If Ed Miliband wins the next election, he’ll be Britain’s first atheist Prime Minister. It is a sign of how social attitudes have changed that Miliband feels comfortable wearing his atheism on his sleeve. He has not received the kind of criticism that Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock did when they professed that they did not believe in God. Atheism doesn’t seem as dangerously counter-cultural as it did in the 1980s. Nick Clegg is also a self-declared atheist. This leaves David Cameron as the only major party leader who believes in God.
But Cameron has never come across as a faith-based politician. He rather self-deprecatingly borrowed Boris Johnson’s line that his faith is ‘like reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes’. He stressed that he was a typical Church of England Christian — not a George W. Bush evangelical, in other words. He told an interviewer who asked about his faith in 2009: ‘Do I drop to my knees and ask for guidance whenever an issue comes up? No, I don’t.’
In private, Cameron doesn’t discuss his religious beliefs with many people. One person who has known him since he entered the House says: ‘I’ve talked to David about many things, but never God.’ Cameron has even been heard to call the Department of Work and Pensions as the Department of Worship and Prayer, a slightly sneering reference to the shared Christian faith of the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, and the pensions minister, Steve Webb. One minister, a believer, complains: ‘At cabinet, for most of them, when you even mention religion or God, they look at you as if you believe in fairies.’
Many colleagues assumed that Cameron went to church because it is what a Tory MP does. Others more cynically imagined it was to justify sending his children to high–performing Church of England schools.
But the window that Cameron has given us into his own soul suggests that his Christianity is more profound than that. He told an Easter reception at Downing Street last week that his moments of ‘greatest peace’ came when he attended sung Eucharist at St Mary Abbots on a Thursday morning. This surprised many who have worked with him because, as one senior Tory puts it, ‘We’ve all been programmed not to do God.’
I understand that this Thursday service is in Cameron’s diary each week. He often doesn’t make it because of the demands of office. But, rather like taking his daughter Florence to nursery, it is something that he aims to do in a normal week. He is not, then, a Christmas and Easter Christian.
Equally striking was Cameron’s statement that ‘Christians are now the most persecuted religion around the world’. The persecution of Christians had previously been something that Cameron had seemed uncomfortable talking about. Former Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt reflected the government’s world view when he suggested that standing up for Christians in the Middle East ‘would give fuel to the extremist fire’. The idea that Britain should pay special attention to the plight of Christians abroad was privately derided by one Downing Street aide as ‘worryingly exclusivist’.
But Cameron’s attitude seems to be changing. When he was asked in the House of Commons last week about the oppression of Christians in Pakistan, he didn’t feel the need to talk about other minorities that are being ill treated there, as he had done before. He simply promised to take the issue up with the Pakistani leadership and told MPs: ‘In the run-up to Easter, it is important to remember how many Christians are still persecuted around the world.’
When I asked one long-serving Cameron aide if he was surprised by Cameron’s recent comments about his beliefs, he chuckled. He pointed out, with some justification, that Cameron’s previous Easter messages had been just as religious in tone.
So why, then, has so little attention been paid to Cameron’s faith until now? The answer must be that Cameron hasn’t taken a clear side in the Tory culture war between social liberals and evangelical Christians. It is, though, worth noting that in his debate the term ‘evangelical’ has been stretched to include any Christians who find themselves in dispute with the spirit of the age.
Social liberals in the Tory party have long been deeply suspicious of the party’s evangelical Christians, suspecting them of trying to bring American-style Christian conservatism to Britain. In the run-up to the last election, they complained about what they regarded as entryist tactics that saw Christian Conservatives selected for various safe seats. Relations between the two groups hit a nadir with the gay marriage debate.
But Cameron is neither an evangelical Christian nor a social liberal in the strict sense. It is hard to overstate his belief in marriage. Before colleagues’ weddings, he has written them long, handwritten letters extolling the institution. His motivation in pushing gay marriage was not to declare some kind of cultural victory. Rather, it was about his belief that marriage is the bedrock of stability. When he said he supported gay marriage because he was a Conservative, it wasn’t just a soundbite, it was true. He found support for this position among Anglican friends. When Lord Carey of Clifton attacked him for introducing it, one of the vicars who knows him best wrote to Cameron to reassure him that most Anglicans didn’t side with the former archbishop of Canterbury.
One consequence of the Tory culture war is that the word ‘Christian’ has, for partisans in this fight, become synonymous with their perception of what evangelical Christianity is. Cameron’s kind of Anglicanism has been excluded, which has led to an unnecessarily polarised debate.
There are, though, signs that the Tory culture war has abated. George Osborne, one of the most ardent social liberals in the party, brought Nicky Morgan into his Treasury team despite the fact she had voted against gay marriage because of her religious beliefs. She was then fast-tracked into attending cabinet at last week’s mini-reshuffle.
If this country is to be truly tolerant, we should be as relaxed about politicians who do God as we are at the prospect of an atheist residing in 10 Downing Street.