Secularization is over, all bar the shouting.

by - 23rd January 2012

This article first appeared at

Secularization is in retreat.  One of the surprising aspects of David Cameron’s de-secularizing speech at Christ Church, Oxford to commemorate the end of the 400th anniversary year of the King James Bible was that evangelical Christians seemed unwilling to acknowledge his striking recognition of the fact.

Rather than cheering a brave and careful contribution to a process that is well under way – the return of Christianity to the public sphere – they judged the man instead.

Tim Montgomery on the Conservative Home website chided: ‘His affection for Christianity is sincere but he doesn’t seem to see himself as a fully-signed up member of the club.’

David Landrum at Evangelical Alliance, while welcoming some of the speech’s theological nuance, described it as ‘classical political opportunism.’ 

Melanie McDonagh in the Spectator demanded not more Christian values but a return to Christianity. 

Really, it is no one’s business but Cameron’s and God’s whether Cameron is Christian enough. We may not as Christians judge his faith, only the facts he brings to his arguments, and with these, he did us a favour.

Despite some mumbo jumbo about ‘values’ and some passé interfaith platitudes – intelligent inter-religious relations should not any longer require Conservatives to downplay real difference - he has made sociological history with this speech. Even while admitting he is ‘vaguely practising’ and ‘full of doubts’ Cameron nonetheless had the wit and the courage to look the facts in the face and describe them.

It is tempting for a politician to instrumentalize religion for ignoble and manipulative reasons, but Cameron is not guilty.  Montesquieu, Comte and many other Enlightenment thinkers saw that reason alone cannot mobilise the deep intuitions and apprehensions that social order and altruism rely on. We have Communist Russia as evidence of that.  But Cameron is not seeking to use faith to achieve his political objectives, rather to restore a discourse that incorporates a fuller view of life.  His discursus on the cultural as well as political fruits of the Bible is surely evidence enough of that. 

Civil society rests on the insights, self-constraint and motivation supplied by Christian faith and its leavening effect.  Christianity alone can sunder in Pauline fashion the divisions that tribalism feeds on, and we must not damn a politician for recognising something so fundamental to us all. 

Cameron has at a stroke signalled courteously enough that a critical argument has been won after decades of vicious and damaging struggle, and he’s willing to stake his political reputation on it.

He even quotes Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope: “…in reaction to religious overreach we equate tolerance with secularism, and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our politics with larger meaning.”

To his sceptical detractors, I would say this:  read TS Eliot’s A Christian Society in which he warned against demanding a Christian faith of our leaders, noting rightly that ‘it is the general ethos of the people they have to govern, not their own piety, that determines the behaviour of politicians’ (p. 27).  Anything more risks tyranny.

That’s why Cameron quite rightly turned to the Church of England to do more to take up the slack.  It is the church’s job to evangelise the populace.  The politician merely ought to protect the freedoms necessary for that task to happen.  Proclamation and freedom of conscience are the cornerstones of civil society.  The first is church business, the latter will ultimately result from it.

What Cameron has given us therefore is the opportunity for a new conversation, or rather, for the old conversation arrested by Enlightenment fallacies about neutrality, to resume. 

Indeed he said: ‘The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option. You can’t fight something with nothing. Because if we don’t stand for something, we can’t stand against anything.’


It was secular neutrality that defined the dominant discourse for decades, giving rise to bogus theories about ‘ever-increasing and inevitable secularization’.  This was a brand of Marxist atheism, in which the State would automatically wither away, as happy people accessed a public square that needed no guardian philosophy. 

But this fallacy has ended in a heap of ashes, literally, and not too far from where I live in Haringey.  Book burning, tube bombings, and riots disclose not the absence of Christian ideas, but their ghostly presence, too long despised and now to be welcomed back.

There are four criteria by which to test what Cameron did in his speech vis a vis the old cliché of ‘the increasing secularism of society’ which rest on different but confused aspects of secularization namely differentiation and privatization.  If a public official refuses in public to clearly differentiate between religion and state spheres; uses personal religious language normally reserved for private talk; classifies people by religion rather than race, class or wealth; and most pertinently demonstrates the belief that religious faith produces real outcomes, then he has failed the ‘increasing secularization’ test!  Cameron failed on all four criteria.  Hurray.

Running his speech through this simple grid (below) shows beyond doubt that secularization is in retreat.  These criteria formed the basis of doctoral research published in 2001, in which a new government department set up to administer the inner cities – the Inner Cities Religious Council – featured as one of the first case studies of de-secularization.[1]  The case was proven.

1  Does Cameron’s speech indicate a realignment in the relationship between church/religion and state?

Yes.  The chief executive of the State indicates he is self-conscious and deliberate in addressing theologians and clergy in the church building that is at the heart of the foremost university in Britain – itself founded by the Church of England. 

2  Does Cameron integrate personal religious language, theological or religious value statements into his role, or demonstrate reflexivity (expressed as approval) in terms of a ‘new religious discourse’?  

Yes, albeit cautiously.  When a state executive expresses his enthusiasm for the core tenets of a religion, (as he does when he approves of the belief that we are ‘made in the image of God’) his faith is no longer private. 

3  Does Cameron use ‘religious’ rather than racial or economic signifiers for people? 

Yes.  The word Christian or Christianity appears 17 times, and is used to describe the nation, its values, his own faith and a big part of the population of China!  He says ‘We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.’  In terms of identity markers, this is unambiguous.  We may be many other things besides, but Christianity is here described as integral to the national identity.  Indeed he users no other signifier to describe the people of this nation. 

He goes on later to discuss the rise in specifically religious affiliates around the world as a phenomenon in itself. 

4  Does Cameron ascribe practical outcomes to religious faith?

Yes, again and again.  Cameron signals throughout his speech the results of being a nation founded on the Bible, for example, ‘The Bible is a book that is not just important in understanding our past, but which will continue to have a profound impact in shaping our collective future.

‘Second, just as our language and culture is steeped in the Bible, so too is our politics.

‘From human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy…

‘…from the role of the church in the first forms of welfare provision, to the many modern day faith-led social action projects…

‘…the Bible has been a spur to action for people of faith throughout history, and it remains so today.’

Such an analysis – which is now methodologically conventional as ‘discourse analysis’ in higher degrees – might be but a straw in the wind as a way of testing how far the deeper motivations of humanity are pressing on our blithe British unconscious. But the testimony of other nations renders our own religion blindness (which is secularism) critical.  It prevented think tanks, security agencies and the media from anticipating huge world shifts caused by religious fervour: the Khomeini revolution in Iran; 9/11; and the Arab Spring being three of the most important. 

Our national discourse will have to change to accommodate realpolitik elsewhere – and that begins by recognizing – and cheering - that secularization is over.











[1] Jenny Taylor, 2001 After Secularism: inner-city governance and the new religious discourse  PhD Thesis unpublished but available through iner-library loan from School of Oriental and African Studies, London University.  A paper based on this was published in Public Theology5.3  July 2004 and is available at