On why this small island is so very odd

By , 21 November 2008 9:22 pm

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


9 Responses to “On why this small island is so very odd”

  1. daniel says:

    “Canadians are somewhat different creatures”

    Very true. And it seems we’re well represented among your fans :)

  2. Christian Artists Ministry says:

    It’s been very interesting reading your thoughts on the differences between cultures, and it too has given me something to ponder. Being a mid-western American may categorize me initially as a certain person type, but I still consider myself my own free-thinking agent that must ultimately answer for my actions in life. Yes, I have many experiences that have shaped me – German heritage, friendships with other nationalities, and a multitude of life experiences which have resulted in various triumphs and failures.

    But in saying that, does my government speak for me? I do strongly believe in government, and feel that it is Biblically ordained. However, I also feel that government has become too relied upon as an institution with which to guide human direction. This is why I say that I am my own person. I’m an American, yes, and I am grateful to the land I live in. Perhaps I voted Republican, and feel that they are the political party that would best represent my values in the Government. But really, I answer to Jesus, and must try to live a life that would honor Him. I know I’ll have moments of triumph, moments of defeat, and moments of lethargic apathy. But when it counts, I hope I can stand strong for Him, and have the wisdom to know and ready myself for when that time approaches.

  3. Chris says:

    Thanks CAM for this insight. This leads me to meditate that (again perhaps because of our cramped space) Brits are much less individualistic than Americans. Or at least we are forced to show our differences verbally rather than in behaviour or lifestyle. This poses obvious problems for Christians.


  4. Christian Artists Ministry says:

    Well, I’d always assumed that the struggles between secularism and Christianity were for the most part, similar in the developed nations of the world. Here in the United States, Christians cover a pretty broad spectrum of theological stances. Not only do you have within the protestants (Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Christian, Baptist, and Non Denominationals), but you also have various factions within each. Baptists here for instance can be southern Baptist, Mainstream Baptist, Missionary Baptist, or Reformed Baptist. However, across the board it seems that Christian struggle (again, here in the states) with the prosperity gospel, word of faith movements, and misguided assumptions on end-times beliefs (which some have viewed has lead our nation more into a pessimistic outlook on the future, shifting somewhat after the Victorian era). It’s doubtless a bit of a mess, and gives me reason to wonder what Luther would think, or even the early church founders. But then again, Paul dealt with false teachings and misguided beliefs in the church – he stepped on toes, but the early church needed it. It grew through his God-inspired teachings, and flourished under persecution. Will something similar be necessary in our era to get us back on track?

    We are worried about the state of things, and where it might be headed. Many view with great skepticism what the media produces, as it has generally been thought to be populated with leftist intellectuals (I could hardly believe the comment of the reader who commented about being unaware of Obama’s policies, as the media was silent about them there). Only the small town newspapers seem to really report with any impartiality, as the big outlets are owned by a handful of wealthy capitalists. But there are many other avenues to get our facts, such as talk-radio, podcasts, blogs, and mail newsletters. So, hope that helps gain a little more perspective on the nature of things here. Hope some others weigh in on this too!

  5. Chris says:

    CAM, in all fairness I think the commentator who denied knowledge of Obama’s domestic policies was from the UK. They were not big news here.


  6. Christian Artists Ministry says:

    Chris, out of curiosity, what kind of coverage does your media give to abortion, same-sex marriage, or issues of religious tolerance? I’m Also curious how the Church there deals with these issues? Based on what I’ve understood so far, it would seem that Europeans are hesitant to stir the pot. Indeed, many Christian in America past and present aren’t excited by the prospect of introducing difficulty into their lives, and quite possibly contributed to creating the moral mess we’re in.

  7. Chris says:

    Hi CAM,

    In my own part of the UK (Wales) churchgoing is now down to 3% of the population. In other words, every active Christian in Wales could be put in our main rugby stadium. The situation in England is somewhat better but Christians are very peripheral in the UK. you can read 100 pages worth of the Saturday newspapers and get perhaps two lines of comment on Christian matters.

    In short, we could say what we like but very few people would take notice. And precisely because many churches are in ‘survival mode’ leaders tend not to be controversial.

    The one issue that the media have picked up is same-sex relationships where the church is generally depicted as being anti-gay and out of touch with biological reality.

    best wishes


  8. Catherine Brislee says:

    CAM, as I am the one who said I hadn’t read anything about Obama’s family policies in our media, may I answer part of your question?

    A big difference between our cultures is that abortion is not a publicly debated moral issue at all here. Nobody asks our politicians what their views are on this matter and it is not mentioned during elections. It isn’t considered a voting matter and the only time it appears in the media is as part of a report on American politics.

    I suspect this is a symptom of a tendency to put ‘moral issues’ into a box marked ‘private – nothing to do with politics’. Certainly when I vote I consider foreign policy and economics as the relevant issues. Of course this is a total illusion as they are all moral issues. Please don’t think I am saying Britain is right about this!

    And thank you, Chris! This is such a great site – constantly forcing me to think through my beliefs and preconceptions.

    With best wishes,

  9. Christian Artists Ministry says:

    Thank you to all who discussed in this topic (and to Chris for posting such thoughtful topics). It was extremely interesting to me, and has no doubt been a great benefit in positive understandings between different ways (though not always correct ways!) of thinking.

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