Christian country? Or does Britain just talk about it a lot?

Published on: Author: Callum Brown 2 Comments




David Cameron seems to be taking a bit of a surge towards Christianity. Several years ago, he reported his Christian faith as being a “bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. In his recent article in the Anglican-aligned Church Times, he still says: “I am a member of the Church of England, and, I suspect, a rather classic one: not that regular in attendance, and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith.” But he is talking up the role of Christianity in the nation, in its moral position and in the country’s social policy.

Many commentators have weighed in to his remarks, including the letter in the Daily Telegraph from over fifty humanists. Newspapers have been seeking comments from academics too (including this one) as to the accuracy of Cameron’s notion that Britain is a “Christian country”. Given the massive decline in churchgoing, religious adherence, religious marriage and the near collapse of baptism for children, it is remarkable just how much commentary on religion appears in our newspapers and social media. We seem to be talking about religion more than ever. What’s going on?

Some people have point to the changes which 9/11 and then 7/7 brought. Islamism is seen as having been the trigger to reviving discussion on the “good” and the “bad” parts of faith. With this has come rising debate about what role religious has in politics – and how Tony Blair, then Gordon Brown and now David Cameron have upped the stakes with various attempts to increase the profile of faith in political life.

I place the change as older than that. In the 1990s there began a process of the churches and new campaigning faith organisations entering the world of media, public relations and commentary on the news. This happened in Scotland as much as in England, though less successful by the Church of Scotland than by the Roman Catholic Church. PR professionals started to give religion a media presence, with timely comments on daily events in politics, social policy and society. The newspapers and the broadcasters are quite content to have sort of dispute and debate to feature; they are always desperate for copy.


The result is that religion has a presence in news media more confident and robust than its sustained decline in popular participation would imply. Religion remains where it was. Since the 1950s it has suffered significant decline in churchgoers, marriages, baptisms and adherents. This decline has been unrelenting, and is no making serious inroads in the area of funerals and celebrations of life. Claims of re-converting Britain – as in the “decade of evangelism” in the 1990s – have so far come to naught. Mainland Britain’s Christian culture is no longer dominant in the way it was until the mid 20th century, and no PR guru or politician seems likely by present evidence to change that.


2 Responses to Christian country? Or does Britain just talk about it a lot? Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. It seems to me that comparing the reception of Magic FM in the Chilterns to ‘not that regular in attendance, and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts’ is really more consistent than a surge. However, the point you make really is whether David Cameron should be ‘talking up the role of Christianity in the nation, in its moral position and in the country’s social policy’. Yet, in a speech in the Church Times celebrating the 400th year of the King James Bible, one would expect to summarise its significant influence on British society.
    The political activists like Polly Toynbee, Peter Tatchell, and others associated with the letter published, seized a chance to attack David Cameron. He is used to it. He will have to be. The General Election is getting closer, but that is politics and the point of this entire spotlight, is it not? That is what is going on. On the other hand, to say in the letter that Britain is ‘a largely non-religious society’(i) is wholly wrong according to the 2011 census(ii). In fact, the census also shows that the majority are 3.9 million Christians. The census includes the 6,067 Humanists of which Polly Toynbee, Peter Tatchell, and others would themselves include.
    Your reference to Muslim attacks on America and Britain is a sore point, true, but those Muslims were a minority. Defending the Muslim majority here in Britain has commanded the greater attention though. Generalising from a few is what we are talking about here. David Cameron reflected on the Christian population, and for Polly Toynbee, Peter Tatchell, and others to say that ‘fosters alienation and division in our society’ is desperate. Yet, Christianity could be more widespread than 2011 census indicated. It is not just a ‘bum on a seat’ to be a Christian. That is too minimalistic. Christianity has changed its intensity throughout history. Everything changes – even the media.
    According to the ABCs(iii), the Daily Telegraph sold an average of half a million copies in January this year – a figure down year on year. So only half a million people maybe read the letter while others may have learned about it from the comments of others in various media – like this one I suppose – far removed from the Church Times, you would agree. Gaining news of daily events in politics, social policy and society has also changed a lot from the 1990s because of the news channels, which reach 35million people in comparison(iv). Sadly, any news of a Humanist outcry would not get a look in as they only have interests in big stories – and there are plenty of those these days.
    Therefore, writing positive speeches in Christian publications will please the Christian readers, especially from a consistent advocate. However, if the speaker were a politician, then one would expect criticism from the opposition, more especially towards election time. The expectation would be even greater if the critics were also of a minority religious group who depended on rhetoric rather than facts. This would seem the case here because the media is only interested in big stories, and the only way to stand out is to make a fuss. In this case, the story has been developed by a Humanist working group in the hope that it will show Christianity is failing. Unfortunately, for them, the facts speak for themselves.
    (i) (2014) ‘Letters’, The Guardian. 20 February [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 24 April 2014).
    (ii) Dataset population : All usual residents aged 16 and over holding a Degree or Higher degree* (threshold 10+ usual residents) Geographical level : England and Wales. Source : 2011 Census (27 March) [Online]. Available at:—religion–detailed–by-age—england-and-wales.xls. (Accessed 5 February 2014).
    * Degree, for example BA, BSc; Higher degree, for example MA, PhD, PGCE.
    (iii) (2014) ‘ABCs: National daily newspaper circulation January 2014’, The Guardian. 14 February [Online]. Available at:
    (Accessed: 23 April 2104). Key: ABCs= Audit Bureau of Circulations.
    (iv) Horrocks, P. (2005) ‘Television News’, BBC Newswatch [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 23 April 2014).

  2. I agree that the notion of Christian dominance is very much directed by PR gurus. The problem is that while participation is in decline the continued media presence gives religion a platform, a voice and an acceptance often denied to secularists. The lack of balanced debate is concerning

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