Any regular attendee of CUCA will have noticed a discernible shift in its religious membership this year. Don’t get me wrong; CUCA has always been home to Christians. Yet whereas in previous years their faith has seemed to be little more than one manifestation of their traditionalist aesthetic, CUCA's Christians today are profoundly motivated by their faith. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Conservatism and Christianity have a long (albeit nuanced) association. What is more objectionable, however, is the growing assumption that the two are indivisible; that good conservatives must be, to a greater or lesser extent, good Christians.
I don’t feel equipped to argue that Christianity is not conservative. Nonetheless it would be remiss of me not to note the diversity of Christian perspectives of politics and the clear paths between core Christian tenets and social democracy in particular. What I feel more confident in asserting is that conservatism doesn’t need to be Christian.
Those who expound the virtues of Christian conservatism invariably circle back to the merits of Judeo-Christian society and morality. Yet to draw a direct line from the benefits the Judeo-Christian world affords us today to the Christian church would be an egregious exercise in historical revisionism. Christianity is not, and arguably has never been, the guarantor of the ideals and institutions that conservatives hold dear.
The views of most Christian conservatives, in my experience, are inextricably intertwined with their theology. Yet the role of the Church in Britain has always been as social and political as it has been religious. Medieval parishioners, unable even to translate the word of God being preached to them, valued the Church as much for the vibrant social life it afforded and the community centre it provided as for any religious comfort they received. Even today, great swathes of Britain’s parishes are predominantly dedicated to serving an indispensable, fundamentally secular role as pillars of the community as opposed to evangelising their faith. In short, much of the value western society has derived from Christian institutions has been as a centre for community in a fashion relatively detached from any religious considerations.
Some of my critics might insist that the central value of Christianity to the world which conservatives should seek to preserve has been their conception of morality. Personally I struggle to take this entirely seriously. I challenge my detractors to find a mainstream religion anywhere in the world that does not champion generosity, compassion, honesty or justice. That Judeo-Christians could have a monopoly on such ideas is blinkered beyond belief. Furthermore, even Christians concede that a world lived strictly by their teachings would be a ludicrous one. If Leviticus is to be believed, those of us who enjoy black pudding or intermingling our runner beans and strawberries have committed unacceptable religious indiscretions. When one evaluates things logically, the parts of Christianity we chose to laud as the bedrock of western civilisation amount to little more than basic decency and common sense.
Yet even if you disagree with my diminishing of the importance of Christianity to the formulation of our way of life, it is nearly impossible to assert that the Church remains an indispensable guarantor of western institutions and values. We now live, for better or worse, in an effectively post-Christian west. Yet the vast majority of ideas and practices one might attribute to Christianity have quietly persisted. Their genesis in religious fervour hundreds or thousands of years previously does not make Christianity intrinsic to their survival today. A 2020 YouGov poll indicated that only about 15% of Britons are committed Christians. Despite this, Britain routinely ranks amongst the most generous nations in the world in terms of charitable giving. Time has detached such values from their religious roots; significant mental gymnastics is required to assert the importance of the Church to their survivability in the present.
We in the west live in a world shaped by the historical influence of the Christian church. However, that influence is both more secular and less dramatic than many modern Christian conservatives care to admit. The simple fact is that the Judeo-Christian world is no longer a religious phenomenon. The broad values of Christianity have been secularised and interwoven so fully into the fabric of our nation that religious zeal is not required to sustain them. Conservatives and Christians may well look favourably upon many of the same principles and institutions for the values they both share. Yet there is no reason why a conservative would need to be a Christian to defend the secularised legacies of the shadow of Christendom. By all means choose to do so for yourselves, but don’t feel a need to besmirch those who can find the values and principles they need independent of the altar.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, Diliff