God and Country

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently raised a few eyebrows by declaring that Britain is a Christian country. Cameron and his allies in the Church then explained, somewhat defiantly, that Christianity had supplied the core of Britain’s culture and history, and that to ignore the contribution was untruthful. This need not be especially controversial. Cameron is a Tory, after all, and the enshrinement of the Church of England within the official structure of the British state is not new. Still, Cameron’s remark and the reaction that has followed are worth unpacking, for what they suggest about secularism in democracy. For while Cameron may simply have repeated an old bit of dogma, he also highlighted the instability of the opposition between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ nationhoods, and the place-specific nature of the instability.

Is Britain a Christian country? It is less ‘Christian’ today than it was ten, fifty or a hundred years ago: a much smaller percentage of the population identifies itself as Christian. In 2001, seventy-two percent of Britons identified themselves as Christian, whereas in 2011, the percentage figure was fifty-nine. By 2030, Christians will be a minority in what a Church of England official emphasized was ‘their own land.’ There are too many people around with names like Hasan and Patel, and obviously Cameron was dog-whistling to a beleaguered Little England of people with names like Smith, Jones and Morrissey. As a political tactic, it has its immediate roots in the rhetoric of the National Front and BNP (not to mention Margaret Thatcher): this is our own land, not theirs/yours. The sharp reaction is a commendable, if unsurprising, refusal by liberal nationalists to accept such naked racism. But it is also a sign of a problem within supposedly unproblematic white Britain: if Albion is a Christian country, then it has shrunk by as many as four million souls in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

While naked and clothed racists usually spotlight post-1965 immigration from Asia and Africa, implying that it threatens Anglo-Christian culture, there are other reasons for the apparent dwindling of the flock. The Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales noted recently that the nature of British Christianity and Christians has changed. In the past, the bishops pointed out, Christianity was both a ‘culture’ and a ‘religion.’ People who never went to church and gave no thought to the Gospel nevertheless claimed to be Christian. Christian identity was for them a loosely worn cultural cloak, made up of a family name and shared experiences: chapel attendance at school, nuns with canes, Sundays off, Christmas trees, knowing the words to a hymn or two, and having no particular objection to God saving the Queen. This is not necessarily what the Church of England means by Christian culture and history, but it is nevertheless a real cultural fabric, interwoven with Britishness. This fabric has become less meaningful in Britain: Christian identity is now asserted only by the true believers, i.e., the church-going Evangelical set.

Under the circumstances, the Christian element in Britishness recedes even if immigration by Muslims, Hindus and Rastafarians is discounted. Like much in 'British culture,' British Christianity has become American: a matter of personal faith (albeit with public claims), rather than a diffuse form of ethnicity, which is how religious identity functions elsewhere in the modern world. In India, for instance, ‘being Hindu’ does not require any particular belief, let alone a specific notion of heresy, and ‘being Muslim’ is entirely compatible with being agnostic. Nehru and Jinnah are the best examples among public figures, but the formulation is ubiquitous. The fact that Khushwant Singh wore a turban all his life never led anybody to doubt his fondness for whisky, but it did identify him as a Sikh. My being Hindu has almost nothing to do with the specifics of my views on God: it derives, rather, from the fact that I am familiar and comfortable with a ‘culture’ that includes language, stories, holidays and food. Its boundaries are neither precise nor fuzzy: they are functional, or adequate to the needs of dealing with other Indians of various religious affiliations. Not so with Americans, who tend to insist that since I assert a specific religious identity, I must have specific religious beliefs. (The major exceptions are Reform Jews, whose understanding of the connection between ethnicity and religion can be very South Asian.)

On the face of it, the Indian ‘system’ may seem to better fit anti-fundamentalist understandings of diversity and tolerance. That appearance can hardly be straightforward, since Indian voters are currently in the process of electing a distinctly intolerant man and his political cohort to form the next government. These are men and women who claim to represent the ‘Hindu majority,’ dismiss anti-Muslim pogroms with the metaphor of running over puppies (which is expected to evoke not horror or remorse, but nonchalance), and strategize openly about forcing Muslims out of ‘Hindu neighborhoods.’ A portion of this constituency is perhaps made up of Hindus of ‘faith.’ But a great many others are Hindus in the same way that I am Hindu: they belong to the cultural, rather than doctrinal, circle of religious identity. They are uninterested in my relationships with God, women or Scottish distillers, although connections with Muslims or Pakistanis are another matter. It could be argued that the Indian dynamic is in some ways the opposite of what has happened in Britain: a largely secular culture of Hinduness has expanded, become more stable in its content and its utility, and consolidated its claim upon national identity. ‘Believing’ Hindus – or fundamentalists – have become, if anything, even less relevant to questions of who-is-Hindu than when Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay (a believer and a conservative) and V.D. Savarkar (agnostic) downplayed belief in religious identity.

I am suggesting, here, that writers like Pankaj Mishra, who have pointed to the Semiticization of Hinduism since the nineteenth century – i.e., its transformation into a single, compact faith – and connected that streamlining to the rise of parties like the BJP, have got it slightly wrong. It is not that there was no streamlining of dogma. But that dogma is not especially relevant to the body politic. What matters more is the consolidation of cultures identified as Hindu, Muslim and Sikh, which can lend themselves as easily to the Congress or the CPI(M) as to the BJP or the Akali Dal. They are, in that sense, simultaneously secular and threats to secularism.

We thus have, on the one hand, an Anglo-American crisis of the secular state, in which the assertion of religious nationhood comes from an increasingly narrow community of believers and their allies among the racists and the cynical. On the other hand, we have a model of majoritarianism in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (Pakistan’s problems now fall in a different category), in which the comfortable fusion of culture, religious identity and nationhood threatens to eradicate marginal locations and identities wherever these might be found. The former is a whine (by the religiously identified) against history; the latter an expression of affinity with history, in which the alignment of culture, religion and nation-state constitutes a climax.

Is one worse than the other? Clearly, declarations of ‘Christian Britain’ and ‘Hindu India’ both raise the question of whether  a nation can  have an identity that is autonomous of the population. If nearly half the British population is not Christian, and Britain is nevertheless a ‘Christian country,’ it puts Britain in the position of a Balkan state like Kosovo, if not ‘Greater Israel.’ There must then be, openly or tacitly, a hierarchy of citizenships. Similarly, the Hindutwit vision of India leaves no doubt about the provisional status of non-Hindu citizens. But the Indian predicament is arguably more violent and oppressive than the British, because although India is officially secular and Britain is not, the Christians of ‘Christian Britain’ must negotiate politically with the heathens. In India, where there is no contradiction between being secular and being Hindu, the negotiation with Muslims is over, although negotiation within ‘Hindu society’ continues, and constitutes a part of the substance of Indian politics. (Which is one reason why India may not be declared Hindu rashtra anytime soon.) As late as the 1930s, Indian politics had a discourse of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity,’ which implied a political relationship between two substantial, if not numerically equal, entities. That discourse has been replaced entirely by the discourse of ‘communal harmony,’ which is essentially a rhetoric of law and order. The potential for fascism is accordingly greater.

All the same, I prefer the expansiveness of religious identity in South Asia. Religion is too rich to leave to the peddlers of dogma, and I generally find religious people to be less inclined than atheists to shallow cleverness. When I was fifteen, my mathematics teacher and high school tennis coach was a tough, slightly tragic Irishman named Dr. Waldron. He caught me reading James Joyce one day, which gave us a bond of sorts. I would ride in his car on the way to tennis practice. He didn’t care much that I had no talent for either tennis or math, and taught me a few things about Parnell and Irish-republican politics, and the right way to pronounce Sinn Fein. Dr. Waldron, I discovered, was a lapsed Jesuit. Having previously gone to a school where the Jesuit headmaster was impossibly remote, I seized the opportunity to interrogate one up close, curious not only about what was involved in being one, but what might be involved in leaving a very serious club. (Leaving serious clubs was relevant to an emigrant.) The ex-Jesuit did not, of course, go into the details of a crisis of faith with a teenager, suggesting only that a conflict had arisen between beliefs and allegiances. Pleased to have found a fellow-rebel, I blurted out that I was an atheist. Dr. Waldron was amused and less affirming than I had expected. “Ah, my atheist,” he chuckled affectionately, and changed the subject. God and church remained frustratingly unexamined, but I had a glimpse of the possibility that doubt can be nested within religion, even belief.

My teenage atheism has left a residue of tension. To put it bluntly, I recoil from displays of religiosity that are both personal and public: yarmulkes, puja tilaks, beards. (Sikh turbans are exempted.) But the secularism of the modern Indian, which I find I have retained, also makes publicly displayed religiosity legitimate. Besides, everyday life in New York City is based on accepting people you find annoying. The French insistence that public space be swept clean of religion strikes me as, well, fascist, not to mention discriminatory, because such a decisive separation of culture and religion is inevitably more hostile to some religions than to others. My ambivalence also has to do with how much – and what – information is conveyed by religious signs. Not all signs are as empty as a patka. Some are, or appear to be, texts of intolerance. A Hindu with a tilak on his forehead is possibly a Hindutwit who donates to the VHP and sees me as ‘pseudo-secular’ (which is the Hindu equivalent of a ‘self-hating Jew’). Skullcaps and beards suggest other politics of intolerance. Between the bushy-faced Pakistani cricketers of Inzamam’s generation and the clean-shaven ones of Imran Khan’s, I know which I might have a drink with. (Does Imran still drink? Not in public, I imagine.) But these texts are also easy to misread. The bearded batsman might be Hashim Amla: not exactly a fire-breathing fanatic. The guys with kippah might be Naturei Karta. And I do know Hindus who might enter a temple and leave with a tilak, but who are also totally opposed to the politics of Hindu domination.

April 23, 2014