England’s kulturkampf

Mr Buchanan’s history classes at Strode College forty years seem now to have been instilled with a prescience that could not have been imagined at the time. His teaching on how the authoritarian regimes of the 1930s developed through middle class disillusionment and working class alienation seems to have anticipated the unfolding of events in Europe eight years later. The lesson more easily missed was that on kulturkampf, the 19th Century struggle to separate the state from the influence of the church, the conflicts of 150 years ago are still relevant now.

Kulturkampf  was not the most exciting of subjects for an eighteen year old. The term originated with the culture struggle between the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the Roman Catholic church. The church was perceived as reactionary, an agent of the old regime, and antithetical to the building of new and modern nation states. The struggle for secularisation was to be repeated elsewhere in Europe, the separation of religion from public life was not achieved without bitter conflicts.

In England, there was no kulturkampf, the religious conflicts of the Sixteenth Century and the civil wars of the mid-Seventeenth Century had shaped the emergence of a country that was notionally Christian and nominally Church of England, but without any great conviction on religious matters, other than that there should not be too much religion. Anodyne Anglicanism sufficed for the purposes, whether it was a coronation or a state funeral, or a baptism, marriage or burial in a small village, there were poetic words and dignified ceremony.  “Not too much religion, vicar,” words alleged to have been said by a churchgoer to an incumbent, captured a sense of the religion-free religion preferred by most English people. The church was there when needed for rites of passage; there was no need to attend it and certainly no need to subscribe to its doctrines.

Religion-free religion was adequate until the present times when it is confronted with a vibrant Islam. Because England has never been a secular country in the way France has been, because it has always allowed the church a place in the national life, it has not felt able to declare that religion should be a private and personal matter without public manifestations. Whether perceived or real, there is a palpable sense of a threat from a religion which is very different from the gentle and antediluvian ways of the Church of England. The traditional attitudes of tolerance, of live and let live, are challenged by those who make exclusive claims and who impose patterns of behaviour and dress.

Perhaps England needs a kulturkampf, a separation of the state from all religion, an insistence that religious views are private and personal and cannot be imposed upon others – including others within one’s own family.  The spirit of toleration that emerged from the intolerance of the Seventeenth Century needs an intolerance of intolerance to defend it.



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