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British official warns of ‘militant secularism’

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This week Communities Secretary Eric Pickles condemned a High Court ruling that a town council in southwest England must stop holding prayers at the start of meetings.

"We are a Christian country," Pickles said.

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Traditionally, that is true. The Church of England is the country’s established church, with Queen Elizabeth II as its temporal head. Bishops help make laws as members of the House of Lords.

In the 2001 census — the last for which full results are available — just under 72 percent of people identified themselves as Christian. But most Britons are not regular churchgoers, and many see Christianity as a loose cultural identity rather than a strong faith.

Steven Fielding, a professor of politics at the University of Nottingham, said praising religion fitted with the moderate Cameron’s vision of a "Big Society" in which charities and community groups will take over some functions of the state.

"It’s also a useful issue," Fielding said, "to indicate to his backbenchers and those out there in Daily Telegraph-land" — readers of the conservative newspaper — "who question whether he is a true conservative."

But Fielding said religion was unlikely to reach U.S. levels of political importance in Britain.

"People like to think their leaders have got, in the same way they have, a vague belief in God, that they go to church occasionally," Fielding said. "But it’s potentially a divisive and dangerous issue if it’s taken to anything other than talking in generalities."

Associated Press writers Gregory Katz in London and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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