Is the United Kingdom a Christian country?

APRIL 9 — Earlier this week, British Prime Minister Theresa May was angry.

That is noteworthy, because May is generally determined to portray herself as the kind of politician who doesn’t get angry very easily, instead preferring to retain her composure and offer sensible, practical responses to even the biggest of problems.

She was not angry, for example, when British voters decided to end their relationship with the European Union. May voted “Remain” in last year’s Brexit vote but when her side lost, rather than bitterly bemoaning the result, she seized upon a career opportunity to become the PM tasked with leading the country through a major transition she had personally voted against.

Not anger, then, but opportunism. And the same could be said when Donald Trump attempted to ban millions of people from entering the United States on the basis of the countries they came from.

While most leaders of Western democracies deplored Trump’s xenophobic policies, May did not, because she was just starting to develop a diplomatic relationship with Mr Trump and was reluctant to risk upsetting that delicate process by publicly criticising him.

Neither was May particularly moved by sections of the British media describing the country’s judges as “enemies of the people” when they followed the due legal procedures of Brexit, nor when her party’s former leader Michael Howard suggested last weekend that she would be prepared to go to war with Spain in defence of the tiny colony Gibraltar.

None of those episodes provoked a particularly strong response from Theresa May, who is quite clearly a difficult lady to anger. But this week, maybe for the first time since taking office boy, she was angry. And why?

British Prime Minister Theresa May at the Saudi Stock Exchange in the capital Riyadh on April 4, 2017. — Picture from AFP
British Prime Minister Theresa May at the Saudi Stock Exchange in the capital Riyadh on April 4, 2017. — Picture from AFP

She was angry with a chocolate manufacturer, Cadbury, and a charity, The National Trust, for dropping the word “Easter” from their chocolate egg-hunts which are annually arranged at this time of year to amuse children at locations all over the country.

That’s right: the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom refused to condemn the leader of the free world for issuing a blanket ban on millions of people, but she was very quick to condemn a children’s event over their decision not to use the word “Easter.”

This firstly tells us a lot about the state of modern politics, and the way that politicians are always quick to leap on any old bandwagon which might deliver them popular public approval but are slow to tackle more serious matters.

And, when you think about it, May’s outburst and the accompanying level of public debate over the issue also tells us a lot about the identity crisis currently being experienced in the UK.

Quite simply, the question is this: is the United Kingdom a Christian country?

For the last few centuries, of course, the answer was an emphatic yes. Although King Henry VIII had a big old row with the Pope back in the 16th century, forcing the country to break away from the Catholic Church, the UK has always been steadfastly and unquestionably Christian. It was not even a matter of debate, with Christianity forming a central part of everyday life.

But since the collapse of the British Empire, which ruled a territory where most people were not Christian, and the subsequent emigration of many citizens from those lands into the UK itself, the topic has become extremely blurry.

Britain is now home to millions of non-Christians, most notably Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists whose families moved to the country starting in the 1950s from former colonies like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Few of those new arrivals and their families have embraced Christianity, and a huge number are now living, working and worshipping together in tightly-knit “expat” communities which have only partially integrated with traditional British culture.

In many of these largely self-contained communities English is not the first language, and the question of to what extent languages like Urdu should be taught in schools with large ethnic populations periodically reappears in media discussions.

There has never been a decisive answer to the integration question, and this is really what this week’s “Easter” egg controversy is really all about.

The decision by the egg-hunt organisers to drop the reference to a Christian celebration was obviously intended to avoid offending the sizeable numbers of non-Christian potential participants.

And that’s not just believers of other faiths, because the UK is also home to millions of agnostics and atheists who do not follow any faith at all, and who also struggle to identify with a celebration based upon the tale of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

It’s a delicate situation, but Prime Minister May was happy to jump straight in by deploring the egg hunt’s missing “Easter” as “outrageous.”

Maybe this is a bit of a leap, but surely what she was really saying, even if only subconsciously, is that it’s “outrageous” to suggest that the UK is no longer a Christian country; that it’s “outrageous” to believe that the interests and beliefs of Christians should be granted no more importance than the interests and beliefs of Muslims, agnostics and atheists.

There is no easy solution, and I’m not even going to pretend to provide one. Indeed, the whole topic raises more questions than answers.

Is it possible, in the modern world, for any sizeable country to even “be religious”? Should one religion be favoured and others marginalised? Should schools be forced to teach religious education? Should all religions be marginalised in favour of humanism or other science-based moral codes?

I don’t know, but Theresa May certainly appears to. In fact, it’s one of the only things capable of making her angry.

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