This article is about 5 years old and it is from the Economist. Since the Brits are (maybe) allies in the war of terror it is fun to check up on their religious beliefs.
Christianity is playing a part in Conservative thinking, and may soon do the same for Labour
BRITISH secularists deplore their country’s established church and the national broadcaster’s religious programming. But there can hardly be a more comfortable home for an atheist. Fewer people profess a belief in God than in America and even much of post-modern Europe. Church attendance has dropped sharply since the war. So irreverent are Britons in matters spiritual that 390,000 of them gave their religion as “Jedi” in the last census, making the science-fiction warrior cult the fourth-largest faith in the land.
Most satisfyingly for the non-believer, politicians live in terror of being seen as righteous. Tony Blair was reticent about his Christianity while in office in order to avoid being thought a “nutter”. To the extent that Gordon Brown has played up his personal brand as an ascetic son of the manse, it has only amplified his aura of unelectable otherness. David Cameron, the Conservative leader who is likely to replace him as prime minister next year, recently stressed the doubting nature of his Anglicanism. Out-and-proud atheists abound in Westminster.
Yet it would be a mistake to infer from this that religion has no intellectual purchase on British politics. Faith certainly informs some of the Tories’ current thinking. Mr Cameron’s “compassionate conservatism”—with its professed zeal for fighting poverty and reviving civil society—is not merely evocative of Christian ideals in a nebulous sense. It is, to an often underrated degree, driven by Christian individuals and organisations.
Iain Duncan Smith, Mr Cameron’s predecessor-but-one and a fervent Catholic, is the party’s main advocate of fighting worklessness and family breakdown through reform of the welfare system. He is likely to feature in a Cameron government. His Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) is now the most influential think-tank on the right. Many of its senior figures are Christians, including its director, Philippa Stroud, a former charity worker and now a Tory parliamentary candidate. On November 26th Mr Cameron spoke at the launch of ResPublica, a think-tank run by Philip Blond, a former theologian whose communitarian conservatism has also grabbed the Tory leader’s attention.
Intimacy with true believers carries risks. The liberal voters Mr Cameron lured back to his party by flaunting his metropolitanism are the most likely to be put off by any hint of censoriousness. (The Tories recently had to deny that their plans to allow almost anyone to set up state schools would give rise to creationist teaching.) There is also scope for splits in the party’s higher reaches, where people of little or no faith dominate. Questions such as whether to recognise marriage in the tax system are already somewhat divisive (Mr Cameron is keener than his liberal shadow chancellor, George Osborne).
But whereas America’s religious right is largely defined by divisive lifestyle issues such as gay marriage and abortion, the Christians influencing the Tories focus on social problems such as poverty and delinquency. Hence their attractiveness to the Conservatives’ largely non-believing strategists and policy wonks. Religiously-inspired compassion has a history in the party. Mr Cameron is usually described as an heir to the One Nation conservatism of the post-war years. But that was a pragmatic creed; the Tories’ pitch to voters then was that they would run the welfare state a bit better than Labour. The likes of Mr Duncan Smith and Ms Stroud—moved by a calling to redeem a society they deem broken—have more in common with the Tory social reformers of the Victorian age. In any case, the Conservatives’ commitment to civil society would be meaningless were the party also suspicious of religion; many charities and voluntary groups have some connection to organised faith.
There is another reason why it may be safer than many assume for the Tories to turn to religion for ideas. The Labour Party is not without a Christian mission of its own. Its roots in nonconformism seem remote now but the huge expansion of foreign aid by the government was driven in part by missionary spirit (Douglas Alexander, the development secretary, is, like the prime minister, the son of a Church of Scotland minister). The government is keen on faith schools, as are the Tories.