I referred in an earlier post to an excellent publication by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) entitled Faith in the Nation: Religion, identity and the public realm in Britain today. It was published last year and includes articles by leading religious leaders in the UK. In it Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor highlights the need for Christians (and other religious groups) to transcend their differences in order to counter the driving and intolerant forces of secular liberalism in Britain which proclaim as an absolute dogma that all views are acceptable in the public sphere except religious views.
This has been picked up with some vigour by the Archbishop of York in yesterday’s Daily Mail. Responding to a couple of recent high-profile cases of apparent ‘victimisation’ of Christians, he goes to town on the dominant liberalism in Britain that, when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular, just doesn’t ‘get it’. Read the comments under Sentamu’s article on the website and you’ll see how many others do not even begin to understand that their own assumptions about religion are flawed.
One essential problem is that the liberal secularists assume that their own worldview is neutral, whereas that of religious people is somehow dangerously loaded. Sentamu counters with: ‘Asking someone to leave their belief in God at the door of their workplace is akin to asking them to remove their skin colour before coming into the office. Faith in God is not an add-on or optional extra. For me, my trust in God is part of my DNA; it is central to who I am and defines my place in the world. It informs my whole life, not just a weekly service on a Sunday. It is the failure to grasp this basic understanding of what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ that lies at the heart of the problem …’
He then goes on to point out that ‘there is a deep irony at work here, and not simply because the first free schools and hospitals operating in this nation were run by the churches in our land. Those who display intolerance and ignorance, and would relegate the Christian faith to just another disposable lifestyle choice, argue that they operate in pursuit of policies based on the twin aims of ‘diversity and equality’. Yet in the minds of those charged with implementing such policies, ‘diversity’ apparently means every colour and creed except Christianity, the nominal religion of the white majority; and ‘equality’ seemingly excludes anyone, black or white, with a Christian belief in God.’
Sentamu then presses the question: ‘Of course, as a modern, forward-looking nation, we should be able to work and live together, black and white, male and female, without fear of harassment or indignity based on gender, ethnicity or disability. However, such policies also rightly point to the fact that neither should a person’s religion be the basis upon which they are subjected to any prejudice. Why then, while our children are encouraged to celebrate the religious festivals of all the major faiths, are there those in public office who seem to be ignorant of how this country’s established religion gave birth to this nation?’
This is an interesting point. During the attempt to produce a new European Constitution there was a battle over the removal from any script of any mention or acknowledgment of the Christian history of Europe. Yet Europe cannot be understood in any way without an intelligent understanding of its Christian history – for both good and ill.
I put this point to Richard Dawkins in a live TV discussion and he agreed, noting that you can’t understand art or literature without knowing the Bible or learning some theology and Christian history. Yet there are those who, seemingly for ideological reasons, cannot admit this for fear that to admit a history is to agree with what formed it. This is patently absurd. (And we saw a similar phenomenon recently on the publication of the Children’s Society report A Good Childhood when a number of commentators could not bear to draw the obvious conclusions from the evidence base on the grounds that to do so would mean them having to change their mind about their own prejudices in respect of morality, lifestyle, parenting, etc.. So much for ‘intelligent liberalism’ over against ‘illiberal religion’.)
Professor Michael Kenny, in his excellent and helpful Conclusion to the IPPR publication, draws attention to the danger of regarding faiths as static phenomena rather than changing and mutating organisms. He says: ‘…there is a danger in open, mobile and dynamic societies that we promote and institutionalise too static and fixed an idea of national identity and culture. A more appropriate understanding of national identity in a society like Britain needs to allow room for a sense of the complex interweaving of indigenous and newer traditions and the establishment of important cultural hybrids that permit individuals to experience their sense of religiosity as nested within a broader sense of national belonging.’
He then goes on to observe that we must take a longer-term view of such healthy social developments: ‘Such an approach faces a major challenge from the rigid and dichotomous polarisation that afflicts debate about migration, citizenship and religion in Britain. In response to this frozen discourse, we need to reach beyond familiar orthodoxies about the need to separate faith and the public realm and lazy caricatures about the harms associated with religious practice. Such a shift of perspective is particularly overdue among political ‘progressives’, many of whom still take their bearings from the secularist ambition of removing religion from state and public square, and the unquestioned premise that religious belief is only ever a source of division within the body politic… There is an overwhelming need in the UK for consideration of which kind of model is now most appropriate as a template for the regulation of the secular public sphere, and for the development of law and policy in the context of religious diversification.’
Kenny then makes a statement that should be blindingly obvious, but lies at the heart of the frustration articulated by the Archbishop of York and others: ‘A faith-sensitive approach should not be regarded as necessarily a faith-sympathetic one.’ In other words, you don’t have to agree with a Christian worldview to acknowledge that it is no more loaded and no less neutral than that of the secular humanist.
Sentamu ends his piece with a bit of bluff-calling. Those who moan about the situation facing Christians such as the praying nurse and the emailing school secretary should put their body where their words are and re-engage with the worshipping communities we call local churches:
‘For the millions of people in this country who profess a trust in God, these recent stories represent not only an insult to their common sensibility but also a sign of a growing gap between the mindset of the governing and the governed. The requirement of common consent that underpins any operation of the democratic contract is being placed under strain by those who, with the best of motives, are making the worst of mistakes. My challenge, then, to the 72 per cent of this nation who marked themselves as ‘Christian’ in response to the census of 2001 is that if they wish to safeguard that same Christian tradition, they must renew their faith and become actively involved in their local church. For those who despair at the treatment meted out to these Christian women, the message is clear: wake up, Christian England!’