developing through cultural and political changes incredible in their scope and number.
So don’t claim we are all Greeks without acknowledging that it is Christianity which has preserved and interpreted the Greco-Roman part of our heritage. Christianity, even in our age of great pluralism, is capable of being the “host culture” for a wide diversity of other cultures. That’s how it has functioned in both the UK and the US. As resistance to Christianity increases, so does the cultural turmoil because we have no other set of values by which a society can be so ordered that there is unity in diversity.
*The source for the report on reaction to the PM’s remarks is the BBC New Online, accessed 21 Apr 2014.