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When politicians speak of Christ at Christmas

While Gingrich, Perry, and other GOP presidential hopefuls boldly cite their Christian faith – especially in Iowa – Britain's prime minister finds a more nuanced way to remind both countries of their Christian roots.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / December 20, 2011

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha stand outside St. Mary Abbots Church with their daughter Florence Rose Endellion following the baby's christening in London March 4, 2011.

REUTERS/Stefan Rousseau/Pool

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Christmas is usually a time to bring goodwill to all. But a few political leaders are turning this year’s celebration of Christ into a time to debate the  role of Christianity in public life.

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Not all of them do it well.

One case comes from a few Republican contenders on the campaign trail in Iowa for the Jan. 3 caucus. This earliest of presidential contests is heavily influenced by the state’s conservative Christians seeking a candidate who reflects their interests. That has compelled many GOP contenders to tout their credentials as Christians, promise a restoration of Christian values, or even to campaign in churches.

Newt Gingrich, for example, denounces “a secular, atheist system of thought” in colleges and media while saying he wouldn’t be comfortable with an atheist in the White House. Rick Perry decries that public-schoolchildren “can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” He challenges the Christians to take their values into the public arena.

The more notable case of a politician speaking of Christian values at this time of year is a major speech by Prime Minister David Cameron. In it, he declared Britain to be a “Christian country.”

That phrase is just what many Christians in America want a US president to say about their nation. But he couches it in ways that may not be so offensive to non-Christians.

Mr. Cameron was speaking on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. But he used the occasion last week to frame recent events – urban riots in England, terrorist threats, and a banking crisis caused by greed – as examples of a need for moral principles rooted in Britain’s Christian tradition.

The Bible, he said plainly, has made “Britain what it is today.”

His talk is far more nuanced than the Republican rhetoric on the campaign trail. For starters, the prime minister admits doubts about his own faith and his grappling with difficult theological questions. Such humility helps in a discussion of faith in the public square.

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