Civil Liberties

Announcing @HolyVote – it's time to reclaim our religious liberty


Apparently, the 2010 General election was the first internet election. And if not that one, it is this one. And if not this one, then it is still to come. The readiness is all.

We are increasingly putting our faith in social-media democracy and digitally-facilitated debate. Or many of us are. Certainly, minorities and pressure groups are, with some doing it rather well. So well, in fact, as to convey such a sense of unified mission on behalf of millions that they can summon a meeting with the Prime Minister with a single tweet. Remember Stephen Fry’s outrage that the United Kingdom should even consider participating in the Sochi Winter Olympics while Putin was “making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews“? A few tweets to stir his eight million Twitter followers and the Prime Minister came to meet him in an East End pub. Admittedly, there was no change of policy and no boycott, but when you have Twitter clout, you have access. When you can bypass the gatekeepers of power with the green card of social-media accreditation, you may contend face-to-face and plead your cause directly with presidents, princes and prime ministers.

Whether you’re Green, gay, black, Asian, Muslim, Jewish, feminist or disabled, a hierarchy of identity politics now buffets our political culture to secure certain advantages and make undoubted advances for your particular interest group. Community has become easier to manifest in the virtual. You no longer have to march down Whitehall to get noticed: a Facebook page with 250k ‘likes’ is often protest enough. Disparate advocacy groups on behalf of the marginalised, aggrieved, dispossessed and alienated have little to offer the seats of power – except votes.

It is often observed that the ‘Christian vote’ in the UK is ineffectual because it is fractious and fragmented. Unlike the culture wars in the United States – over issues like school prayer, embryology, homosexuality, contraception, abortion and pornography – there is no identifiable ‘Christian vote’ in the UK. When it comes to political engagement, British Christians agree about little and coalesce around less. Certainly, we care about the macro issues of poverty, injustice, liberty and salvation. But the godly ends that unify are subject to a plethora of human means which rupture fellowship and tear us apart.

But there is perhaps one issue upon which all Christians might agree – or most of us, which may still be eight million of us, which would be enough to summon the Prime Minister to a West End church. And that is the incremental erosion of religious liberty – the freedom not merely to worship in private, but to manifest the Christian faith in the public sphere. By encroaching upon the Christian conscience, and by coercing the believer to do that which he or she perceives to be a violation of God’s law, the secularising state has exceeded its limitations. It has simply exchanged one discrimination for another.

Christians are suspended for offering to pray with colleagues; disciplined for refusing to carry out an abortion; sacked for refusing to counsel same-sex couples; bankrupted for refusing hospitality to the unmarried; closed down for refusing same-sex adoption; and criminalised for refusing to bake a political cake advocating gay marriage. Anything that violates the inviolable ideology of absolute equality leads to harassment, humiliation or prosecution. You can even lose your job now if you are deemed guilty of a ‘hate crime’ for holding certain ethical beliefs, or of ‘hate speech’ if you dare to articulate a moral worldview (beliefs and views which are, incidentally, the official position of the Established Church and its Supreme Governor).

Who can guard against this? Who protects us?

Religious freedom ought to be a fundamental cause of visible Christian unity – for Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant non-conformists and all those who study the Word of God and seek to fellowship around what may deemed Christian orthodoxy and doctrinal tradition. It doesn’t matter if you’re a white Baptist, a brown Methodist or a black Pentecostalist, in this cause there is neither male nor female; black nor white; Protestant nor Roman Catholic; Socialist nor Tory. The Body of Christ may not agree where we put our crosses on the May 7th ballot papers, but we can surely agree that many of our politicians are no longer listening to our overriding concerns about Christian liberty and freedom of conscience.

So, for the time being, let us set aside our denominational differences, political partisanship and the host of social/moral issues which divide us. Let us even look beyond individual enmities or mutual loathing, and look for a moment at a single issue –liberty. Let’s not pretend that it will unite us in the loving depths of our souls or launch us into the political stratosphere, for that way lies disappointment, cynicism and disillusionment. But if the Roman Catholic Church can support the DUP to insert a legislative clause to craft out space for the Christian conscience, there is surely a mission to pursue.

@HolyVote is a campaign with one objective. It may become more, but for the moment it is focused on one. If Christian voters are to be heeded, we need to become a social-media movement, and if that movement is to be energised and effectual, it must be unified around a single cause. And there is no better or more worthwhile cause at the moment than the freedom to believe and to worship in spirit and in truth – to manifest Christ in every aspect of our lives, with integrity. If we are to live in a pluralist, liberal society, there must be the reasonable accommodation of difference.

So, let us begin here with @HolyVote. When we’ve reached eight million followers, we might just be able to meet with the Prime Minister and, having secured our freedoms at home, intercede more effectively for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and throughout the world.