Eric Pickles, the UK Communities Secretary, has come out recently and said that Britain is a ‘Christian nation’ and that ‘militant atheists’ should just ‘get over it’. This was in the context of defending a law that ensured the rights of councils who wished to pray at the start of public meetings.
That would be worth a post in itself, but it was reading the Telegraph’s article covering it that has made me write this. In it, there is an example of what I think is truly awful journalism.
At best stupid
The piece outlines what Pickles said, but had no reactions or comments from anyone else. Why bother? The Telegraph and its readers are surely expert enough. I mean, surely it’s obvious. Either Pickles is right and atheists should accept we’re a Christian nation and shut up, or Christians should accept we are secular and keep their beliefs to themselves.
I can’t imagine there possibly being a middle ground. Actually, I can. But the Telegraph cannot. This is a poll, inserted half way through the article, so readers can give their opinion:
(As I write, by the way, about 13,500 people have voted. 31% ticked the first box, 69% the second. For reasons I will give below, I could tick neither box, so did not vote.)
At best this is stupid. It could be that the journalist who wrote this is just uninformed and has no concept of the complexity of the situation. No idea it is possible for ‘religion’ to be something other than EITHER a base of power (a ‘Christian’ nation) that everyone else must get on board with OR something so individual and personal it should never be voiced in public. If so, I question their credentials.
At worst manipulative
If not, though, it’s worse. It’s manipulative. It forces a great big wedge in the debate, polarises opinion, makes people angry with each other and causes a stir. (In so doing, people get riled up enough to post it on Facebook and write blogs about it, driving traffic to their site (Irony noted).)
Let’s say I’m a non-Christian. “I can’t possible tick number one – why would I want to live in a ‘Christian nation’ if I’m not one? – so box two it must be for me. Yeah, we must be secular, and we must protect that secularism by keeping all faith matters private, otherwise those Christian overlords will start dictating again.”
Or maybe I’m a Christian. “A ‘Christian nation’ looks a bit extreme. What’s the alternative? I have to keep my faith private. That sounds scary. That could lead to me being arrested for public faith-based convictions. I’ve heard of that happening to others. Not keen on that. I suppose we do need to be a Christian nation after all.”
In refusing to present any kind of middle ground, The Telegraph subliminally tells us there isn’t one and forces us to set ourselves up in two opposing camps.
Since I’ve written about my views on this before, I won’t in detail again.
Simply, I can’t tick box one. I do not believe there is any such thing as a ‘Christian nation’. It should never be the place of the church to be in power telling people what to do. Nor can I tick box two. I believe everyone should be able to express their beliefs, act on them, and do so publicly. I believe the church has a prophetic voice into society, not over it.
That paragraph alone (which barely scrapes the surface) contains more nuance than Eric Pickles’s statement and the Telegraph article added together. And that’s the point: we need nuance. Not everything can be argued in 140 characters, or summarised in few enough words that it makes a catchy soundbite. Not every poll can be reduced to two options. Not every policy or position is a simple ‘yes or no’ issue.
The answer is nuance. The answer is letting Christians define what they believe about something, not politicians and not the press. The answer is deeper engagement with issues, not shallower.
And the answer for us Christians is to speak up (with grace and humility) so we can define ourselves, instead of having others tell the world what we’re about.