British conservative Christians believe they are the victims of a “new political wave of cultural totalitarianism [that] is threatening the church.” Anglican Mainstream quote new examples on their website every day. Some examples:
This week police officers apparently told an open-air preacher in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, that it is a criminal offence to identify homosexuality as a sin.
An Australian blog repeated the three year old story that the Royal Navy has installed a satanist chapel in a warship to accommodate the proclivities of a satanist crew member or, as another report puts it, offered him space on board to carry out Satanic rituals. A correction had later issued been by Paul Docherty, the director of naval personnel responsible for diversity and equality issues in conjunction with the Catholic chaplain, but no-one was interested. This week’s story repeats the myth that Chris Cranmer became the first registered “Devil worshipper” in the armed forces three years ago.
Another report says the UK Government is pushing ahead with legislation that will criminalise politically incorrect jokes, with a maximum punishment of up to seven years’ prison.
In recent months, says the Anglican Mainstream report, innumerable people in schools, hospitals and other institutions have lost their jobs because of various religious scruples, often betrayed in private conversations and reported to authorities. The crime of one nurse was to offer to pray for a patient. A primary school receptionist whose five-year-old daughter was told off for talking about Jesus in class faces the sack for seeking support from her church when a private email to other members of the church asking for prayers fell into the hands of school authorities.
Mainstream thinks these incidents add up to a pretty clear picture, a campaign being waged by unelected or quasi-governmental bodies controlling various institutions which the Government surreptitiously helps drive and condone. Thought police with unprecedented powers to dictate ways of thinking sniff out heresy and there are harsh punishments for dissent.
Are these reports accurate and do they support the claim of conservative Christians that religious freedoms are being eroded? Changing Attitude has learnt to read news reports carefully and avoid rushing to simplistic judgements. There is some truth in the claims made by Anglican Mainstream and other groups. The freedom of Christians to do and say certain things is being legislated against.
Anglican Mainstream ignores uncomfortable truth that Christian freedoms have always been restricted in different ways by the State. Christians are not allowed to murder people. They are not allowed to incite murder. Yet Leviticus 20.13, one of the key passages quoted by conservatives in their campaign against homosexuality, says:
“If a man has intercourse with a man as with a woman, both commit an abomination. They must be put to death; their blood be on their own heads.” (REB)
Christians accept that they are quite rightly legally inhibited by the State from murdering even someone who commits an abomination. The current disagreement is not about whether the State is allowed to inhibit freedom of religious thought and expression – clearly it does. A much more complex argument is taking place about how and where it is appropriate for the State to intervene and determine what language and actions should be criminalised.
Conservative attitudes are partly responsible for ingredients of new equality and employment legislation. The State and a majority of people in our society have decided that the ideas held by some religious people are dangerous for our freedom and a threat to the common good.
For example, the campaign that creationism should be taught in schools alongside evolution raises fears that Christians are trying to overturn the scientific and rational basis on which the National Curriculum is based.
Conservative Christians are at risk of being perceived to belong in the same category as the BNP – people who wish to restrict basic freedoms and are homophobic – who stand against the good, positive and humane developments that we have benefitted from in our membership of the European Union. All this is arguable, but it is the view held about Christians by many in our society and one of many reasons why they have abandoned the church.
Wider society sees Christians as being hostile to the positive values enacted in legislation – there is a reality in people’s minds to the accusations of totalitarianism in Government, but Christians are also perceived to be totalitarian. The way Calvinist conservative Christians handle LGBT issues is deeply affecting the relationship between church and State and church and society.
The State is legislating against hate speech. One half of Leviticus 20.13 is clearly hate speech. The State with the support of the majority in our society is now extending protection from hate speech to LGBT people. The State thinks the ideas and language quoted by conservative Christians against LGBT practice (as they insist on describing it) is prejudicial to the well-being of lesbians and gays in our society. It believes such language should be proscribed.
The first half of Leviticus 20.13 falls within this category by using the word abomination in the context of men having intercourse with men. When language like this is used about gay people, it is possible to see what the outcomes are. It can exacerbate prejudice and lead to people being abused, violently attacked and murdered. It is hate speech and the government has decided it should be prosecuted to secure the safety and protection of LGBT people in our society.
Yes, the freedom of Christians to teach and preach certain things which some in the church believe to be “Biblical”, “traditional” and “orthodox” is being restricted. Changing Attitude believes this to be right.
(My thanks to the Revd David Page who contributed to the ideas explored in this post)