Getting the story straight

by Elias Blum

One thing that consistently confuses the debate on whether or not we are a ‘christian nation’ is a vague and slippery use – and sometimes downright duplicitous misuse – of terms.

When bad things are done by Christians, many will be quick to say, “These were not TRUE Christians”. When it comes to defining the “in-crowd”, the rules are tight: you have to be a ‘born-again bible-believer’, or ‘have been baptised in the spirit’, or whatever particular definition of Christianity applies to a given group. We are told that ‘you cannot be a Christian without going to church’, and even then, the visible church is supposedly filled with hypocrites and backsliders. Straight is the gate, and narrow the way, and all that. But when it comes to claiming popular support for purposes of political or cultural influence, a simple tick in a box on a census form, which might have nothing much to do with genuine religious conviction and more to do with an inherited socio-cultural identity, is enough. It is seized as a sign that, after all, and to everyone’s surprise, the place is filled with Christians.

We will not get anywhere in this discussion until we start being clear and consistent – and that involves separating ‘religion as socio-cultural identity’ from ‘religion as active conviction’. A majority might have christianity as part of their socio-cultural identity, but that doesn’t mean they are christians in the sense of active conviction; the latter are very much a minority, and probably have always been so.

The heart of the problem is that many of the social conservatives who want to emphasise the role of Christianity as a socio-cultural identity do not possess active Christian conviction, and barely understand it – often by their own admission. Perhaps, if they did possess and understand it, they’d realise the inconsistency of their position, because of Way of Jesus is remarkably ill-suited to the purposes of socio-cultural conservatism – it began as a radical, revivalist sect at the margins of society, and has been utterly corrupted whenever it has been elevated to political power or social respectability. What is being offered by Cameron and Welby is not a return to the teachings of Jesus – it would terrify them – but a sort of establishment ‘churchianity’, where crown and mitre combine in the defense of traditional social hierarchies, economic inequalities, and British-imperial national identities.