Monday 28 December 2015

Cameron's Christian Christmas message

Every so often, I find myself returning to what Cameron said this Christmas. Here's how it was reported in the Daily Mail

“As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: Peace, mercy, goodwill and above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

Daily Mail Dec 24 2015

Of course, it's immensely irritating that I am only 'reflecting' on these things because Cameron told me to. In fact, I'm wondering why it's the job of a prime minister to act as some kind of national priest, therapist, cultural historian and guru. Anyway, he has - and I've fallen for it. Here I am reflecting and reflecting.

So first up, is 'As a Christian country...' This of courses raises the question of what is a 'Christian country' but it also raises the matter of what does it mean to be a 'we' of a 'country'. I mean, a country does things according to what governments tell it to, like go to the vote, select a football team (or four teams in our case), go to war and so on. But in terms of how we lead our lives, most of the time we don't do it as a 'country', we do it mostly in the groups we find ourselves in: where and how we are employed, where and how we eat, sleep, love, take pleasure and the like. Anyway, it's clearly the duty of politicians to keep on talking about 'country' as if using that word sums up our existence, even though every day we live non-nationally. Politicians have to keep saying 'country' so that we focus on them, as if they represent everything we do, think and say.

So that's part of the problem with 'Christian'. If you're not Christian (I'm not) this really does give us a problem. It's not that someone like me fails to acknowledge how Christian Britain's social and political practices have been but if you say 'it's a Christian country', I am entitled to ask, where do I fit in then? Am I 'tolerated'? Am I a guest? I don't feel like a guest. I don't want to feel like a guest. I don't want to walk about feeling grateful for being allowed to exist here.

One way to get an angle on that would be to imagine how Cameron could have phrased that instead. He could indeed have pointed out some stuff about Christmas and its history, how most people in this country have celebrated it and are still celebrating it and then there could have come a great big 'but' - and after that 'but' he could have said how wrong it would be to summarise what this country has been and is purely and only in those terms. Instead, he said that the multi-faith and no-faith society owes it to Christianity.

Now, that's a piece of cultural history that really won't wash. 'Toleration' and non-discrimination were hard-fought battles in which, for example, people in his party in, say, the nineteenth century were utterly opposed to people of no faith and discriminated against 'Roman Catholics' - let alone those of non-Christian faiths. However it was that the multi-faith society was arrived at, it wasn't purely and only a result of what Christians thought, believed and did. Might it not have been a good idea for Cameron to acknowledge that? I wouldn't expect Cameron to remember that Charles Bradlaugh went to prison because people in his party found it intolerable that he wouldn't take a Christian oath to be sworn in to the House of Commons - nor would they allow for the requirement that it should be a Christian oath to be abolished! But that was part of how and why 'non faith' is tolerated.

Even so, what is the political purpose of saying that people with a faith other than Christianity or people of 'no faith' owe our rights to be like that to Christianity? Why wasn't it possible for a Prime Minister to simply welcome the fact that this is part of how the 'country' lives in its diverse ways, rather than attempting to corral us all under the umbrella of being thankful or grateful to Christianity for our right to exist? Some people thank their God for their right to exist. I thank the people who fought for all our basic freedoms and are still fighting for many more, for my right to exist and none of these are down exclusively to Christianity.

And even within Christianity, some of these freedoms are a result of deep disputes, battles and bloodshed between Christians. That is hardly represented by the one word 'Christianity' because we are entitled to ask, 'whose Christianity'? So, it's not only the people of all faiths and none who Cameron invited to be corralled under his umbrella but also all Christians, many of whom owe their existence to their disagreements and battles with the strand of Christianity that Cameron belongs to and represents.

Anyway, that's enough reflecting at Cameron's bidding for today.