Martin Hislop highlights intolerance in the public sphere

I baptised one of the sons of the now Baroness Vere of Norbiton and I have no reason to believe that she has departed from her affirmation of the credal statements during that service. I was, therefore, somewhat perplexed by her recent parliamentary answer on hate crimes. Lord Pearson of Rannoch, a UKIP peer, asked the government: ‘Will they confirm unequivocally that a Christian who says that Jesus is the only son of the one true God cannot be arrested for hate crime or any other offence, however much it may offend a Muslim or anyone of any other religion?’ In response to the question, government whip Baroness Vere of Norbiton said: ‘My Lords, I am not going to comment on that last question from the noble Lord.’ She added that the legal definition of ‘hate crime’ has been the same for the past 10 years.

I assumed that this response was in part because of the political establishment’s unwillingness to give any credence to UKIP. Far more significantly, however, it was because the civil service briefings to the noble baroness have a default position that when it comes to hate crimes it is all about protecting the religious sensibilities of anyone other than Christians.

The General Election threw into sharp relief the realities that confront a politician who seeks to be anything more than a closet Christian. The extent to which the hapless leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, was hounded by the media and the chattering classes merely reflects one aspect of how far mainstream Christian belief is barely tolerated in the body politic, and highlighted the double standards that apply when calling into question an MP’s faith.

In Australia the extraordinary plebiscite on same-sex marriage (or as the chattering classes insist ‘marriage equality’) also highlights how anyone even suggesting support for the traditional understanding of marriage held by most faith groups is held up to public ridicule, if not condemnation.

British political parties have a history of their leaders and activists identifying religious faith as an import motivation for, and underpinning of, their political agenda. The Welsh chapels and British non-conformist churches, together with the Anglo-Catholic missions in the inner cities, helped to forge the socialist manifesto of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries as much as the tablets of Marx and Engels. The tradition associated with William Temple took it for granted that faith required social as well as personal expression and the committed evangelical motivations of Lord Shaftesbury and the High Anglicanism of Lord Halifax helped encourage successive conservative administrations to enact sweeping social reforms.

Of course times have changed and the religious observance of politicians has merely reflected the changes in the faithfulness of the wider community. By the 1970s there was a widespread feeling that there was far too much politics in religion. A private piety detached from social and political issues had become very fashionable. Sir Winston Churchill famously remarked of his churchmanship and belief that is was ‘not a pillar of the Church but more of a flying buttress—I support it from the outside.’

But in recent years there has been a sea change in attitudes and the accepted place for religion (or at least the Judaeo-Christian traditions) in public life, have been increasingly marginalized if not denigrated or restricted. Writing in the Catholic Herald following Tim Farron’s resignation, Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, a doctor of moral theology, argued: ‘At no point has Mr Farron acted like a religious fundamentalist, as far as I can see, and advanced ideas in a way that relies exclusively on religious revelation. He may have said things in the past that people like Lord Paddick do not agree with, but why should people expect unanimity on such matters? Do those who have forced Mr Farron’s resignation wish to see some modern version of the Test Act introduced?’ In contrast the Guardian ran an opinion piece by Peter Ormerod headed ‘Tim Farron is so wrong—Christianity and progressive politics do go together.’ Farron’s error was to fail to embrace and proclaim the new inclusive equality agenda that manifests the new tyranny of relativity.

If Farron is right, and the state is no longer Christian-liberal and instead has become increasingly secular-authoritarian, then the state church no longer influences positively for Christianity. It must conform to secularism in order to stay at the high table, and in doing so must of necessity shed much of its Christian character and collude in the persecution of orthodox Christianity.

Bishop Dakin is even on record expressing misgivings over short-comings in the recent CofE document on bullying of ‘transgender’ children in schools:

‘What is not explained [in the document] is the Church of England’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Instead it’s acknowledged that there’s a range of views on marriage and gender… without the positive reiteration of the Church’s traditional teaching, the implication may be drawn that this teaching is linked to bullying behaviour.’ But even then Bishop Dakin seems much more diffident in commending biblical faith in Christ from the perspective of personal commitment. He prefers to say, more ‘objectively,’ what traditional Christians believe, and ends up pleading for a space for these people in a pluralist public sphere because of the good they might do rather than because of the truth of the message. Again, as a CofE bishop, he has to do this, mindful of the way his role has morphed from defender of the faith to being a kind of mediator of ‘a vision for social responsibility, for collaborating across differences… tolerance…  respect for others, an appreciation of difference… social cohesion… to create the conditions for a flourishing society.’

Back in the parliamentary sphere we have witnessed the outcry and condemnation that fell upon Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg when he articulated that his stance on such issues as abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage were determined by his adherence to the magisterium of the Roman Catholic church. The MP for North East Somerset told Good Morning Britain he remained opposed to same-sex marriage after voting against the passing of the historic legislation in 2013. Pressed on his views on same-sex marriage, Mr Rees-Mogg replied: ‘I’m a Catholic, I take the teaching of the Catholic church seriously. Marriage is a sacrament and the view of what marriage is is taken by the church, not Parliament.’ On abortion, he continued: ‘I am completely opposed to abortion… with same-sex marriage, that is something that people are doing for themselves. With abortion, that is what people are doing to the unborn child.’ However in the next breath he said: ‘I don’t want to criticise people who lead lives different to mine’ and nor did he advocate any legislative roll-back on the Abortion Act or same-sex marriage; he simply articulated his moral compass.

Nevertheless The Independent described his remarks as ‘incendiary’ and a chorus of condemnation for an MP holding let alone articulating such view was heard in the mainstream media. Suzanne Moore in the Guardian proclaimed: ‘As usual, Rees-Mogg’s religious faith is used to excuse his appalling bigotry. He is a Catholic and this kind of fundamentalism is always anti-women, but for some reason we are to respect it. I don’t. It has no place in public life.’ In fairness the Guardian did allow a letter to be published from a Jane Ghosh of Bristol which challenged Moore: ‘She mocks his beliefs as a Catholic. This is unacceptable. Many religions or sects are (sadly) anti-abortion or anti-gay marriage and at no point has Rees-Mogg suggested a change in the law. These are his personal beliefs. Islam has similar views but would you honestly attack a Muslim in these terms? I doubt it and I sincerely hope not. I don’t like many of his views but defend his right to hold them as long as he does not try to impose them on the rest of us.’ But the Guardian then followed up the attack on Rees-Mogg with a further comment article, this time by Zoe Williams, in which she argued that ‘what the pope should tell Jacob Rees-Mogg: “You ain’t no Catholic, bruv”’

Is it any wonder then that many MPs simply adopt the stance of closet Christians and fall into line with the attitude that religious beliefs may be held but not expressed, unless in the terms and tone of the agenda pursued by the secular-liberal mindset that now dominates todays academy, civil service and media?

Revd Martin Hislop is the Vicar of St Luke’s Kingston and has recently been appointed a Deputy Lord Lieutenant.