Doing God at Westminster 2 July 2014

The past few months saw increasing discussions about faith by politicians, from talks of Britain being a ‘Christian country’ to discussions of whether Ed Miliband could be Britain’s first Jewish prime minister. Here’s a round-up what the politicians have been saying.

It was Alastair Campbell who famously said ‘we don’t do God’ something he claims ‘was not a major strategic statement, but an attempt to bring to an end an interview’. Nonetheless, it has come to epitomise an era of secularism in the British public sphere that seems to slowly be giving way to an ever more open discussion of religion. Increasingly, politicians are embracing discussions about God, faith and religion in the public sphere.

David CameronThe early months of 2014 saw plenty of discussion of God and politics in the media and from politicians themselves. Perhaps the biggest comment worth discussing is Cameron’s call for a more Christian Britain. Writing in April in the run up to Easter, Cameron said ‘I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives’.

The question of whether Britain was still a ‘Christian country’ emerged in newspapers and evening news segments. Nick Clegg contributed to the debate too, confessing that ‘it seems to me that it is self evidently the case that our heritage, our traditions, our architecture, our history, is infused by Christianity. Of course it is and there is nothing remotely controversial in saying so.’

As the famous atheist Deputy Prime Minister however, he was keen to show his secular values, and wrote later in the Church Times: –
‘My personal view is – and it’s clearly not an urgent priority and it’s not something which is debated in kitchens and pubs up and down the country – but I have always thought it would be better for the Anglican Church themselves if you were to separate Church and state.’

Clegg, who previously stated he did not believe in God, seemed to be distancing himself from the label of atheist however: –
‘I’m much more of an agnostic because I don’t have anything against faith.’

Perhaps the most interesting declaration on religion came from Ed Miliband, who announced his plans to be the first Jewish Prime Minister of Britain while speaking in Israel in March. He recounted the statement to the British press: –

‘I have said I hope that I’ll be the first Jewish prime minister if we win the election, but it is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage.’
While Cameron’s comments created a discussion on whether Britain was Christian, Miliband’s comments started a debate on Jewish identity and whether Benjamin Disraeli could be considered Jewish or not. Disraeli was born to a Jewish mother, which meets most Orthodox definitions of Jewry, however he was baptised as an Anglican and raised as one too. So there is room for an argument that Britain is yet to have its first Jewish Prime Minister, except that if Disraeli doesn’t count, then nor does Miliband who defines himself as a ‘Jewish atheist’.

Miliband also spoke about elements of anti-Semitism that still existed in Britain, perhaps partly referring to the Daily Mail’s recent attack on his father, and the importance of Israel as ‘the homeland for the Jewish people’, adding ‘this is not a theoretical idea for me, it is my family experience’.

Another interesting example of a politician doing (or not doing) God, came with the appointment of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. On the 9th April, Maria Miller resigned from the position amid a cloud of controversy regarding her expenses. She was replaced by Sajid Javid, an up-and-coming young star of the Tory party. Javid was announced as the now most senior Muslim politician in the country. It was a title that he seemed less comfortable with than Baroness Warsi however, who had previously held the title, explaining he did not practice any religion and agreeing with Cameron that ‘Christianity is the religion of our country’.

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On Religion's editorial team is made up of postgraduate students and researchers of religion and across the UK.

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