How Christian is Britain?
By Hassan isilow
This week British Prime Minister David Cameron said the United Kingdom was a Christian country and citizens should not be afraid to say so. Cameron’s statements have generated much discussion across the world, with some blaming him for using religion to score political goals.
However, members of minority faiths fear the premier’s statements might have suggested that their religions do not matter any more in Britain, because it serves to downplay their importance. This pushes many to ask if Cameron is now preaching religion and politics, or church and state. In 2005, then British Premier Tony Blair said religion should not play the same role in British politics as it does in America. Blair made this statement while speaking to church leaders, interfaith representatives and community activists in London about his vision for the role of faith in the UK.
Six years later, Cameron expresses a view that is almost diametrically opposed, publicly defending the role of religion in politics, saying that the Bible in particular, was crucial to British values. According to the official website of the British monarch, the Sovereign holds the title as “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England”.
There are many examples of the relationship between the established church and the state. Archbishops and bishops are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister, who considers the names selected by a Church Commission. They take an oath of allegiance to the Queen on appointment and may not resign without Royal authority.
I don’t believe it matters much if Britain is a “Christian country” or not. What is important, however, is that the British state should guarantee all citizens the right to freely exercise their religion – whatever it may be, thus assuring minority faiths a right to existence. Despite the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, the four million Muslims in Britain still enjoy many privileges.
So there is no need for them to challenge Cameron’s statements. After all, unlike France and many of its neighbours, Britain has not banned the niqab (Muslim face veil). Neither has Britain banned the construction of minarets, as Switzerland had done. Christianity has been the main religion in the United Kingdom dating back to 1,400 years. Many Britons identify themselves with Christianity.
I guess Christianity is more like a culture to the British, as opposed to a religion. By contrast, minority faiths like Islam, Judaism, Hinduis, among others were brought to Britain by migrants. Therefore, given the fact that Christians remain the majority in Britain, there is northing wrong with the premier declaring UK as a Christian country. After all Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain and others openly declare themselves to be Muslim countries, either because of a large Muslim population or for historic reasons, such as the presence of the Kaabah, Islam’s holiest site in Mecca.
It is also important to acknowledge that members of minority faiths enjoy more freedoms living in Britain and other Western countries – including South Africa – compared to countries known to be the Muslim heartland. Thus, I believe it is more important to respect the values and culture of a majority people in our community without compromising our own. Such differences of faith in our midst are a great motivator for peaceful living and tolerance.