Calling a country “Christian” will just make its Christians complacent
David Cameron has – in the process of promoting the Big Society – argued that Britain is “a Christian Country.” A claim which has earned him a rebuke from a group of notable non-believers. I at least partially share their concerns but my main issue with what the PM said is rather different.
I suspect there is an incongruity he has not appreciated between calling Britain “a Christian Country” and in the same article arguing Christians should be “more evangelical” about their faith and “get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.” I’d suggest that believing oneself to be living in a “Christian Country” would be liable to make a Christian complacent, conformist and consequently less likely to “get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”
Kierkegaard described himself as “a Socrates of Christendom”. The idea of Christendom is rather out-of-date in today’s multicultural western societies, but in the 19th century it was commonly used to signify the “kingdom” of Christian states. However, Kierkegaard uses the term negatively to criticise the idea that being a Christian is simply a matter of being born and brought up in a certain kind of society, and fitting in with its customs, such as being baptised and attending church on Sundays. Just as Socrates challenged the Sophists’ claim to possess knowledge, so Kierkegaard suggests that people who considered themselves to be Christians “as a matter of course” are deceiving themselves. In fact, he argued that it is more truthful to talk of “becoming a Christian” than of “being a Christian”. In other words, Christianity is a task that is never completed – at least not within this lifetime. According to Kierkegaard, the Christian life involves continual striving. From a personal point of view, this means renewing one’s relationship to God repeatedly, at every moment.
There’s not much in the Gospels I can see to suggest that Kierkegaard was wrong. Jesus and the Disciples made no effort to create a Christian nation. Their ministry was amongst an unconverted population living under a hostile state. And the emphasis of their teachings on human imperfections makes me doubt I will see a nation that meets the moral standards Jesus laid down in this life.
Looking to the US does seem to vindicate these concerns. The relationship between American nationalism and religiosity with the Republican Party as its offspring has to alarm anyone who takes Christianity seriously as a humane force. Something has gone very wrong when a religion that teaches charity, peace and mercy winds up associated with the political movement for gutting safety nets, mass gun ownership and continuing the death penalty.
Calling a country ‘Christian’ is impossibly high praise for something composed of individuals scarred by original sin. The reality is that Christians need to “get out there and make a difference to people’s lives” not because this is a “Christian country” but because it clearly isn’t. As a result there will always be people who need our help.