This week David Cameron ventured into the realm of political theology, boldly speaking up for ‘the values on which our nation was built’ – that is, ‘the values of Easter and the Christian religion – compassion, forgiveness, kindness, hard work and responsibility’. The Guardian were quick to object, with both an editorial in which we were informed that Christianity’s distinctive contribution to the world was, actually, ‘the extraordinary idea that people have worth in themselves, regardless of their usefulness to others, regardless even of their moral qualities’; and with a piece by Giles Fraser which argued that ‘Christianity, properly understood, is a religion of losers’, and that the real meaning of Easter is that ‘failure is redeemed’.
But however much we might dislike Cameron’s Christianity, we can’t simply reject it in the name of some more authentic form of Christianity, of ‘Christianity, properly understood’, of what Jesus really meant, if only we could learn to focus on the right verses, read in the right way. What Christianity really is is also what it actually means and does in the world today, what people who call themselves Christians think and do.
And In that sense, Cameron is absolutely right: Christianity is about respectability, hard work, ‘decency’; it is about white middle class values. The Protestant work ethic, the cleanliness that is next to godliness, the respectability politics of compulsory heterosexuality and all those ‘real and necessary’ values that have been weaponised so effectively by the West as it has pursued racist, genocidal, and colonialist policies around the world are precisely a Christian invention, whatever the elusive historical Jesus might have made of them.
Christianity is the things Cameron represents because that’s what it is for many, perhaps most, British people who call themselves Christians. 70% of British people call themselves Christians even though most of them never attend church services, because for many of us ‘Christian’ has come to mean ‘white British’. The language of the far right in Europe is increasingly moving away from that old appeal to securing a future for white children and towards the mainstream political discourse – eagerly endorsed by popes and archbishops alike – of defending Europe’s Christian heritage. Remember Anders Breivik? Whatever Christianity was, or should be, or could be; however multiple it is, however contested its terms, it is now also a metonym for white supremacist patriarchy. We need to confront that.