Protecting religious liberty

I came across the other day a Guardian editorial which had the title “The Guardian view on religious liberty: Christians in the west have nothing to fear and the sub-title “Gay people do not threaten Christian freedoms. The law must command obedience but it should not compel opinions”. It is easy, and with some justification, to compartmentalize newspapers according to the views of the editors and, as far as the Guardian goes, it tends to be on the lines liberal with a radical, social edge and it has been that way ever since my student days when the right wing Telegraph was my newspaper of choice as opposed to the Guardian which many of my peers favoured. I find these days, though, when I do read what the papers say, I try to get a good balance and often welcome the contribution of the Guardian and such like for raising matters of importance I might not otherwise read about and challenging my own thinking.

Before responding to this article, and considering the critique offered by the Christian Institute, under the title: “Guardian claims Christian marginalisation ‘hysterical’, I felt I should first set out or rather recap on my own stall on the matter. As I commented in a recent blog, I enter the arena of debating conflicting ideas with reluctance, realizing how divisive and damaging the arguments that arise can be and how many, including Christian friends, see this as an unhelpful distraction. Yet I also feel it is necessary as freedom of conscience is such an important issue and, from a practical point of view, by forcing people to act against their conscience, the extent and significance of which the Guardian and the Christian Institute would be expected to disagree and have done so, could have deep and damaging consequences, for by clipping the wings of those who are most active in serving the poor and marginalized in our communities, this could mean a lot less good gets done.

As I pointed out to one friend, if Asher’s, the bakers from Northern Ireland, did not have to spend an inordinate amount of time, effort and money fighting a damaging court case to do with defending their right to refuse to provide a cake to a gay activist group in order to promote their activities, they could well spend that time doing what they would much rather do and which would benefit the community at large, such as helping out in homeless night shelters and food banks or going out as Street Pastors. The other point I should make is that while I concur with the observation that the threat to religious liberty is a lot less compared with the persecution Christians are experiencing these days in many parts of the world, it is still significant as something I shared recently:Punished for believing in traditional marriagepoignantly demonstrates.

Another thing I have reflected on before, which I recap here, is to do with the current societal consensus, or at least according to the elite that often drives these matters, on the importance of equal opportunities. In my early days as a community worker, I was exposed to the “equality agenda”, which up to then I hadn’t given much thought about but I came to realize was considered important by many of those I partnered with. The six main categories remain indelibly etched on my mind: race, gender, religion, disability, age and sexual orientation. While I think of all these age is the one we still need to make most progress on, I have seen great headway when it comes to race, gender, religion and disability not being matters that give rise to discrimination or prevent equality of opportunity. Sexual orientation is the most recent addition but in all these areas it might be rightly argued we have some way to go.

Obviously in order to understand the arguments of the Guardian and the counter-arguments of the Christian Institute, one needs to read for oneself what is said. I would say the main thrust of the Guardian’s argument is that there really is little threat to Christians in the West and Christians should not complain about being discriminated against, especially given their past role in discriminating against minorities, especially gay people. Moreover, they should not use their conscience as an excuse for carrying on discriminating but rather simply obey the law that is these days more enlightened when it comes to the treatment of minorities, and is the price we have to pay for living in a civilized society.

Perhaps the crux of the Christian Institute response is the statement: “The editorial seems to equate ‘civilised society’ to ‘endorsing homosexual relationships’. In so doing it seeks to devalue centuries of orthodox Christian thinking and entirely ignore the fact that Christianity has made arguably the biggest single contribution to the civilised society our country has enjoyed for hundreds of years. More than that, they ignore the fact that the principle of religious liberty, Christians being able to live out their faith in the public square, is vital for a truly civilised society.” While there are a number of philosophical points that lend themselves to debate, the CI argument seems to boil down to whether the recent shift in cultural norms whereby “gay” rights are now trumping “religious” rights is acceptable or not.

Having found myself in both the religious and anti-religious camps, I can quite see some of the polarized positions each have taken and why. As an archetypical non-conformist, I know all too well how important the NC conscience is. It is, after all, what led John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, to spend 12 years languishing in jail, given he refuse to stop preaching without a license. And not just NCs; Christians from all ends of the ecclesiological spectrum have literally given their lives because they have chosen not to sacrifice conscience for expediency. I also understand the concerns of gay folk and their friends that they can never know true equality if we allow them to be discriminated against or treated in an untoward way. It seems to me that at the heart of Britishness is the notion that people who see the world differently can peacefully co-exist. After all, if the Asher’s bakers had refused to serve people merely because they were gay they could and probably should be taken to task. To be asked to promote something they clearly disagree with is something else and it seems right that common sense should prevail.

Given that in a few days we will be asked to cast our vote on who will be running the country, this story remains significant. While religious liberty does not have a high priority among the many issues that are up for consideration for most people, it is important for me and as I have begun to discover for many of my fellow Christians too. As I have said before, being active in our communities is one way we can love our neighbor, and not being able to do so because of being marginalized for holding certain views out of good conscience is something I would want to challenge. While loathe to quote scripture out of context, it remains true that we should pray for our leaders and one of the reasons for doing so is so we can live quiet and peaceful lives, and that surely includes being free to practice our religion. While not endorsing any of the political parties, I understand why some Christians vote UKIP – for the very reason they would appear to be the party most likely to safeguard religious liberty and the other main parties less so.

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