Friday, 21 November 2008

On why this small island is so very odd

It would seem self-evident that Americans (and here I mean inhabitants of the United States; Canadians are somewhat different creatures) and Brits are very close to each other. We share a common heritage, seem to have similar aspirations and (for the most part) possess a common language. It would seem equally self-evident that such links ought to be even closer between evangelicals. After all, we are all children of a heavenly kingdom and have a shared unity in Christ. Yet in my 30-odd years as a Christian I have come across frequent occasions where there has been substantial confusion and disappointment as both sides trip up over very real differences. One reason for these confrontations is something I touched on last week; each side misreads the other as being its mirror image when the reality is otherwise.

Now I promised that I would tackle the troubled issue of why British evangelicals are extremely uneasy with American Republicanism/conservatism. I cannot here explore all of this. Indeed today I want to simply point out some of the things that make Britain what it is. Now I am no social scientist and this is a fairly hastily constructed blog so please forgive me if I make some major oversimplifications. Equally can I make it absolutely plain that I’m not in the business of saying we Brits are better than Americans? All I am saying is that there are some very deep differences and it probably is a good idea for all sides to appreciate them.

Anyway let me suggest there are at least four major factors that make us different from Americans.

1) The British are fundamentally wary of radical politics, whether of the left or the right
One part of this is ecclesiastical and reflects the fact that the Church of England ended up occupying the uneasy middle ground between the Reformed and the Catholic churches. Another part is no doubt due to the fact that the fairly regular upheavals over on the continent (with the resultant dismal trickle of refugees arriving on our shores) have constantly reminded us that most political revolutions come with a very high price tag. We have been badly scared by (on the left) the notorious French Revolutionary experiment of the 18th century and (on the on the right) by Hitler’s rise and demise. The result is a deep cultural caution which generates the irony that in some ways we are actually more conservative than most US Republicans.

2) In the UK evangelicals do not possess any large-scale idealism
It is widely noted that when American Christians start becoming lyrical about their great schemes for the improvement of the world, bringing progress to all and ensuring global godliness, any Brits can generally be seen quietly tiptoeing out of the room. There are many reasons for this. One is that in the 17th century what we might class as biblical Christians did indeed have large-scale political aspirations and in a revolution undergirded by theology seized power in the English Civil War. Yet the Puritan Republic that was the Commonwealth was not a success and within 20 years Britain’s experiment with radical nonconformism was at an end. We have long memories and no one since has really wanted to repeat Cromwell’s great adventure. It is probably also true that at this point anyone with what we might today call a politically directed evangelicalism faith headed over to America. We lost our visionaries. The result is that in Britain evangelicals do not fantasise of building a city on a hill shedding light on a dark world. If we dream of anything, it is sitting round a warm fire with the curtains drawn while outside the storm rages. Indeed sometimes, far from dreaming, we are merely content not to have nightmares.

3) Our lack of space forces social survival strategies.
I think there are important issues to do with Britain’s small and rather overcrowded nature. In the States there has been until recently enough space that if you don’t get along with someone you could simply harness up the wagon and head west. We have no such luxury here. We have to coexist. I am convinced that this not just encourages us to seek toleration rather than confrontation but also to see things in terms of shades of grey rather than black and white. It may even be that the famous British humour is in fact a defence mechanism to handle the fact that we must live with those whom we dislike.

4) We are both somewhat weary and wary of Empire.
We have had our time as a global superpower; it was good while it lasted but we are still counting the cost in every sense. As with my comment on idealism, we hold no large-scale aspirations other than a) to survive and b) pay the bills.

These are generalities that I throw out as debating points. Next week I want to talk about some family news and then I will do my best to discuss more specifically some of the problems that we have with American republicanism. But I hope this has helped you understand a little bit where we come from.

Have a good week