Field of Science

Who thinks Britain should be a Christian country?

In a speech just before Christmas, the British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that "We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so." He did go on to accept that it's OK to have a different religion or even no religion at all, but even so it's an interesting turn of phrase.

He's a politician, of course, so it's clear that he sees some political advantage in making the statement - but just who is he appealing to? After all, religion is pretty unimportant for most British - even the 60-70% who claim to be Christian in some way.

By happy coincidence, recent research by Ingrid Storm at Manchester University has done a neat job in clarifying why some people regard 'Britishness' and Christianity to be linked.

She used data from the 2008 British Social Attitudes survey of over 2,200 people, and grouped the responders according to whether they were non-Christian (a mixed bunch of other religions and also non-believers), nominally Christian (those who said they were Christian but also said they went to Church less often than monthly), and observant Christians (those who go to Church at least monthly).

The survey also asks a bunch of questions related to ideas about national identity. Storm use a statistical technique factor analysis) to group these into three categories:
  • Civic-symbolic national identity (people whose sense of national identity is linked to cultural symbols, like the national anthem, sport or ceremonies).
  • Cultural-aesthetic national identity (people whose sense of Britishness is triggered by thoughts of the countryside, or of music, poetry or paintings).
  • Ethnic national identity (people who believe that immigration is a threat to national identity, or that a non-white person cannot be English, Welsh or Scottish).
The first thing that Storm did was to look at how nationalistic each of the three religious groups were. You'll see from the graph that the non-Christians were the least nationalistic, and the observant Christians were the most nationalistic, at least when it cam to civic and cultural nationalism. Nominal Christians were in between.

The exception was ethnic nationalism. Neither observant Christians nor the non-Christians scored high on this measure, but the nominal Christians did.

In other word, the group most likely to see britishness through an ethnic/racial lens are the people who claim to be Christian, but who don't actually go to church. The cultural Christians, if you will.

Storm then look at the relationship between these three kinds of nationalism and the belief that "Christianity is important for being truly British".

The only kind of nationalism that was linked to this belief was ethnic nationalism. This link held even after controlling for factors like belief in god, authoritarianism, and the belief that Muslims do not want to fit in.

What this suggests is that the people who believe that "Christianity is important for being truly British" are also the people who define Christianity in ethnic, rather the spiritual terms. Storm says:

... thinking religion is important for nationality may be more a function of associating religion with ethnic background than of any nostalgia for the cultural heritage of religious symbols, morals and institutions associated with civic-symbolic or cultural-aesthetic national identity. In other words the more one regards immigration as a threat to national identity and thinks of race and ethnicity as important for belonging to the nation, the more one is likely to see Christianity as important for being British.
In other words, by emphasising the importance of Christianity for British identity, Cameron is appealing to the racists, rather than the religious, in his constituency.
Storm, I. (2011). Ethnic nominalism and civic religiosity: Christianity and national identity in Britain The Sociological Review, 59 (4), 828-846 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-954X.2011.02040.x

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I wonder if something similar doesn't hold true in America, but I am unaware of any parallel studies. Would you know of any?

  2. So the comment was really dog-whistling to racists. Canny, eh?

  3. A couple of thoughts.

    First: "by emphasising the importance of Christianity for British identity, Cameron is appealing to the racists, rather than the religious, in his constituency". Is he going to pay a political price for doing so ? I don't think so. In today bipolar politics (and I'm not talking only about UK) one doesn't risk to loose votes to the other side: the real risk is not to please enough to your side. So this encourages more extreme views. See for example what happened to PSOE in Spain: it loosed because people who voted the party in the previuos election chioced not to vote (or to vote other minor left parties). The PP just gained one out of six of the votes that the PSOE lost.

    Second. I see organized religion mostly as a ruler tool. A ruler who wants to grow his empire, at a certain point, will be faced with a reality: his empire will be no longer conprised of a single ethnicity. So he will need something to overcome the natural tendencies of placing other ethnicities in the outgrup. So he will select a religion which teaches that people of different ethnicites can live togheter. Which, in turn, may explain why churchgoers are less divisive in regards to ethnicity.

  4. Fascinating. I suppose it makes sense, since asserting your country is a "Christian nation" is obviously attempting to make an in-group/out-group dichotomy. So I guess it's no shock that it's a metaphor for a different kind of in-group/out-group talk.

    On a side note, you guys do have that whole House of Lords thing with the CoE getting to appoint a bunch of their own MPs, right? Kinda does make you a "Christian nation" of sorts. :p

  5. Paul, I know of several studies showing a link between religion and racism, which is probably a related effect to what's described here. And also there are studies of the links between religion and nationalism. But nothing that looks at all three factors together.

  6. Jim, yeah - although I don't know to what extent he realised that's what he's doing. Maybe subconsciously.

  7. James, yep - we have an official religion and sect (the Church of England, and Church of Scotland), with the queen at its head.

    Certain Bishops sit in the House of Lords - which is a bit like the Senate but with less power. The whole house of lords thing is pretty controversial (and undemocratic), not just the Bishops bit!

  8. The British Social Attitudes survey shows that Britain is not in fact a Christian country.

    However, it only stopped being one a few years ago.

    More here.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS