Freedom of Religion

Will Theresa May restore religious liberty by adopting reasonable accommodation?

Theresa May is an Anglican, and her faith appears to be sound and secure (ie, it doesn’t fade in and out like Magic FM in the Chilterns). A few articles have pondered the precise cut of her Christian jib: Giles Fraser was first off the mark, with a tender dissection of her High Church upbringing, with its “unflashy service, community, warts and all, and personal sacrifice”. For him, she is the real thing: “her faith feels entirely convincing to me,” he observes. More discursively, not to say vaguely, James Macintyre talks of her being “a quiet Christian from the heart of middle England”. That tells you a lot. Then there’s Harriet Sherwood‘s churning of everything we already knew, garnished with a quote from ubiquitous Anglisceptic Linda Woodhead: “She is a genuinely devout Anglican, and has real convictions about the common good, duty, service – those traditional Anglo-Catholic virtues.” And then there’s Theo Hobson, the Speccie‘s resident disestablishmentarianist, who is reassured that the Prime Minister is “a good, solid, unashamed, unflashy Anglican, whose allegiance has not wavered since childhood”. It isn’t clear how exactly he knows this. Perhaps he judges whole lives by stony faces and determined inflections:

But when she actually says anything about her faith, she doesn’t come across very well. She sounds nervous of saying the wrong thing, which is fair enough, as horrid bloggers are waiting to pick and sneer at her words.

And so he proceeds to pick and sneer at her words, referring to her “dry sociological comment”; of sounding “slightly ungracious”; being “a bit of a moaner”; and of making Christianity “sound rather grim and joyless”. He muses: “Perhaps she has been badly advised to sound coldly dutiful if asked about religion.” This is precisely the sort of picky, sneery thing that really horrid bloggers say, made all the more sneery because it impugns the faith of her adviser Jonathan Hellewell LVO, whom the Catholic Herald notes is “the first SPAD with a faith brief to work directly for a PM”. Yes, Theresa May cares so much about matters of religion and belief that she has appointed an eminently qualified and knowledgeable Christian to guide her in these matters: “Intensely religiously literate, he is politically astute, organisationally effective, discreet and senior.” But, for Theo Hobson, the advice amounts to having to sound “coldly dutiful”. He probably thinks that’s clever, but it is simply cynical picking and sneering at someone who doesn’t express their Anglican faith with such happy-clappy disestablishmentarianst zeal as he does. The CofE is a broad church, Theo, and some Christians are serious about their faith and the mission of their church. They can’t help it.

And then the National Secular Society chipped in, lecturing the Prime Minister not to “abuse her position to promote Christianity” after she mentioned to The Sunday Times that her faith has helped shape her outlook. Funny, isn’t it, how extremist secularists twist a sincere expression of Christian faith to some sort of abuse of others. She shouldn’t “impose” her views on secular society at large, they bark, when all she said is that her faith helps her to cope with difficult decisions. “It’s about, ‘Are you doing the right thing?’,” she explained. “If you know you are doing the right thing, you have the confidence, the energy to go and deliver that right message.”

When journalist sounded “moral” (God forbid), the Prime Minister added: “I suppose there is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do. Ultimately, if you’ve (looked at the evidence) and you believe it’s the right thing to do , then you should go and do it — but sometimes it is difficult.”

Only an extremist secularist or hard logical positivist could find fault with that. Cue Stephen Evans, the NSS campaigns director, who duly protested:

“Many people lean on their faith during trying times and it’s no surprise that Theresa May is no different. However, the Prime Minister would do well to remember that she governs on behalf of everyone, including those of minority faiths and of course the majority of citizens who are not religious. While it is fine for Theresa May to have a faith, what she mustn’t do is abuse her position to promote Christianity or impose her own religious values on others.”

The level of religious illiteracy here – and specifically the ignorance of the role of the Established Church and the expression of Anglican Christianity – is astonishing. And so is the sheer illogicality, not to say unreasonableness of his pomposity. “While it is fine for Theresa May to have a faith..” How unutterably generous of him. But, tell us, Mr Evans (for we Christians are manifestly a bit dim), how exactly may the Prime Minister ever mention her faith without promoting it? And may she not do so without you policing her discourse and warning her of the boundaries (according to you)? Is the mere mention of Christianity an “abuse” of her position? If not, when does it become abuse? As Prime Minister, doesn’t every law she advocates and initiates constitute in some part the imposition of her values – values which stem from her Christian faith? She said quite unashamedly: “I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.” How do you distinguish her “religious values” from what you would (presumably) call secular ones? Is it that feeding the poor and housing the homeless are ‘secular’ values because you happen to agree with them, but (say) permitting religious bodies the freedom not to perform same-sex weddings is a religious value because you disagree with it?

What about the freedom not to bake a cake with a political slogan? Is that a religious value or a secular one? Does it depend if the slogan is religious? What if it’s religiously political, or politically religious?

Does the National Secular Society not understand that Christians are called to walk in spirit and in truth, and that Theresa May doesn’t reserve her faith for Sundays? Why shouldn’t religious belief play a part in the political process?

For the NSS, of course, faith is corrosive of reason: all faith is poison and all faiths are part of the same delusion. They belong in the home and in the privacy of places of worship. They should find no expression at all in the public sphere.

At PMQs last week Theresa May was asked a question by Fiona Bruce MP:

Comments this week by the equalities commissioners about not being worried about talking about Christmas at work were important, because many Christians are now worried, even fearful, about mentioning their faith in public. Will the Prime Minister therefore join me in welcoming the recent Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship publication “Speak Up!”, which confirms that in our country the legal rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech to speak about one’s faith responsibly, respectfully and without fear are as strong today as ever?

To which the Prime Minister responded:

My hon. Friend raises an important issue which matters both to her and me. I think the phrase that was used by the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship was “the jealously guarded principle” of that ability to speak freely, as she says, respectfully and responsibly about one’s religion. I am happy to welcome the publication of this report and its findings. Of course, we are now into the season of Advent. We have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech, and our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of. I am sure we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith, and also feel able to speak quite freely about Christmas.

Her response received both praise and sneery criticism. The Telegraph ran with “Christians should not fear..”, while the Independent accused her of “dog-whistle tactics”:

After telling the media that it was God who was guiding her plans for Brexit during the weekend, it was perhaps unsurprising that the Prime Minister spoke passionately on the issue of religious – or, to put it more specifically, Christian – freedoms. But rather than paying lip service to her dedication to Jesus, perhaps she should step out into the country and consult the people being hurt by her Government’s economic incompetence and tragic mismanagement of the NHS. Perhaps, after all, that’s the more Christian thing to do.

What are ‘Christian’ freedoms? How do these differ from religious freedoms? The problem (of which the Prime Minister doesn’t appear to be aware) is that it’s perfectly in order for Christians to talk about tinsel of their faith: it is very hard – if not impossible in the public sector – to express a personal opinion on Christian morality, especially sexual morality, or the sanctity of the nuclear family, or Holy Matrimony, without being labelled a ‘bigot’ or a ‘phobe’ and summarily disciplined or sacked. And don’t, whatever you do, convey the impression that salvation is found in Jesus alone, because that’s just racist.

“I am sure we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith,” says the Prime Minister.

Tell that to Daniel and Amy McArthur of Asher’s Bakery, for whom the Christian faith is not simply a matter of speaking, but being. What freedom is it if one may speak about the Christian faith but not live it; if one may talk about truth but not walk in it?

Enter Res Publica and their report ‘Beyond Belief: Defending religious liberty through the British Bill of Rights‘:

Beyond Belief argues that in a climate of fear and distrust of religion, more needs to be done to protect the freedoms of people of faith, and the best way to do this is to press ahead with a British Bill of Rights and include the freedom to express religious belief within it. It is vital that the Government urgently introduces legislation that supports and protects religious beliefs and practices, and the new British Bill of Rights offers a rare opportunity to achieve this goal. ResPublica believes that it should be used to introduce a principle of ‘reasonable accommodation’ into the law. This would better balance the deep-held religious beliefs of certain elements of society with other interest groups, and ensure that all religions and belief systems can feel respected and protected in the eyes of the law.

Is ‘reasonable accommodation’ a religious value or a secular one? Best not ask the NSS: they’ll just say it’s a cloak for homophobic bigotry. Of course, the principle already exists in law: Roman Catholic doctors aren’t obliged to carry out abortions; turbaned Sikhs aren’t obliged to wear crash helmets, and so on. Why should employers be able to compel employees to behave in ways that would unreasonably (don’t ignore that word) contradict their sincerely held religious beliefs? What manner of legal reasonableness is it which coerces bakers to make cakes promoting vice, crime, sin or evil? Might Theresa May adopt the utterly reasonable proposal of reasonable accommodation, or will she shuffle sideways for fear of offending the National Secular Society and Gay Rights lobby and Equalities industry who are all waiting, with Theo Hobson, to pick and sneer at her words?

Will Theresa May restore religious liberty to the extent that Christians may once again follow their consciences, even at the cost of displeasing those who believe that Caesar trumps God and rationality must coerce the world of faith? May they not coexist and complement one another? We’re not talking about religious or secular extremism, but moderation; a genuinely reasonable balance between the power of the law and the rights of those who are subject to it. Might we at least have a civil discourse about the Christian ethical foundations which shed light on the moral principles underpinning the proposal for reasonable accommodation, without nasty journalists waiting to pick and sneer at our words, and secular lobbyists shunting our faith off to the private sphere under the guise of tolerance and the elimination of discrimination?