If you were to make a list of modern Defenders of the Faith, Comedian Tracey Ullman probably wouldn't be at the top of it. The award-decorated star, who is even more of a household name in the US than in her native UK, has never talked openly about a personal religious faith, and got her big break playing a bizarre born-again Christian club singer.
Yet for her new TV series – her first original British programme for 22 years – she's created a Christian character which seems to be both 'faith-positive' and offering a critique on the marginalisation of the faith in modern Britain.
The character is a sympathetic, intelligent woman who impresses everyone around her until she utters her catchphrase line 'as a Christian...' At this point the atmosphere changes, the other characters treat her with a mix of fear and disgust, and the general consensus is that she's 'a bit weird' for having a faith in 2017.
In one sketch featuring the character, Patricia Hughes, the revelation is enough to thwart her chances of getting a job. Her interview is going well, to the point that the man across the table infers that she's going to get it, until she reveals that 'as a Christian' she finds it hard to talk up her skills and CV. As soon as he learns this his face falls, he calls in a colleague who confirms his concern at the news, and Patricia is made to feel uncomfortable to the point that she withdraws her application.
In another sketch (British viewers can watch on BBC iplayer here at approximately 16 minutes and 20 seconds in), Patricia has been asked to be a godparent to her neighbours' baby. They're standing at the front of church, alongside a vicar, and yet again the couple are flabbergasted when they learn of Patricia's faith. 'I told you she was,' mutters the man disapprovingly to his partner, when both had previously been effusive in praise for her. They quickly take the baby back from Patricia, and after explaining that they weren't seeing this as a religious ceremony, rapidly leave 'for a naming ceremony' instead. There's another depicting a blind date going really well, until the fateful moment when her faith is revealed.
The sketches feature the same punchline – with the prejudiced characters agreeing that avoiding Patricia's further involvement in their lives is a 'lucky escape', and that Christians are 'nutters'. What's interesting though is that the joke is on them; this isn't – as one might possibly be conditioned to expect – Ullman poking fun at Christian 'weirdos'. Rather, Patricia is presented as sincere, sensible and 'normal' – it's the people she interacts with who we're supposed to be laughing at.
In the context of some hilarious material elsewhere in the show, the 'As a Christian...' sketches aren't actually all that funny. And while other characters, like a dying woman who regrets her charitable life and wishes she'd spent more time on social media, are both very funny and satirical, the Patricia Hughes segments seem to sacrifice big laughs in order to make a serious point. So what's Tracey Ullman getting at?
Perhaps the most unique thing about Ullman is her perspective as a Brit returning from after a long time in the US. Since moving to the US in 1985 she's both become a comedy icon on that side of the pond and has become fully integrated with the American way of life. She's held US citizenship and dual nationality since 2006 and she counts Meryl Streep as her closest friend. And it's from this perspective – having lived long-term in a place where the Christian faith is separated from the state but a much more normalised part of everyday life – that she brings this critique of religious intolerance in modern Britain. As a returning British prodigal, she's able to offer something quite prophetic on this subject – and a point which the nervous laughter on the show suggests must ring true.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the wood for the trees, to perceive clearly what's right in front of us. Lots of very normal, very likeable, intelligent people are Christians, yet British culture in 2017 has quietly branded us as nutters and weirdos. There are two possible responses to that: we can either get defensive and fight for our declining rights, or we can set about correcting what is clearly a serious image problem. I think the latter will do a lot more good in a culture that can still laugh with rather than at a Patricia Hughes, but that culture is often heavily influenced by the Christian voices which shout loudest: the morally outraged and the perpetually-persecuted. The rest of us need to make it clear that you can be a normal, likeable, functioning member of society AND be a Christian. Tracey Ullman's hidden (but familiar) message to Christians isn't 'stand up for your rights', but don't hide your light under a bushel.