Religion in Downing Street has always been a touchy subject. In 2003, Alistair Campbell famously rushed to save Blair from speaking of his Christian faith, telling a Vanity Fair journalist, “We don’t do God”. Campbell was following the same formula most former Prime Ministers depended on during their time in office. A slight nod to the Christian faith ceremonially and in the right company – but ultimately, as Tony Blair succinctly explained, ‘You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people [do] think you’re a nutter’.
In an unlikely turn of events for British politics, it took the young, modernising Cameron government to reverse these norms and lead one of the most religious governments to date. The coalition government used faith to re-define the troubled British identity, and Theresa May is quietly continuing their work.
Most British Prime Ministers have been of religious persuasion – with the exceptions of Churchill, Callaghan and Attlee – the latter going as far as to reject the ‘mumbo-jumbo’ of Christianity. But for those with Christian belief - notably Thatcher, Blair and Brown – their use of religion was mostly nothing more than superficial, ceremonial obligation.
Thatcher had an often publicly acrimonious relationship with the Church of England and Brown chose to downplay his personal ties with the Church of Scotland, often referring to ‘morality’ over ‘faith’. Cameron however, sensing developing cultural fragmentation, reversed standard convention to use faith as a tool for unity.
Prior to his election, David Cameron was a self-confessed apathetic Christian. He told the Guardian in 2008, his faith was akin to “reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes” and “we [those of the Church of England] are racked with doubts, but sort of fundamentally believe”. ‘Sort of’ hardly implies a man of religion.
Yet two years later, in a calculated move, Cameron established a government dedicated to faith, championed by Baroness Warsi. In 2010, Britain was facing, and continues to face, an identity crisis. Mass immigration facilitated by New Labour, catalysed by Nigel Farage, stirred up a feeling of loss within the typically white working class of Britain. Culture was changing fast, and for many, Great Albion and Orwell’s romance for its “solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads” was being buried underneath new culturally kaleidoscopic Britain.
Sensing this discontent, Cameron looked for something to unify the country – he’d tried football teams, but quickly had to blame a “brain fade” after forgetting that he supported Aston Villa, not West Ham United. Religion was more plausible. On the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in 2011 he told the Church of England clergy, “we are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so”.
Linguistically, Cameron became more evangelical over time – in April 2014, he spoke of “a small pilgrimage”, he made to the Church of Holy Nativity, referring to it as “the place where our Saviour was both crucified and born”. He later asked Michael Gove to disseminate a copy of the King James Bible to every state school in Britain, with an introduction reading that the Bible works to “define the English language” and is the “keystone in our shared culture”. Simultaneously, Gove was working on a detailed plan to require schools to actively promote British values, to be regulated and enforced by Ofsted.
It seemed somewhat out of place in a government deputised by open atheist Nick Clegg and a government with the aim to “decontaminate the Tory brand” – yet, Theresa May has continued the enthusiasm for religion, and the Christian faith particularly.
Admittedly, May keeps her faith more personal than Cameron did. The Prime Minister is a life-long dedicated Christian, having previously taught Sunday school classes and annually attended her parochial church council led by her late Father Reverend Hubert Brasier. She told Desert Island Discs her religion is “part of who I am and how I approach things” and chose an 18th century Church of England hymn, ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ among her choices.
Her openness in the interview about her faith was unusual for May, but her ambitiousness for religion in legislature speaks loudly. The Prime Minister feels confident slipping her religious beliefs into law, as she follows in Cameron’s slipstream.
Just before the New Year, Education Secretary Damian Hinds announced funding for new 100% selective faith schools, meaning new voluntarily aided schools – schools that are 10% funded by a religious body – have the right to admit pupils based on their religion for 100% of their places.
Naturally his decision came under fire from prominent secularist and humanist organisations, but his response echoed Cameron four years before: “this is a Christian country… rooted in the Judaeo-Christian religion”.
Hinds, a practicing Catholic, was appointed Education Secretary by Theresa May after Justine Greening refused to support the Prime Minister’s decision to remove the 50% cap on religious selectivity. The government have also promised more funding for the controversial ‘Near Neighbours’ scheme that has been accused of prioritising Church of England projects, even in ethnically diverse areas.
The Conservatives are battling an increasingly secular tide. But this isn’t to say they can’t win. The Prime Minister’s support for faith selection is likely to encourage parents to reinstate a relationship with the Church – particularly if the new faith schools begin to outperform local secular schools. Initiatives such as ‘Near Neighbours’ continue to remind the public of their history-bound loyalties to Christianity.
It would be no surprise if the government relied on faith-driven initiatives to remind the divided country of Britain’s history and future post-Brexit. Cameron’s trajectory towards a more Christian Britain is hardly going to overshadow his Brexit legacy, but with a faith-driven successor, the pews of the Church of England might slowly begin to fill again.