Is there another motive behind David Cameron's Christian musings?

Published 25 April 2014  |  
(Photo: 10 Downing Street)
David Cameron addresses the room of Christian leaders at Downing Street

David Cameron's recent declaration that Britain is a "Christian country" has generated headlines, heat, and headaches for many secularists. But is his motivation really heavenly minded?  Such unexpected praise has certainly raised the heads of cynics who see it as little more than a gimmick ahead of the elections.  

Andrew Symes, the Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream, an evangelical group within the Church of England, is one of those casting doubt on the Prime Minister's sincerity.

Three red flags have popped up in his mind about Cameron's comments.

First, there is the timing of the announcement. Although Easter is an apt occasion for discussion of Christianity in the public sphere, David Cameron has been prime minister over three previous Easters where he did not talk about his faith, and the faith of the country, in this way.

In Mr Symes's view, it seems rather convenient that these latest statements should come "just after fierce criticisms from church leaders about the effects of reformed welfare policies, and just weeks before elections where Conservatives are tipped to lose many European seats because of defections to UKIP".

Much of the split in the Conservative vote recently has been over the issue of same sex marriage, which many Conservative voters and MPs did not support, leading to a drift towards the more right wing UKIP.

Cameron's statements smack of "political opportunism", says Mr Symes, as opposed to a sincere desire to maintain and build on Britain's Christian heritage.

If Cameron really wanted British Christians, to be more "evangelical" as he claimed, he should perhaps do something about the fact that "freedom of speech for those who want to express their Christian views is increasingly under threat".

The most recent example of this is the case of nursery nurse Sarah Mbuyi, who was dismissed from her job in January after she told a gay colleague the Bible regards the practice of homosexuality as a sin and refused to tell stories about gay couples to children.

She shared with the Guardian how the incident arose: "When I said 'No, God does not condone the practice of homosexuality, but does love you and says you should come to Him as you are', [her colleague] became emotional and went off to report me to my manager.

"My disciplinary hearing was hopelessly one-sided because they put my accuser's claims to me as fact, without any forewarning and so I wasn't prepared. It seemed to me they had already made up their minds to justify sacking me, before hearing my side of the story."

Ms Mbuyi is now claiming unfair dismissal and being represented by the Christian Legal Centre in her case against the Newpark Childcare in Highbury, north London.

This is not an isolated incident. In November 2010, Christian teacher Kwabena Peat was dismissed after he sent a letter complaining that a staff training day was being used to marginalise those who disagreed with homosexual practice.

And there have been several high profile cases in other areas of employment in recent years, including the dismissal of Gary McFarlane by Relate after he said he would not in conscience be able to offer sex therapy to gay couples.  He lost subsequent legal challenges, including at the European Court of Human Rights.

This uncomfortable reality was laid bare most awkwardly for the PM last week, when the police were called to Cameron's constituency office to intercept the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, and Reverend Keith Hebden, as they tried to deliver a letter asking the Government to do more to tackle food poverty.

Reverend Hebden said in the Independent that the incident was "deeply ironic" and "speaks volumes".

Concerns about freedom of speech aside, the substance of Cameron's Christian rhetoric also merits closer inspection, Mr Symes believes, as his third concern is that the kind of Christianity the Prime Minister describes falls "woefully short" of what Christianity actually is.

While the Prime Minister's affirmation of the Christian faith is praiseworthy, Mr Symes contends that what he omits is also notable.

"He describes the values of 'tolerance... hard work, compassion, humility and love'; great cultural contributions and social action initiatives of the church, and a message of: 'If we pull together, we can change the world and make it a better place'.

"He specifically avoids any mention of Jesus or even God in a message geared for the Easter weekend, and in fact defines evangelism as talking about the Church's role to improve society, and not talking about religious doctrines.

"In doing this he has not promoted peace within the church but has taken sides with a liberal understanding of Christianity which in the end is the ally of secularism against authentic faith."

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