We shouldn't want people to tick 'Christian' on the census if it merely points to cultural identity rather than a real faith in Christ, writes Tim Farron.
Last Sunday was census day, and the Farron family gathered together to complete our online submission without too much aggro... although there was some concern that the dogs were excluded from this process.
The census has been taken in the UK on this date every 10 years since 1801, with just one break in 1941 during the Second World War. This year we have gone digital for the first time but it just wouldn't be 2021 without a bit of culture war seeping in to the whole process.
Two of the culture war fronts I noticed are the questions on national identity and on religious identity. On national identity there was a push from Remainers for people to call themselves European; from nationalists there was a call for people not to describe themselves as British but as only Welsh, Scottish or English.
And when it comes to religion, there was a campaign led by Humanists UK to persuade people to tick the box that says 'no religion'.
A You Gov poll recently surveyed those who selected 'Christian' on a 'what is your religion' question and found 59% had ticked it because they had been christened and 44% had done so because one of their parents were Christian. For those people, it seems that the religion question was actually a cultural one: a statement of who you are rather than what you believe. Just 34% said they'd ticked 'Christian' because they believed in the teachings of Christianity.
Humanists claim that people should tick 'no religion' because this will lead to changes in government policy. The journalist Ian Dunt, who always writes in such a colourful and engaging way, made the case in the Independent that "conservative politicians and religious leaders" like to use the statistics from the census to misrepresent belief and therefore "cement their political power".
Humanists and secularists seem to imagine that the church has entrenched power. It doesn't feel like that from a Christian point of view, as faith is increasingly tippexed out of so much of our culture, or seen as weird, unattractive and even immoral by many people today.
Maybe a question for Christians to consider is this: do we want people who have a cultural faith identity, but who do not follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, to tick the Christian box on the census? In other words, should Christians be pushing people to say they have a religion if in every practical sense, they do not?
The UK still retains a strong cultural Christian residue, largely because Christian teachings have shaped our laws and our patterns of thought for many hundreds of years. As historian Tom Holland puts it, the values and assumptions of Christianity are like dust particles in the air – so tiny that we can't see them but which are breathed in and absorbed by all of us every day. As Christians we may be comforted and reassured by this, but cultural Christianity is not the same as faith in Christ.
As the church worldwide grows and grows, in the UK nominal Christianity has been in decline for over half a century. Fewer people go to church, fewer people learn about Jesus in childhood and fewer people have even a basic knowledge of the Bible.
I think Christians should lament this, and we should take that lament to God, passionately crying out to him. After all, what matters is people's personal response to Jesus not their response to a census question.
In response to those behind the Humanists UK campaign, we might say that having no active faith is not the same as being atheist. Indeed, I would argue that we delude ourselves if we assume that the default position in our society is the absence of belief. Everyone puts their faith in something!
But despite this furore, I'm not letting it keep me awake at night. If you ask me, people should fill in the census truthfully. We can't legislate to bring people to faith. If we demand to be considered a Christian nation when in practice we are not, that would seem hypocritical to me and a sign of the church grabbing status. This just fuels resentment and hides the real message of the cross – of victory through humility and sacrifice.
The census is a snapshot, whilst our focus is on eternity and on holding out Jesus to a lost world while that offer remains. Let's demonstrate what the love of Jesus looks like through sacrificially serving our communities, and faithfully speaking the gospel to those whose hopes have been upended by the pandemic. Souls are not saved through survey questions, but by the work of the Holy Spirit as God partners with us to share the gospel in love with those we meet.
Tim Farron has been the Member of Parliament for Westmorland and Lonsdale since 2005, and served as the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party from 2015 to 2017. Tim is also the host of 'A Mucky Business' podcast, which unpacks the murky world of politics and encourages believers around the UK to engage prayerfully. You can find it on your chosen podcast provider.