It’s official: Britain is no longer a Christian nation. In banning Eunice and Owen Johns, a devout Christian couple, from fostering children, Lord Justice Munby and Mr Justice Beatson declared that we live in a secular state, and that the Johns’ religious convictions disqualified them from raising citizens of that state. We’ve outgrown Christianity, the judges professed. Instead, we have graduated to the status of a multicultural nation, blessed by a plurality of faiths.
Ironically, the justices who have pronounced that Britain is no longer Christian did so in a court where witnesses swear on the Bible and invoke God’s help in telling the truth. I do not imagine that these judges leave out the first word in “God Save the Queen” – nor would they shun an invitation to the Royal wedding, which is happening not at a registry office but the centrepiece of official Christendom, Westminster Abbey.
In taking part in these traditions, the judges – and the rest of us – are no different from past generations. For Christianity is not merely a part of life here, a provider of schools, hospitals and orphanages. It is the backbone of our laws, the impetus for the charity, justice and tolerance that have long been characteristic of this country. Its grand principles have inspired citizens to extraordinary actions, such as William Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery, and to ordinary kindnesses, such as reading to hospital patients or delivering meals on wheels. When David Cameron speaks of our moral duty to our Arab brothers, or shares his vision for the Big Society, he taps not into narrow party allegiance, but into our common Christian heritage.
The Christians of an earlier era may not have known about multiculturalism, or predicted that it would be the signature tune of our times. Yet their faith gave them a moral imperative that demanded respect for others: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Without this moral underpinning, multiculturalism sags into a factionalism of competing demands and conflicting interests. Instead, the Gospel’s commandment inspires the Christian majority to accommodate Jewish, Muslim, atheist and Hindu minorities, without losing sight of the basic principle of mutual respect.
This, indeed, is one of the reasons why non-Christian believers are so passionate in wanting to protect Christianity as a presence in public life. Jews, like Muslims, recognise that while Christians – and especially Anglicans – may enjoy a special status, their faith embraces all people as made, and loved, by God. The Act of Succession, which bans us Catholics from the throne, makes me angry; but like all members of a religious minority, I feel safer in a culture that cherishes spiritual values than in one that rubbishes them.
So it is not just Christians that the ruling in the Johns case will alarm and unsettle. As the judges wagged their fingers about the secularist principles that, they claim, define the nation (and which “ought to be, but seemingly are not, well understood”), they were not describing the status quo: a strong majority of Britons still consider themselves to be Christian. Instead, they were making clear their desire to steer this country in a direction of their own choosing – one that matches the views of an increasingly strident group that is determined to scrub Christianity from public life.
Its efforts to push the majority faith underground are evident everywhere, from our bus stops to our workplaces. The British Humanist Association is campaigning to discourage “cultural Christians” from identifying themselves as believers in the forthcoming census. Jo Johnson, a Tory MP, wants to drop the prayer that traditionally opens Parliamentary sessions. Companies like BA forbid their Christian staff from wearing crosses to work. Schools and offices present Christian holidays as secular breaks. And now devout Christians are to be prevented from becoming foster parents.
According to our learned judges, “the aphorism that ‘Christianity is part of the common law of England’ is now mere rhetoric”. How excruciatingly unjust.