Since Sayeeda Warsi left the Government, the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP has assumed direct responsibility for matters of faith. They were, of course, always under the aegis as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. But Baroness Warsi had a habit of inclining the narrative toward her own limited cultural understanding of Christianity and her aggressive assertion of “true Islam”. One tired of her tendency to respond to critics with veiled allusions to ‘Islamophobia’. She invariably mocked those who exposed the paucity of her theological understanding, and was seemingly more obsessed with Sharia finance than understanding the true nature if the religio-political war we are in.
Not so Eric Pickles, whose voice today in the Telegraph is really quite clear: “The fight against intolerance begins at home,” he writes.
This summer, we have seen Christians being systematically persecuted and murdered in the Middle East; anti-Semitic attacks and protests soaring in response to the Israeli government’s intervention in Gaza; institutionalised political correctness leading to appalling sexual abuse against children by Pakistani Muslims; and murders carried out by Isil terrorists who may have included Britons indoctrinated to preach evil at home and enact it abroad.
Thank you, Mr Pickles. You won’t win “the ethnic vote” by singling out “Pakistani Muslims”, but you do a great service to truth by not euphemistically shrouding the evil beneath “Asian” or “of Pakistani heritage”. He continues:
The common theme is the politics of division and hate: attitudes and mantras that seek to divide rather than unite. Aggressive secularists would advocate the suppression of religion in the public sphere. Yet this would only perpetuate the message of intolerance towards others. Religion is the not the problem – political and religious extremism is.
The common theme? Well, here he becomes a little discursive, if not deflective. The common theme is indeed “the politics of division and hate: attitudes and mantras that seek to divide rather than unite”, but we are not taking about the Elim Pentecostalists. The problem is “Islamism”, which some call “political Islam”, which rather too many call “true Islam”. Religion is the problem when its precepts may exhort division and its founder inspire hate. It’s not Moses we’re talking about, or Jesus, or Buddha, or Krishna, or Guru Nanak. Religion that seeks peace, proclaims love and expresses compassion is true religion. But truth itself divides, and not all division stems from hate. But the Secretary of State is absolutely right that:
The best response is to champion the British values that define our country, many of which are founded in faith. At heart, we are a Christian nation – from the Established Church in England, to the language of the King James Bible, deeply woven into the fabric of our culture. But most important, we are a place of justice and tolerance towards others. Our defence of freedom, the rule of law and the evolution of our democracy have all grown from the seedbed of faith.
And he takes up the historic theme of the Bishop of Leeds:
This is why Britain has long been a safe haven for persecuted people. Whether French Protestants during the Wars of Religion in the 17th century, European Jews fleeing Nazism, or Bosnian Muslims following the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Expanding it to the evolution of religious liberty:
Our Christian values have helped us to identify and rectify our own prejudices and injustices: the 1689 Act of Toleration that protected nonconformists, the Catholic emancipation of the 19th century, or William Wilberforce’s tireless campaign against slavery. For centuries, these ideals have been the salt and light of the nation, illuminating our international reputation as a just and tolerant country.
For centuries, these ideals were indeed salt and light in the world. Sadly, that is no longer the case. This Government has long prioritised matters of sexuality over religious liberty, as though adherence to the will of the penis were preeminent over the freedoms of belief, religion and worship.
While government has an important role in defending religious liberties, responsibility also lies with us as individuals: the personal belief that discrimination and persecution is wrong and should not be tolerated.
But a government which conflates freedom of worship with freedom of religion is not one which can effectively defend religious liberties. The distinction was neatly summarised by Mats Tunehag, who observed: “Freedom of religion includes the right to have a faith, to manifest it and propagate for it, alone or together with others, also in the public arena. It also gives the right to change beliefs and religious affiliation. This is what democracies would adhere to. Freedom of worship is a definition practiced (sic) in countries influenced by Islam. You may be allowed to be a Christian, but you mustn’t take it into the public arena or share your faith with others. If you are a Muslim you are free to be a Muslim and display it publically (sic) but you can’t leave Islam.”
A shift from ‘freedom of religion’ to ‘freedom of worship’ moves the narrative from being ‘in the world’ to the physical confines of a church, temple, synagogue or mosque. It is disconcerting that the new state orthodoxy of religion – for which David Cameron is as culpable as Tony Blair – is defined in terms of a Kantian notion of inviolable rights, as though the Platonic Forms and Aristotelian Virtues constitute no part of our syncretised conception of Christianity. Freedom of worship is meaningless for the Christian if it may not be performed in spirit and in truth; if it may not be the result of vibrant, living relationship with the Lord; if it may not sear the conscience daily on the life-long journey of faith. Mr Pickles continues:
Sadly, there is a worrying rise in the number of people who seem to think these ideals are optional. Take the thuggish invasions of several mosques following the murder of Lee Rigby by the modern-day blackshirts of “Britain First”. These were vile attacks not only against law-abiding Muslims who want to live in peace, but an attack on the freedom of religion of every citizen.
Some who frequent this blog would do well to consider this truth, for the occasional comment veers uncomfortably close to the very “cleansing” being meted out upon minorities by the Islamic State. His Grace would far rather fellowship with peaceable, law-abiding Muslims than any fascist assertion of liberty wrapped up in the façade of patriotism. If religious liberty means anything, it is the right to believe, live and worship as your god requires. This is guaranteed by the Anglican Settlement under the Supreme Governor who is Head of State. It is the English way. It has not always been so, but it has become so.
Those who commit hate crimes should be punished with the full force of the law. But private institutions and individuals must stand up and defend others’ liberties, too. In response to anti-Israeli yobs picketing the Holborn branch of Sainsbury’s, the branch manager cleared the shelves of Kosher food. Sainsbury’s corporate reaction was to apologise for the “inconvenience”. Yet this was clear anti-Semitism by the yobs and a lamentable response from Sainsbury’s.
Whatever one’s view about the politics of Israel and Gaza, everyone who believes in British liberty should stand up for the Jewish community’s right to practise their faith and go about their lives without fear. A cursory glance at European history shows the worst atrocities can begin with turning a blind eye to seemingly small acts of discrimination.
Freedom of speech and freedom of religion go hand in hand – but both should operate within the law. Britain has a broad and generous vision of citizenship. It is important that we all take responsibility for defending it. The first is by standing up to the overt and noisy bullies. Second is constant vigilance against the sly pedlars of hatred whose crude prejudices masquerade as religious piety. Jesus recognised this risk when he warned us to “watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” One of the foundations of the Church of England was its “via media” – or middle way between religious hotheads. These guiding principles of the English Reformation should help us as we grapple with the religious politics and tensions of the 21st century.
Read that carefully, and read it again and again. When over recent decades have you heard a senior politician – indeed, a member of the Cabinet- exhort the virtues of the Anglican via media or appeal to the guiding principles of the English Reformation? Indeed, when have your heard a bishop do so? If we cannot learn the lessons of the 16th century, we are indeed doomed to repeat them in the 21st.
It has been easy this summer to feel pessimistic about the consequences of violent events erupting across the world, and worry about them being echoed here. That’s why we must all rally and support our hard-fought British values – tolerance, freedom and the rule of law.
This can happen in many ways – from the Jewish and Muslim groups issuing an unprecedented joint statement last week condemning anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred, to the 77-year-old nun who got out a step ladder to take down the jihadi flag flying over her Tower Hamlets housing estate.
But government can only do so much. The state governs by consent, not coercion. Every law-abiding Briton across class, colour and creed needs to stand up for the liberties that continue to define our nation.
You may despise Eric Pickles’ politics; you may doubt his integrity or question his motives. But you cannot fault his determination or boldness in the assertion of British values. With the departure of Michael Gove from the Cabinet, he alone grasps the evil of Islamism, and he alone comprehends the significance of the Christian foundations of our laws, liberties and customs. So, please don’t censure of condemn harshly. Instead, if you find his grasp of the Faith inadequate, his theology flawed or his spirituality weak, correct him in love, encourage him and pray for him (Rom 14:1; 1Cor 3:2; 1Thess 5:14).