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What we can teach America about religion

Rishi Sunak after lighting candles for Diwali in Downing Street. Dan Kitwood/Getty

Britain’s politicians used to be less religious than the public, says Bagehot in The Economist. Clement Attlee, the postwar Labour PM, declared that he believed in “the ethics of Christianity” but not the “mumbo jumbo”. David Lloyd George, the Liberal leader, said “the thought of Heaven used to frighten me more than the thought of Hell”. These days, when only a minority (46%) in England and Wales are Christian and over a third are atheist, “the opposite applies”. Rishi Sunak is a devout Hindu and keeps a statue of Lord Ganesh on his desk in Downing Street. Boris Johnson has called himself a “very, very bad Christian”. If Keir Starmer wins the next election, he’ll be the first “avowedly atheist” PM for five decades.

Nevertheless, “religion in British politics is like nitrogen in air”: it’s everywhere, but inert. The UK has a religious constitution, “with church and state fused” rather than separated. In the House of Lords, you’ll find 26 Church of England bishops “debating everything from welfare to defence policy”. But politicians play down their own faiths, and rarely appeal to devout minorities for votes. Contrast this to America where, despite its secular constitution, religion infects politics, particularly in the case of evangelical Republicans. In Britain, religion permeates the mechanics of politics “to such an absurd degree it is hardly there at all. And so theocracy in theory becomes secular democracy in practice.”