In the US you have to be religious to be elected, in the UK you increasingly have to pretend not to be
It was odd, a few days ago, to hear Theresa May inform the House of Commons that Easter (rather than Christmas) is the most important event in the Christian calendar. Odd not just because this is such a basic point but because it’s rare to hear religion discussed at all in parliament nowadays.
Even the Prime Minister, a vicar’s daughter, keeps her references to God to a minimum. Perhaps wisely: her faith may have shaped her world-view but she’ll have worked out that it’s best not to admit as much. There are certain unwritten rules governing Christianity in British politics. Those who want to get to the top learn to observe them.
The rules are, mainly, about concealment. Mrs May might pray every night, but she risks ridicule if she’d ever admit as much. It’s true for many Christians in general in a fast-secularising Britain: don’t wear crosses. Strip out any religious references from your conversation, never say: “God bless.” Give accounts of your weekends that gloss over anything ecclesiastical. Catholics learn not to cross themselves in public and to be sure to wipe away any ash on the forehead after an Ash Wednesday service.
And if they flout the rules? A new MP, Carol Monaghan of the SNP, learnt the hard way last year. She kept her ashes on (as many Catholics do) and returned to work. She was caught on camera and pictured in a BBC news story, which asked readers if it was “appropriate” for her to go to parliament “with a cross on her head”.
A politician’s failure to conceal a sign of faith was so rare as to be news – which itself sent a signal to others. What was normal a generation ago becomes deeply strange today. Religious people who don’t want to be seen as weirdos learn and adapt.
Once Tony Blair left office, he was able to talk freely about the rules. In America, he said, you can reference your faith and not an eyelid is batted. But talk about religion in Britain and “frankly, people think you’re a nutter”. That you might very well be about to “go off, sit in the corner and commune with the Man upstairs. Then come back and say, ‘Right, I’ve been told the answer and that’s it.’ ”
David Cameron wasn’t as religious as Blair, but knew and obeyed the rules. When he occasionally went to church midweek, he’d blank out space in the diary without explanation so not even his staff knew what he was up to.
Once, when a constituent approached him with an issue about abortion law, he recommended approaching MPs who were not known to be Christian. The God-bothering pro-life MPs might be more enthusiastic about her case, the then prime minister said, but they were regarded as being nuts.
If you don’t pretend – like Tim Farron – then you can expect to spend an election campaign being asked about gay sex
Cameron wasn’t being unkind; Blair wasn’t being cowardly. Both were stating the simple realpolitik of religion in British public life. An MP is quite at liberty to talk about their faith, but they ought to realise it comes at a cost to their credibility.
This is a side effect of the ongoing collapse of religiosity in Britain. Polls show that barely a quarter of us now profess faith in God or a “spiritual higher power”.
As churchgoing becomes rarer, it is seen as stranger. More suspect. This increases the incentives to cover up one’s faith and treat it like a dirty secret. So we end up with two self-reinforcing forces: the decline of people going to church – and the decline of churchgoers willing to admit to it.
Blair’s comparison with America is a point made quite often by Christians in parliament today. Barack Obama said he prayed and read the Bible every night, yet so few people cared that almost a third of Americans still thought he was Muslim.
As one MP told me: “In the US, you have to pretend to be Christian to be elected. In Britain, you have to pretend not to be Christian to be elected.” And if you don’t pretend – like Tim Farron – then you can expect to spend an election campaign being asked about gay sex. Farron came unstuck because he hadn’t worked out that Christians can now expect such questions, and should know how to answer them.
Perhaps I’ve been going to boring churches, but I’ve never heard homosexuality – or sex in general – mentioned from the pulpit. Yet when religion meets politics, it’s almost always on such territory.
Such debates, in turn, paint a picture of Christians being obsessed with sex. Or – worst of all – regarding themselves as morally superior: a toxic charge in a liberal era. The point about churches – that they are hospitals for sinners, not museums of saints – has been lost.
It’s natural that the collapse of religion should be accompanied by a general lack of understanding about what faith is all about. But British Christians have always been rather bad at explaining and defending themselves. As a result, we end up with the myths – Christians versus gays, Christians versus science, etc – that lie unchallenged. Even by churches.
Americans can find this British squeamishness not just wimpy, but rather unChristian. Shouldn’t these moaning churchgoers – confusing a few rude jokes with persecution – be ready, even happy, to explain their faith? Or, as St Peter put it, “to give reason for the hope that is inside you”? This tends not to be the British way – but this bashful silence is now part of the problem.
To be Christian in Britain today is to navigate your way through one of the fastest religious changes in the history of these islands. Religious MPs need to work out how to ride the wave of public opinion. Do they go with the rules, or try to change the rules?
Perhaps the person best placed to press for change is the Prime Minister. She’s a lifelong churchgoer, yet no one can accuse her of zealotry. If she intends to stay in No 10 for a while, we could do with knowing a bit more about her. If faith is important to her, she could perhaps say why.
Cameron spoke about trying to “normalise” religion in public life, to try and make faith part of the political conversation. Perhaps Mrs May could finish what he started.
Follow Fraser Nelson on Twitter @FraserNelson; read more at Telegraph Opinion
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