Cameron’s subtext

The sociologist Abbie Day, who is Reader in Race, Faith and Culture, Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, has an article on Cameron’s recent issuing of religious instructions.

She notes the low church attendance and census decline but says they’re not all that matters.

…it’s easy to get distracted by numbers, which are themselves never neutral but are instead collected and presented, often anecdotally, to fulfil specific goals and make certain points. What is counted is what is perceived (by certain actors) to count. A group that is small numerically can be a majority in terms of power and voice – which is exactly what we are seeing with Cameron’s assertion and the response.

One-third of primary schools are managed by the Church of England and the popular ones insist on parental attendance for two years before a child even gets on the waiting list. Bishops sit in the House of Lords and recently tried to over-rule the Commons. The Queen is head of state and head of the Church. Apart from the British Humanist Society (BHS) and the National Secular Society (NSS), few voices complain about that imbalance; many see it as a quaint vestige of history.

On the one hand it’s pro forma but on the other hand it has a lot of clout.

There is not, however, anything quaint about forms of ethno-national violence carried out by members of the English Defence League or other fascist groups on grounds of ‘religion’. It is this toxic connection that people signing the British Humanist Association (BHA)’s letter of protest are, rightly, worried about, as signatory and Goldsmiths’ Professor of Psychology, Chris French, told the BBC on Monday.

The evidence given to support the claim for Britain’s Christianity is that a particular set of values underpinning society is ‘Christian’. That claim is never substantiated by anything more than a vague reference to legal and moral norms but, again, factual accuracy is not the point: this is discourse. The objective is to cast ‘us’ as moral and ‘others’ as immoral.

Precisely, and isn’t that exactly why it’s such an extremely antagonistic thing for a head of government to do.

The kind of discursive Christianity indulged by Cameron is ahistoric, and more dangerous as a result. It will not decline as will institutional, church-based Christianity: most people who attend the Church of England are old, as are those who ticked ‘Christian’ on the census. Those people, once described as ‘the Conservative party at prayer’, are a declining percentage of the population –  from 71.7% in 2001 to 59.3% in 2011 –  but one to which Cameron wants to appeal.

Unfortunately, he also wants to appeal to those I describe as ‘ethnic Christians’ who do not attend church, do not believe in core tenets of Christianity – the resurrection, for example –   but want to claim national and moral superiority by aligning themselves to what they perceive as the national identity. This apparently closed, fixed identity characterises the nation and not, of course, those ‘others’ who arrive as immigrants, or even their children.

Cameron’s appeal was not to the dwindling minority of people attending the mainstream churches, but to those who, along with so many of the ‘new right’ sweeping Europe, pick and choose a tasty morsel of cultural capital to throw to the crowd.

The new Christian Cameron: bang on trend.

So what he said was actually a dog whistle to the EDL and their friends and allies. I didn’t really think of that. If she’s right, what he said, and did by saying it, was even worse than I thought.




  1. Blanche Quizno says

    It makes perfect sense. It’s what we see on THIS side of the pond, with the Religious Right and politicians suggesting that one must be Christian and supportive of anything the government decides to do in order to be considered a “patriot”. As with classic fascism, no dissent will be brooked.

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