Belfast Telegraph

Friday 24 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition: Judging by Cameron's 'Christian country' comment you'd think he'd proposed a 21st version

Prime Minister David Cameron described the UK as a 'Christian country'
Prime Minister David Cameron described the UK as a 'Christian country'

Judging by some responses to David Cameron 'Christian country' article, you would think that he had proposed the introduction of a 21st century Spanish Inquisition. Now, the Church of England may be many things - I can say that as a Presbyterian - but it's not the Spanish Inquisition.

Support for Cameron's article from across the political and religious spectrum suggests that most people are fully aware that he is not - obviously - talking about a theocracy. He has been backed by Labour's Jack Straw and the leaderships of the Muslim, Hindu and Jewish communities in the UK. Deputy PM Nick Clegg - himself an agnostic - put it well when he said that the UK is "infused by Christianity".

So, no, it's not the Spanish Inquisition that is being talked about. Rather its those Church of England bishops in the House of Lords speaking up for the disabled and families with children in the debates over welfare reform. It's the churches running food banks, the volunteers from churches visiting prisons, the pastoral care offered in times of deep loss. It's also a cultural landscape marked by great cathedrals and humble village churches, music and art inspired by Christian faith.

It's also the early 21st century. A growing number of our fellow citizens are non-religious, there are no religious tests to hold elected public office (and was the case, shamefully, in the past), in most parts of the UK same-sex marriage is law (rightly so), and US-style religious culture wars are simply inconceivable in the UK.

But we are not a secular country - we are a pluralist society, shaped by a diverse range of voices amongst which Christianity continues to be the most significant religious voice. For the greatest number of people in the UK - and throughout these islands - it represents the religion that they identify with, whether or not they are church-goers.

Now we in Northern Ireland know that religion can be used to divide, to promote intolerance and to feed hate. We are not unique in this, either in the UK or globally. But we also know that the mainstream churches have in recent decades been consistent voices for peace and reconciliation, and that they have moved on from the divisive attitudes of the past to work together as partners for the common good.

A healthy and vibrant pluralism will be unafraid of recognising the importance of Christianity to our society, underpinning many our values, not least the belief in the dignity of the human person that lies at the heart of tolerance, social justice and the rule of law. Alongside this, the voices of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, agnostic and atheist citizens are heard, valued and respected, contributing to the great debates of our national life.

It is this vibrant pluralism, rather than a French-style secularism banishing religion from national life, which secures the tolerance and diversity of today's United Kingdom.

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