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.

REUTERS/Stefan Rousseau/Pool
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.

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.

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.

His talk also honored Britain’s many other religions and those people with no faith ties. And he warned against any politician claiming “a direct line to God.”

But he says the reading of the Bible by the British people over time has helped them to understand that they are equal with each other through God – and that has led them to “seek equality with each other through government.” Such a fundamental idea is the basis for Britain’s expansion of human rights and democracy.

And, he said, an understanding of Jesus’s mission has also led faith groups to help the most needy and to engage in social action. British Christians have also largely embraced religious liberty for other faiths – and that liberty is assured when Britain is confident about its Christian identity, he asserts.

“So it’s right to recognize the huge contribution our faith communities make to our politics and to recognize the role of the Bible in inspiring many of their works,” Cameron continued.

The values that Christians cherish – responsibility, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice – speak to anyone of faith (or no faith), he said. But Cameron warns that neutrality on what is moral behavior “should not be an option.” Leaders should not be afraid to stand up for those universal values, and by doing so they will not end up bringing down other faiths.

Morality isn’t necessarily a function of faith, he said, as there are many Christians who don’t live morally while many atheists and agnostics do. But when so many political problems require a moral answer, it’s time to draw on a country’s spiritual strength. For Britain, that is found in the Bible.

Standing up to problems like greed, violence, and other social ills cannot be done with secular passivity and relativism. To illustrate, Cameron quotes a line from President Obama’s book, “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.”

It’s rare when a politician can both assert faith’s role in helping society and yet not insist on using the power of government to compel faith or denigrate those of other faiths.

Cameron’s speech, in effect, points out that Christianity works through individual hearts, not the halls of government. He sees a leader’s role as reminding his country of that.

For Christians, the opening of their hearts began when a child was born 2,000 years ago, bringing the truth about reality. That truth, reaffirmed in their prayers, helps hold them accountable, not just to God but to each other.

And with that, the Christmas spirit will survive, despite an occasional dustup among politicians about what it means.

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