Sunday, November 25, 2007

Britons and religion

The New York Times recently reported that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is about to join his wife in the Roman Catholic Church, after practicing as a High Anglican while Prime Minister. While this is historic in a country that helped created Protestantism in the 16th century and has been a major beacon for Protestantism ever since, Blair’s public religion while Prime Minister is even more significant.

During his term, then Prime Minister Blair mentioned G-d publicly far more than any other modern British prime minister. This was at odds with the general British population, which is far more secular than American population. (This analysis excludes the rapidly growing British Muslim population, which, as the New York Times article points, tend to be very religious.)

On the other hand, in the United States, presidents are expected to be religious figures. They go to church, believe in G-d, consult with religious leaders on all kinds of matters, atone for both their public and private sins, and routinely ask G-d to bless America. It’s even more telling that the first non-Christian nominated on a national ticket, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, is a devout Jew who frequently talks about his relationship with G-d. (Lieberman is also the first non-Christian with a serious chance of winning the presidential nomination, as he led national Democratic preference polls as late as September 2003.)

Until Blair, Britons saw none of this in their leaders. In some ways, it is no wonder that Britons are more secular than Americans, given the enormous amount of strife in their nation’s history along religious lines, from internal beheadings and burnings to civil war, regicide, and war with the continent, to the more recent history of colonizing non-Christians around the world and continual strife in Ireland. Britons have seen the uglier side of religion, and have long experience the kind of religious class of civilizations that Americans have only recently been exposure to.

The great contradiction here is that while Britons are relatively more secular than Americans, their country is fundamentally more religious that the United States. Whereas we have a formal separation of religion (church) and state, the British monarch is the formal head of the Church of England and must be a member of that sect. (Anyone member of the royal family married to a Catholic, regardless of his or her own religion, is barred from the line of succession.)

This innate Christianity extends to the great English universities, where terms are referred to as “Easter term”, “Michaelmas term” and “Lent term” (instead of summer, fall and spring). Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge have names like All Souls College, Christ Church, Trinity College, and even Jesus College. Despite Yale and Harvard’s religious origins, this kind of religion ingrained in British society is no where to be found in the United States.

Given all of this latent Christianity in such a secular country, it will be very interesting to see how Britain deals with its former prime minister’s new religion, or if it is only the American press and its more religious readers that seem to care.

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