'Best not to take it too far': how the British cut religion down to size

About the author
Callum Brown is professor of religious and cultural history at the University of Dundee. His books include The Death of Christian Britain (Routledge, 2000), Postmodernism for Historians (Pearson, 2004) and Religion and Society in Twentieth-century Britain (Longman [forthcoming, May 2006]).

It was not exactly a loud and forthright statement of belief, in the manner of a deafening confession of faith. Indeed, there was something of a shy and tangential quality to the way Tony Blair brought God to the forefront of his public persona on Michael Parkinson's television chat show on the evening of 4 March 2006. "Was there one moment", the host asked innocuously, "was there a book, was there a meeting with somebody, which changed you, which changed your perspective?"

Blair answered: "There were people at university who got me in to politics, I kind of got in to religion and politics at the same time in a way." So quiet was his voice at the word "religion" that you might have been forgiven for thinking that he was confessing to some past misdemeanour, one that might offend the Saturday night peak-time audience. The matter might have rested there had not Parkinson bravely pursued it: "Does it still inform your view of politics and of the world?", he asked. "Well I think if you have a religious belief it does", Tony replied, "but it's probably best not to take it too far."

There was a political tightrope being walked here. This became evident later in the interview when Blair noted that in making the decision to send troops to Iraq in 2003, "if you have faith about these things then you realise that judgment is made by other people." Asked by Parkinson what he meant by that, Blair replied: "I mean by other people, by, if you believe in God it's meant by God as well…."

Parkinson was insistent: "So you pray to God when you make a decision like that?" As the audience sensed a reprise of the controversy over whether the two main Iraq war leaders, George W Bush and Tony Blair, had prayed together, the prime minister sensed the political danger and steered clear: "Well, you know, I don't want to go into sermons...."

What is interesting about this exchange is that Blair did not need to "go into" the topic as far he did if he hadn't wanted to. In May 2003, David Margolick's profile of Blair in Vanity Fair reported his then press secretary Alastair Campbell (in a remark that became famous) telling journalists that "we don't do God"; so one must assume there was a quiet willingness, a resolve even, in his introduction of religion to the Saturday night interview. In breaking the quasi-taboo, Blair was regaining some ground for faith in his political life.

Callum Brown is professor of religious and cultural history at the University of Dundee. His books include The Death of Christian Britain (Routledge, 2000), Postmodernism for Historians (Pearson, 2004) and Religion and Society in Twentieth-century Britain (Longman [forthcoming, May 2006])

A religion become small

The tightrope being walked here is not just a political one. It is also – and much more interestingly - a cultural one. Blair was quite consciously talking of his religion, faith and God in a country in which religious faith, practice, rhetoric and understanding have quite simply crashed during his lifetime. It is not simply that Britain in the 1950s and early 1960s was a place in which levels of churchgoing were appreciably higher than they are now, but that religious rules of behaviour governed people's lives.

Illegitimacy (births outside marriage) was in this period at an all-time low in England, homosexuality and attempted suicide were crimes, young women who got pregnant "out of wedlock" were shut away in church homes, and people's sense of their selves was wrapped up in a culture in which guilt played an enormous part. "Thou shall not commit immorality", Billy Graham told the vast audiences (nearly 3 million people in total) who flocked to his religious crusades in the mid-1950s; "you can commit immorality by a thought, by a look, or by an act. Thousands of you are guilty of immorality. God calls it sin."

For Graham and cold-war battling organisations like Moral Rearmament, immorality became a greater sin than lack of faith, and was the object of their attacks on Britain's slowly-emerging popular culture of coffee bars and skiffle music. And people growing up in the 1950s duly got the message. Austerity in economics became austerity of the soul. The critic John Carey remarks: "I admire austerity because I grew up in the war. Austerity gets into your bones." For the 1950s child, the memories lasted. "I see now", wrote historian and biographer Carolyn Steedman three decades later, "the relentless laying down of guilt".

But Britain changed, and changed with a cultural fracture in which Blair was no mere bystander. The promotion of popular music and fashion, long hair and university rebellions were each part of the constellation of ways in which moral austerity slipped from the British conception of civil life. With it went the dominant culture of organised religion, a victim of the way in which the British churches put so much store by sexual morality.

Because they invested so much repressive, negative effort in the 1960s and 1970s into their conception of religion as sexual restraint, the churches perpetrated much of the damage, seemingly irreparable, to popular understanding of what they thought about faith and spirituality. The people could not agree with this. The people's slide from the churches seemed to be a slide from all organised faith, and the culture of Christianity slid without much murmur, without any organised atheism, without a battle of wills between freethinkers and churchmen.

Between the 1960s and the 1990s, a chasm opened. Christian culture retreated from its position of dominance in the rhetoric, thoughts and demographic choices of the people where it has rested for a millennium, and shuffled off to become fought over by the Christian remnants. The militants of liberal faith (gay Christians as well as the proponents of women's ordination in the different churches) were engaged by the conservative and biblical Christians of the house churches, Pentecostalism and charismatic renewal. Christian culture has in the 1990s and 2000s become more divided by fundamental issues like abortion, women priests and homosexuality than in the whole history of British Christianity. This battle will continue to rage.

But in the meantime, the de-Christianisation of British culture has worn on. Not only do fewer than 10% of Britons go to church on a Sunday, but the other 40% who went to church occasionally in the 1950s have disappeared. It is no longer possible to be a casual Christian with a loose church attachment in the way it was in former decades. It is no longer feasible for large numbers to maintain a liberal wishy-washy moral faith as the churches are fought over by charismatics and fundamentalists, gay Christians and postmodern theologians.

This war is undermining the casual connection between British culture and Christianity, is making having a faith a harder and more militant thing. Some church sociologists have suggested that it is making Christianity a subculture, and that it is behaving like one – snarling, embittered, sniping from the margins as we shop on Sundays, ask for Candle in the Wind for funerals, and lose the folk memory of what to do when we go to church for a wedding.

A cultural tightrope

Something else has been happening too. This is the change of strategy by many active Christians, as they move from evangelism and the mass conversion of souls (whose chances, though still optimistically considered by some churchpeople, look like a pretty thin prospect), to the infusion of a little-seen Christian influence into British culture. Their influence is detected in the teaching of creationism in state schools run by conservative Christians, in Opus Dei, in the "faith culture" (if the late Robin Cook is to be believed) of the Blair cabinet, and in pressure-group campaigns to close allegedly blasphemous shows like Jerry Springer – the Opera.

These look like samples of the ways, perhaps desperate ways, in which Christianity is being pumped back into the bloodstream of Britain's culture. That culture is being taken on in moral battle, but not in a contest for the faith of the people as a whole. Conversionism is no longer likely, and indeed lacks any meaningful response from Britons now largely ignorant of what constitutes the Christian faith. In its stead, the attempt is being made to render culture "moral", and acceptable to the religions of a multi-faith Britain.

This, then, is the cultural tightrope that Blair was walking on Michael Parkinson's ITV1 show. Any more explicit message that national politics, the destiny of British troops, and the foreign and domestic policies of the country may be at the discretion of individuals being guided by God, might expose the cultural chasm between a new breed of faith rulers and a largely secular ruled.

Most Britons left their culture of Christian faith over the last forty years, without on the whole much rancour or bitterness. They have no particular cause today to rise in austere protest against those who, like Blair, might still profess faith. Their evacuation of this territory imparts to those who still occupy it, like Blair, an awareness that it can't be pushed too far. There would be a cultural incomprehension if it were.

In the United States, Bush and every president before him has been able to proclaim the role of God in their lives as a badge of office. But if the culture of Christianity is still dominant there, in Britain – as indeed (and distinctively) in most of Europe – the culture of a dominant faith is now long gone. The prospect of it ever returning at present lacks any significant evidence. In that situation, no politician dare speak too much of the role of God in government. For the sake of the seemingly contented secular culture of the vast majority, the professing rhetoric of the astute faith politician best not to be taken too far.