An interesting exercise in differing perspectives today from Melanie Phillips, which moves from the resignation of the Bishop of Rochester to pursue missionary work overseas, through a number of slights and marginalisations of Christianity in public life through to this:
“With multiculturalism discriminating in favour of all who challenge the established values of this country, it would appear that it is Christians who have become the oppressed minority. “
It is worth remembering at this point that the head of state is also the head of the national branch of the Church, Christian religious leaders sit unelected in the second house of our legislature, the school system is predominantly a collection of Christian faith-based organisations, charity law allows tax breaks for organisations devoted to ‘advancement of religion’, our national broadcaster carries a weekly televised Christian service and Christian (and other religious) organisations have exemptions from various pieces of equality legislation allowing them to discriminate against people while still receiving public funds. For an oppressed minority, Christians do quite well for themselves.
So, how has Melanie got to the point where all the perks of Christianity are overlooked – what has generated this feeling of oppression?
“Yesterday, it was revealed that a Christian council worker was suspended for encouraging a terminally ill woman to turn to God. He says he was also told it was inappropriate to ‘talk about God’ with a client and that he should not even say ‘God bless’.
This follows the case of the nurse who was suspended for offering to pray for an elderly patient’s recovery, the Christian who lost her role on an adoption panel because she disapproved of gay adoption, and Christian adoption agencies which lost their public funding because they had the same approach.”
So, there seem to be a series of well publicised attacks on people merely for being Christian. It’s not quite Rome, but people are losing their livelihoods, merely for stating their faith. They might still have spiritual leaders in the Lords interfering with bills on science and health, but on the ground the secularists are winning.
Except, from another perspective, this isn’t what’s going on at all. The Christian council worker in question is accused by his employers of subjecting a woman who came to him to discuss her housing situation to an extended ‘religious rant’¹. Were this any other religion, or no religion, I’m not sure Melanie would feel as uncomfortable. If we give him the benefit of the doubt, and his comments were neither extended nor ranting, then rather than doing the job he was paid to do, he was proselytising, again something Melanie would probably feel less comfortable with were it on behalf of another god. Alternatively, imagine he weren’t proselytising at all, but suggesting an alternative remedy – would it be appropriate for a homelessness officer to suggest to a supplicant that they go home and eat goji berries because, even though the doctors say there’s no hope, you sometimes hear about people switching to the berries and pulling through? For a newspaper so often concerned by local government spending, the implicit claim that Wandsworth’s rate payers should be funding unqualified health advice with every housing consultation seems odd. The idea that someone should be considered persecuted because their employer expects them to do their job and leave their medical advice for after hours is equally strange.
In the case of the nurse, someone was sufficiently taken aback by her offer of prayer to complain about it – so Malanie is now asking us to accept that nurses should be allowed to make patients feel awkward and uncomfortable. The Christian who lost their job on the adoption panel did so because she wanted to base adoption not on the law or the scientific evidence which informed it, but on her private beliefs – Melanie is asking us to accept personal belief as a legitimate reason to ignore the rules which govern our jobs. The Christian adoption agency were allowed to continue to discriminate against couples on the basis of their private beliefs, but were no longer allowed to ask the taxpayer to fund that discrimination – Melanie is asking certain members of the community to happily stump up for someone else to persecute them.
In all of these cases, we can easily imagine the problems we would have were it not Christianity, but another set of private beliefs which were influencing the public behaviour. Were we to substitute racism in the adoption cases, for example. The issue is not, in this light, the persecution of Christianity, but the exclusion of certain private beliefs from the public sphere. It is not Christianity which is under attack, but the idea that private beliefs should influence your public duties.
In some ways, the confusion between the two is understandable – historically in this country, Christian private beliefs have coincided with public duties. When homosexuality was illegal on grounds of morality, the question of discrimination in adoption never arose. The problem Melanie is having is not that ‘multiculturalism [is] discriminating in favour of all who challenge the established values of this country’, but that not all the established views are universally held and that the acceptance of this necessarily implies a retreat of all private beliefs from the public sphere. The illusion that Christianity is being persecuted arises because Christian beliefs have further to retreat. This in no ways undermines her feeling that:
“Although most people may no longer be churchgoers, Christianity infuses all this country’s institutions, traditions and values.”
Even retreating to the private sphere, Christian values will still influence public life because the worthwhile ones are universal. Christianity does not have the monopoly on tolerance, decency and the Golden Rule². Christians will still be able to agree with laws based on equality and reciprocity of expected behaviour, and with institutions which foster the same. ‘Christianity’ will still be the basis for our public conduct and discourse, we will still indulge in ‘Christian behaviour’ in as far as that basis and that behaviour overlaps with ‘human’ behaviour. That basis and that behaviour will still tolerate the discussion of private beliefs which run against our desire for equality and justice in the appropriate fora, but will still believe that such fora are not the ones funded by the public.
Even when we’ve sorted the monarchy, and the Lords, and the education system, and the national broadcaster, and the charity law, and the opt-outs of equality legislation, Christianity will still have a place in public life. That place still won’t proselytising, or ignoring the law, at the taxpayer’s expense. That’s not oppression, that’s even-handedness, which the Christian god, among others, was all for³.
¹ I’m basing my comments on this on an article in the Telegraph – oddly, only they and the Mail appear to be carrying this story.
² It’s worth noting here that Melanie is discussing Christianity as if it were a uniform monolith – the brand of the faith that is failing to love homosexuals as they love themselves is arguably missing the point sufficiently to not merit the name and to allow that particular animosity into public life would be the failure to uphold true Christian values, not its exclusion.
³ Deut 10:17-18 – For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.