"Are you there God? It’s me David. And, um, well … I’ve managed to cause a spot of bother …."
Apologies to author Judy Blume, but it’s hard not to imagine some of the inner conversations Prime Minister David Cameron might be having in the fevered wake of his pre-Easter comments about Britain’s "status as a Christian country.'
Admittedly, they might be a little more complex than the musings of a prepubescent girl struggling with her own religious identity while also trying to navigate the complex world of training bras and spin the bottle.
But David Cameron’s actual comments - and the reaction to them by a group of "militant secularists" as the tabloid press has dubbed them - have sparked a mini media frenzy in Britain.
Britain: a 'Christian country?'
The debate has even drawn out the great serpent of spin Alistair Campbell, who has accused Cameron of exaggerating his Christian zeal in order to deflect government scandals. "How are we to believe Cameron believes it all when so recently he was twiddling the knobs on the radio trying to find his faith at all," Campbell wrote in a blog.
Campbell, Tony Blair’s former communications chief, was referring to comments Cameron made about his own flickering faith just a few years ago when he famously said that it tended to "come and go" like a hard-to-find frequency on the radio.
Cue the quips about trying to tune in to religion and fuzzy dials.
Cameron’s latest - and to some, offending – comments about his Christian faith came in the form of a pre-Easter reception at Downing Street for religious leaders. He followed up with an article written for a paper called the Church Times.
"I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country," wrote Cameron, saying that Britain should be "more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.
'I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country.' - British Prime Minister David Cameron
"Being more confident about our status as a Christian country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgment on those with no faith at all," he wrote.
A group of prominent liberals was quick to challenge that, writing an open letter to Cameron in the Daily Telegraph and accusing him of fostering alienation and division in the UK.
"We object to his characterization of Britain as a 'Christian country' and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders," said the letter, signed by a bevy of “personalities” ranging from philosopher A.C. Grayling to author Philip Pullman.
"Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a 'Christian country,'" the letter said.
Deciding to 'do God'
The Cameron debate erupted last week, but it’s still garnering headlines here and has even created a new category of stardom: "celebrity atheists," as Britain’s Daily Mirror has sniffed disdainfully in its articles. The "anti-God squad" is another favourite.
'We object to his characterization of Britain as a 'Christian country' and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders.' - Letter opposing Cameron's comments signed by prominent British personalities
Various politicians have since jumped in either to defend or decry Cameron’s remarks, but surveys and opinion polls in recent years tell their own story.
In last year’s British Society Attitudes Survey, 51 per cent of those polled described themselves as having no religion. And the number of those who say they are members of the Church of England continues to fall year by year.
British Attitudes Towards Religion:
- No religion: 48 per cent
- Church of England: 20 per cent
- Other Christian: 17 per cent
Source: British Social Attitudes Survey, 2012
Campbell refers to Cameron as a "bog standard middle England churchgoer." During his reign as Tony Blair’s chief spin-doctor, Campbell managed to curb any talk of religion with an imperious command delivered from the plinth, telling reporters: "We don’t do God."
Cameron’s critics accuse him of deciding to "do God" now in a bid to prevent an exodus of more traditional members from his governing Conservative Party to the UK Independence Party or UKIP, running on a staunchly anti-European, anti-immigrant platform.
But it could alienate some of Cameron’s own supporters, including those who agree with his decision to break with the Church of England by supporting gay-marriage.
And in the end, peddling religious beliefs from political office or out on the campaign hustings is something that "simply isn’t done" in the largely secular world of British politics.
To do so is to be seen as being just a little bit "American." And for many Brits, that’s pure blasphemy.
"Are you there God? It’s me David …."