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

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.

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