David Cameron says "we are a Christian country".  Luke Bretherton, a reader in Theology and Politics at Kings College London says he's brave but wrong.  But what would it mean to be a "Christian country"?

There is an interesting difference between what David Cameron says and what Bretherton attributes to him.  Cameron said "we are a Christian country".  Bretherton denies that we are a Christian nation.  A nation is, of course, a people, not a state.  So Bretherton says it is wrong (indeed, heretical) to claim that to be truly Greek is to be orthodox and to be truly orthodox is to be Greek.  He thinks that, down this path, we give succour to groups such as the BNP, creating the idea that only Christians are true Britons.

Well, the fact that the BNP claims something doesn't automatically mean it's wrong (e.g. just because BNP supporters wave the union jack doesn't mean the rest of us should think doing so a bad thing).  But the main problem with Bretherton's analysis is that he seems to be arguing against the wrong thing.  Cameron didn't suggest that the Britons are a Christian nation.  He said we are Christian country – not the same thing at all.

Perhaps Bretherton would say that's unfair, and he was just using nation as a synonym for "country".  (Actually, I don't think he'd say that – it's abundantly clear from his example of the Greek orthodox that he's talking about the people.  But anyway…)  Well, he certainly can't be using it as a synonym for "state", for he says: "does legal establishment make Britain a Christian nation? I think not…"  But if we asked "Does legal establishment make England a Christian state?" the answer would be manifestly "yes".  (I've switched from "Britain" to "England" to avoid issues about the Church of England not being legally established in Scotland, which are irrelevant to our discussion.)  Establishment of the Church of England means, precisely, that the English state is formally Christian.

What Cameron means by saying that we are a Christian country goes a bit beyond the claim that the state is Christian, though.  He says (reflecting in particular the influence of the King James' Bible – perhaps he's really saying "we are a King James' Bible country", but let's let that pass for now…) that by our being a Christian country he means: "The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country." or (quoting Thatcher) "we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible".

He also says that our politics are "steeped in the Bible" – which in Cameron's story is distinct from our being a Christian country, presumably alluding more to our being a Christian state (under this heading).  He notes respect for authority (from the anointing of Kings and rendering unto Caesar that which is his), limits on Royal power from the Torah, equality of personhood from our all being made in the image of God (and hence campaigns against slavery and for female emancipation), and charitable support for the poor.

My own view on this is that Cameron is mainly right, but doesn't quite see it through – mainly because his vision of politics is too bottom-up as opposed to top-down.  Once upon a time I would have been happy to declare Britain a "Christian country", but these days I would prefer to restrict the term "Christian country" to countries in which Christian expression and values are widespread, overt, automatic and largely unchallenged from without (i.e. whilst of course one Christian can and should challenge another Christian – e.g. concerning whether she has Christianity right or whether her conduct is really Christian, that is distinct from the legitimacy of Christian expression being challenged per se).  The United States is clearly a Christian country on this definition (albeit not, perhaps, a Christian state).  I don't think Britain is, any more.  Indeed, I think that one of the important things Cameron was saying in his speech was that we should be a Christian country (when we aren't, at present).

Christianity in our politics is not fundamentally a bottom-up consequence of Christian values amongst the population.  Rather, Christian values in the population used to be a top-down consequence of the way people were led to think it was right to behave and believe.  Our political system – our constitution, our legal system, and so on – is Christian insofar as and because it was made that way by elites that either were Christian themselves or regarded Christianity as having a useful purpose in constructing and guiding states.

One consequence is that it doesn't really matter much what proportion of the population is Christin to the question of whether our state or politics are Christian.  These things are Christian if our elites want them to be so and maintain them as such.  Alas, I fear that our elites have for many decades wanted no such thing.

One issue is, of course, the arrogance of the post-Christian humanist, who assumes the world could have produced him without Christianity and that his like can continue without it.  I don't believe that at all.  Humanist ethics are fundamentally post-Christian – they are Christianity without the God bit.  Without the Christianity to sustain them, they will rapidly wander far away from Christianity to ethical realms that would horrify the first-generation humanist.  One begins with Christianity, but fairly quickly finds oneself supporting assisting with suicides, euthanising the elderly, infirm, depressed or just bored, abandoning marriage, abolishing private property, lauding envy, covetousness, gluttony, fame-seeking, nudity, foul language…

Similarly, our elites seem to imagine that our political structures can outgrow their Christian roots – like a ladder one pulls up behind oneself.  But that isn't so, either.  Once we abandon Christianity, we no longer know what liberal toleration is, why private property matters, why it is more important to be just than gentle, why preventing the making of false accusations (of "bearing false witness") is a good in itself, rather than simply a means to the end of punishing the guilty and acquitting the innocent, why law should be rooted in right and wrong rather than simply convenient and inconvenient – or many other such things.

So, whilst Britain retains the limited formality of being a "Christian state" in the narrowest sense, we have abandoned any broader meaning to this.  We now find that judges can state, quite explicitly, that in Britain it is illegal to conduct oneself in accordance with Biblical principle.  Can such a place really be called a "Christian country"?