AUTHORGina Elliott Gina Elliott is a member of the class of 2013 in Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. Originally from Bronxville, New York, she participated in the Junior Year Abroad Network from London, England during the spring of 2012.
March 16, 2012
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
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Non-Christians are Fighting for Equal Representation in the UK
May 31, 2012 | 1 COMMENT
However, as Danielle points out, there is a contrast between this apparent religiosity and the actual role religion plays in the life of average Britons. While many Britons do continue to go to church, religious participation is much lower in the UK than in the United States, and plays a much smaller role in public life. Danielle points out a contrast I have always found interesting, which is that the religion of a politician plays little role in the United Kingdom, whereas American presidential candidates fall over themselves to prove their Christianity.
I am most interested, however, in how this religious foundation (but apparent lack of religiosity) interacts with immigrants to Britain, who are often bringing in their own religions and practices.
On the one hand, I learned in my law class at SOAS how immigrants are trying to work within, or fight against, a system that has evolved out of Judeo-Christian values. One guest lecturer for my class, Prakash Shah, explained how he felt Christianity runs throughout the English law system, and how this undermines non-Christians in both direct and indirect ways.
For example, in the uproar surrounding Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses there was an attempt to prosecute Rushdie for blasphemy against Islam. However, the House of Lords decided that the blasphemy laws in England apply only to Christianity. In an increasingly diverse country, this kind of discrepancy may prove problematic.
There are also issues involving acts that may seem obviously criminal to someone with a Judeo-Christian background, but not to someone from a different background. It is difficult to decide whether someone should always be judged based on the values of the country they are in, especially if their own cultural or religious background changes the meaning or intention of the act they committed.
Of course, Britain is not alone in facing these issues of legal plurality, but I found it interesting to compare the response there to that in the United States, where Christianity may have less of an official role, but nonetheless does underpin the foundations of our legal system as well. Furthermore, I think Britain’s response is interesting because those religious foundations do not seem as important to Britons today. Some Britons may find it hard to come to terms with the fact that their legal system is inherently Christian, when they themselves no longer identify as such.
Members of religions other than Christianity are therefore continuing to fight in Britain for a somewhat equal representation in society. For example, there is an ongoing discussion about state funding of “faith schools”—it was a long battle for Muslim faith schools to receive the kind of funding that Christian and Jewish schools receive, and this is still a contentious issue.
Furthermore, Britain’s Christian affiliation means that prayer is allowed (and commonplace) in state schools, and religious education is compulsory for many years. Although this worship is described as “non-denominational,” it is Christian, and, of course, parents cannot guaranteed that their religious education teacher will be of the same faith as their children.
Once again, this raises issues that are not as prominent in the United States—should parents be allowed to withdraw their children from school prayer or religious education if they feel it undermines their own teachings? This often seems to devolve into an argument of assimilation versus integration, with some Britons saying that these are British traditions that immigrants must adapt to, while immigrants ask that the schools themselves adapt.
An interesting facet of this debate, however, is that this Christian element of schooling seems to come more out of tradition than out of a contemporary sense of religiosity. I therefore wonder whether discomfort with non-Christians comes from their different religion or, rather, their greater religiosity in general. Religion has become very much a background issue in Britain, so that when certain groups, especially Muslims, visibly express their religion through dress, eating, or prayer practices, there is a backlash against a public display of religiosity in itself. While non-Christians feel that Christianity is pervasive in Britain, many apathetically Christian Britons may see marks of Christianity as cultural rather than religious, and therefore deny a need to include other religions as well. This mix of state religion with a not-very-religious population makes Britain an interesting study for how to incorporate immigrants, and their different religions, into a society.
RESPONSE TO GINA ELLIOTT FROM CHRISTINA MCBRIDE August 2, 2012
I am studying in Australia where there is also much less of a religious presence, notably in politics, than in the United States. I can relate to your comment stating, “religion of a politician plays little role in the United Kingdom, whereas American presidential candidates fall over themselves to prove their Christianity.” In Australia, minimal energy has been invested in public about the place of religion in secular society (certainly in comparison to the United States).
In contrast to the America, where religion plays a pivotal role in politics, the religious affiliations of leaders in Australia is not a matter of public record. This information is difficult to find and often involves searching through a variety of sources, from funeral records to previously attended denominational schools. The current Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, is an atheist. This serves as a stark contrast to the religious affiliations of former American presidents, with no president being atheist, or any non-Christian religion for that matter.