When Christianity first appeared in the Roman Empire it aroused considerable suspicion, and sometimes alarm. Those irritating Christians refused to show allegiance to the emperor in the approved manner, by burning incense in front of his statue – even though the penalty for this ‘conscientious objection’ was some form of horrible death. They recognised a higher authority than the emperor – a king called Jesus (Acts 17:7). That made them automatically guilty of treason; the fact that they were dutiful citizens in all other respects counted for nothing.
In modern times we are, of course, much more tolerant. Did I say ‘much more’? Yet we feel the same rush of alarm when faced with the different value system of a certain group of people, and a very similar question arises: can a devout Muslim be truly British? Or does their overriding allegiance to Allah automatically make them enemies of everything our country stands for?
What shifted Christianity from being an unacceptable fringe cult to the official religion of the Roman Empire was of course the personal endorsement of the emperor Constantine. Christianity was taken under the wing of the state, and thereby ‘tamed’. This was achieved so effectively that long after the demise of the Roman Empire the head of the Church (the Pope) wielded considerable political power. So closely linked were church and state in people’s minds, that when the English church broke away from Rome under Henry VIII, it seemed perfectly natural to make the monarch the titular head of the Church of England (a situation that still pertains today). But not everyone was happy with this arrangement; the Catholics and the non-conformists refused to play along, and as a result were excluded from public office for centuries.
Over the last fifty years, as society has become progressively more secular, the old assumptions have been called into question. It is getting harder and harder to maintain the claim that Britain is a ‘Christian’ country, and the issue of allegiance rears its head whenever Christians are prosecuted for following their consciences rather than the rules of the government or of their employers. The uncomfortable fact is that our first loyalty is not to the Queen (lovely lady though she is) or to her elected representatives – but to Jesus, the King of kings. It may not be too far-fetched to imagine, in a few decades’ time, someone asking quite seriously the question: can a devout Christian be truly British?

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