Shaping debate on religion in public life.

It’s Not Easy Being British

2 Sep 2015

The news over the summer has once again been dominated by the politics of migration and violent extremism. There have been pictures of asylum seekers crowded into leaking boats crossing the Mediterranean, and breaking through fences, as well as controversy when the BBC’s Songs of Praise visited a pop up church in a refugee camp in Calais. The atrocities of war in Syria and Iraq have spilled over into murderous gunfire on a Tunisian beach and a foiled attack on a European train. In the UK the police and security services remain vigilant and cases are brought to court. Fear is in the air. The equation of people of peace fleeing for their lives and the worst actions of violent armed human beings is far from a healthy one, though there are obviously chains of cause and effect.

Popular opinion, fuelled by the frenzy of the media seems firmly set against a perceived tide or “swarms” of migration, despite many potential economic and cultural benefits. This contrasts with the better humanitarian instincts and empathy most of us exhibit when we personally encounter suffering in others. As Britons we experience a cognitive dissonance, as the image of a nation that portrays itself through a historical narrative of welcoming the stranger, and being strengthened by successive waves of conquest and migration, collides with the evidence of growing xenophobia. Living as we do in an age of complex identity politics, with numerous examples of hybridity and inter-sectionality it is hardly surprising there is widespread uncertainty over the identity of the UK, and that varying political solutions are advocated in the different nations, regions and generations.

A major theme of the government response to these issues has been the vigorous promotion of “British Values” in the hope that this will build social cohesion and a shared national identity, thus overcoming the emergence of “extremism” (which is generally taken to mean something Islamic).  The government has suggested core British values should be taught in schools and be accepted and upheld by everyone who lives in the UK. They identify the fundamental set of British values as: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. There would seem to be a strange irony, if not an outright paradox in the desire to impose tolerance on a diverse population in the search for a shared sense of national identity. A government that promotes a liberal ideology in respect of economic and consumer freedom, yet is panicked enough to seek to control the opinions of its citizens, either does not know where it is going, or is verging dangerously in the direction of fascism. At the very least, government may be wielding a set of blunt instruments and risking a range of unintended consequences, with little chance through these policies of eliminating, or even reducing, the problems of violent (or non-violent) extremism at home or abroad.

There is growing evidence of Christian concern about the way the British values project is progressing. Giles Fraser in a recent Guardian article suggests that,

David Cameron’s whole attack upon “non-violent extremism”, his upping the ante on the Prevent agenda, is an attempt to replay that clapped-out C of E strategy of stopping people talking about God in a way that might have social or political consequences.

And that,

It comes from a now defunct C of E mindset (now defunct even within the C of E, thank God) that assumes it’s the job of religious people to be pastorally nice, softly spoken and uncontroversial. But that’s not Jesus. And like him, I believe in pulling the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. And I believe there is an authority greater than yours – one I would obey before I would obey the laws of this land. And if that makes me a dangerous extremist, Mr Cameron, then you probably ought to come over to South London and arrest me now.

The history of the development of  religious toleration in Britain from the 16th Century onwards was driven by the dissenting tradition in the church, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and Methodists (with a later embracing of Roman Catholics, Jews and people of other world faiths). As heirs of the dissenting tradition and supporters of the primacy of individual conscience it is not surprising that Evangelicals share this concern.

Research into British values based on a survey which I developed has just been published in the Evangelical Alliance’s IDEA magazine. According to Evangelicals, the Christian faith has played a key role in providing values to British society throughout its history, but this legacy is swiftly eroding. The survey showed that the vast majority of respondents (93%) agreed Christianity had strongly shaped historic British values, but less than a third (31%) felt they still shaped values today. Less than one in five (18%) agreed that Britain is a Christian country.

Like Giles Fraser, Evangelicals tend to reject the idea that British identity and Christian identity easily merge into, pastorally nice, softly spoken and uncontroversial loyalty to the C of E. In the survey there is also little evidence that Evangelicals see British identity and belonging as a question of blood and birthright. Far fewer Evangelicals compared to the national population think being born in Britain (43% v 74%), having lived there most of one’s life (49% v 77%) and having British ancestry (35% v 51%) are important characteristics to being British. In contrast, many more Evangelicals compared to the national population believe ‘respecting Britain’s political institutions and laws’, (96% compared to 85%), and sharing ‘Britain’s customs and traditions’, (84% compared to 50%), were important aspects to being truly British.

Given this politically and culturally defined take on Britishness it comes as no surprise that 71%, of Evangelicals are broadly supportive of the government’s plans to define and promote British values and most (57%), consider it a reasonable response to extremism.

However Evangelicals do share a widespread concern about the potential impact of the British Values policy.  Four out of five think government policies designed to tackle terrorism may make it harder for them to share their faith. There is real fear among some that conscientiously held views such as morally conservative understandings of sexuality, or a narrowly defined theology of salvation that excludes those who reject Jesus Christ,  could lead to prison for those who express them. And they are not alone. A recent Telegraph article shows how the Christian Institute shares concerns with The National Secular Society, who said, ‘the proposed banning orders could be one of the biggest threats to freedom of expression ever seen in the UK’.

Earlier Evangelical Alliance surveys have shown that religious liberty is the most salient political issue in their constituency, and that there is strong support for internationalism, a welcome for, and positive view of immigrants, and prayerful concern for the human rights of persecuted minorities. This is particularly strong at the present time for Christians from Iraq, Syria and other countries in the Islamic world who make up a substantial proportion of the refugees attempting to reach Europe.

British Muslims in particular have serious reasons to be concerned about the government’s policies to promote British values, as it is they who are most likely to be accused of failing to share them. The chosen set of values, and the possibilities of interpretation will mean that it is not easy being British when religious convictions conflict with western liberal humanism. However, the difficulty is not limited to a single faith, for as I have argued, being a Christian, even a white evangelical living in “Middle England” does not make it much easier.

To end with a theological reflection, there is a strong theme of living in exile to be found in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Paul writes to the Philippian church of being “citizens of heaven” as though they were colonizers from another realm of a city of an earthly empire. The radical inclusivity of the people of God breaks across all social boundaries and has implications for how ethnicity and nationality is defined in British society and for the role of churches in a globally diverse but xenophobic and racist society. Decades ago I explored theses themes in my 1983 paper “Christian Ethnics : Church Growth in Multicultural Britain”  Over 30 years on I see little reason to change the social theology and reading of the Bible I advocated at that time. However, today’s politics may mean that Christians in general, and Anglicans in particular need to revaluate their relationship with the British state. Perhaps it is time that the Church of England allies itself to the dissenting tradition, and claims the freedom to be counted among the extremists in a global struggle.

 Greg Smith is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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