Theresa May’s interventions in the so-called Easter-egg-gate, and her ‘Easter Message’, have been widely interpreted as nostalgic, benign, even bland messages of soft nationalism and caring Christianity. They were nothing of the sort. They were deliberately targeted at the kinds of people who will vote for her in the next election: old Tories and hard Brexiteers whose Christian credentials will vary from the devout to nominal.
Like the Roman emperor Constantine who presided over the 325 CE council of Christian leaders who determined when ‘Easter’ would fall (on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal or spring equinox) May knows the power of political discourse when it genuflects to popular ethno-religion. Constantine adopted the cult of Christianity and declared it should be allowed to be practised freely - for, historians, suggest, a complex mix of spiritual and militarily strategic reasons. May operates in a similar way - referencing both her personal faith and her claim that Christianity is the dominant characteristic of the country. And that means, it shouldn’t be messed with - not by dropping the ‘Easter’ from the name of a chocolate egg, or by persecuting ‘Christians’. Not ever, and certainly, for important political reasons, not now.
The reasons are more sociological than theological. As a BBC poll showed one quarter of people surveyed who identified themselves as Christian do not believe literally that Jesus Christ was raised from death three days after his crucifixion – which is, surprising, actually, when that is precisely what Easter is supposed to celebrate. As a Jewish friend once quipped to me: ‘Christianity is Judaism rebranded through the offer of eternal life’.
The same churches whose congregations swell from their weekly average of between 10 and 50 people to a few hundred on Christmas Eve are sparsely populated on Easter Sunday.
That didn’t stop Theresa May, or David Cameron before her, from pushing the claim that the UK ‘is a Christian country’. The UK population is as nominally religious as most of Europe, Canada and, increasingly, the United States. Most people who ticked the ‘Christian’ box on the national census are over 50, literally a dying breed. The most active Anglican Generation, women now in their 80s and 90s, are also dying out, and it does not seem there are others leaping into their role as fund-raisers, brass polishers and bakers for church lunches. The biggest increases are young people with ‘no religion’, not traditionally Conservative voters.
Theresa May’s real Easter message was a dog whistle to those people who will use religion to mark social boundaries in ways that exclude more than include. Whatever the occasional reference in her Easter message to ‘all faiths and none’ (as if non-religious people don’t have ‘faith’ in, let’s say, equal rights or social justice) the main message was clear: Christianity rules. But, it does so in subtle ways that sociologists may describe as ‘hegemonic’.
‘Hegemony’ refers to the kind of power that works because so-called ‘common sense’, or apparent universal characteristics are accepted as natural. All through her Easter message May dropped such hints, linking the apparent values of Christianity to everyone, as if everyone has a shared history.
We don’t. To whom, apart from British born and raised, was she referring to as sharing a ‘proud history’. She signals her own background, growing up in a vicarage, as the source of her values which, she says, are values shared by both Christians and those of other ‘faiths and none’.
They’re not. The Christian values of her generation opposed equality of women by barring women from the priesthood for decades and only recently permitting a woman to be a bishop. The Church of England bishops in the House of Lords oppose same-sex marriage legislation, a position widely out of step with the general population. Church of England state-funded schools are allowed to bar non-Christian students.
May and church leaders collude in shielding Christians from their bad acts, simply by not naming and shaming them. Both the Church of England and the Catholic church have permitted widespread sexual abuse – not a value most people of any faith share. The Churches and conservative media are selective in protecting the reputation of Christianity. For example, Norwegian Anders Breivik is not described by the media as a Christian terrorist, although he self-identified as a Christian and would-be protector of European Christianity. Is the slaughter of defenceless young people a value ‘we’ share? The Serb Christians who killed 8000 Muslim men and boys in 1995 are not described as Christian terrorists.
Further, May trotted out the faintly nauseating trope that Christians are afraid to speak of their faith. Undoubtedly many may say so they are, but that’s no reason to accept their complaints at face value. Certainly, Christians complain about their treatment more than others. In a detailed analysis of which religions featured most in media complaints, Stuart and Ahmed found that between 2000 and 2010, Christians comprised 67 per cent of complainers, Muslims 31 percent, and the other main religious groups less than 10 percent. Christians also participated in most (96 percent) of discrimination claims. Some of the most well-publicised claims, especially those that make it to the European Court of Human Rights, were backed by well-funded Christian organisations.
In a country where 26 seats are reserved in the unelected House of Lords for Christian Bishops, where state primary schools run by the Church of England are permitted to select students on the basis of their religion, where national state-funded radio daily broadcasts Christian church services and dominates Sundays with Christian religious programming we should call that complaint for what it is: the appropriation of victimisation as a strategy to further silence the marginalised in favour of the powerful. Hegemony in practice. And so, to the importance of the egg.
When the National Trust and Cadbury’s renamed their annual ‘Easter egg hunt as the ‘British’ egg hunt, May lashed out against them. Why? Because Easter is a ‘sacred’ time for those nominal and devout Christians on whom she will rely in the forthcoming election. It is ‘sacred’ in a classic Durkheimian sense of it being put aside, carved away from profane, or ordinary time. And, perhaps most importantly, ‘sacred’ because it represents what, as Durkheim would argue, is ultimately being worshipped and venerated: the dominant society. In this case, the ‘Christian country’. Us, not them.
Such a concept of a single, non-diverse shared past and future is a myth, and like most myths, operates to reassure an anxious population, especially as they recognise that they are in a ‘no-man’s land’, an intermediary state of neither being completely in or completely out of the structure they have known for most if not all of their lives; the EU. Anthropologists recognise that the in-between, the ‘liminal’ stage of a process of transformation is the most uncomfortable and dangerous.
By stressing the myth of shared culture and values, May was flicking the attention away from uncertainty and instability, appealing to the kind of nationalism described by Anderson nationalism as an ‘imagined community’, a fiction spun with threads of media stories about, predominantly, them and us. In this fiction, the borders will harden as the criteria for membership narrows. Outsiders, those without this ‘shared history’, will be marginalised, excluded, and, even hated. The rise of post-Brexit referendum hate crimes indicates the sense of legitimacy felt by the hard nationalists: foreigners are fair game now. Especially those who don’t have our shared, sacred history of Easter.
Abby Day is Reader of Race, Faith & Culture in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths.