Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Are Christians right to be Concerned?

There's no doubt what a persecuted Christian looks like. She looks like Aasia Bibi, the Pakistani mother who has been languishing in jail for 18 months after an altercation with neighbours led to her being accused of making uncomplimentary remarks about the prophet Mohammed, and who is now under sentence of death. The country's president would like to pardon her, but for the moment his hands are tied while fundamentalist mobs take to the streets demanding her execution. Indeed, were she to be released tomorrow it is likely that their bloodlust would soon be satisfied.

Her case is extreme, but far from being unprecedented. In many countries whose leaders cleave to the faith of Islam Christians labour under civil disabilities or more informal but pervasive types of discrimination. Or they may be tolerated so long as they do not try to fulfil the New Testament commandment to spread the gospet. And there are other countries, such as China and Russia, where Christians (and other religious people) who do not belong to particular state-sanctioned churches are looked upon by the authorities with considerable suspicion.

A campaign launched today seeks to convince us that British Christians are in a similar plight to that of Aasia Bibi. Backed by no less a Christian than Lord Carey, once the Archbishop of Canterbury (technically the most senior commoner in the land), Christian Concern have produced a pamphlet detailing alleged examples of "Christianophobia", most of which seem to have been culled from the pages of the Daily Mail. You may be familiar with the cases of Nadia Eweida, the British Airways check-in clerk who was banned from wearing a cross on duty, or Lillian Ladele, the registrar who declined to conduct same-sex civil partnership services. Or the Catholic adoption agencies who closed themselves down rather than submit to equalities legislation. Or the councils who every year think up creative new ways to avoid saying "Christmas". It all adds up to a deliberate attempt to sideline Christianity and oppress Christians, claims Christian Concern. Christians are being made to feel "ashamed", they say.

The main culprit in this wave of persecution is a conspiracy of liberal, politically-correct public employees, who are imagined as both actively engaged in a process of de-Christianisation in the service of an atheistic human-rights agenda, and craven, terrified of minority (especially Muslim and gay-rights) special interest groups. Either they are using the banner of diversity cynically as an opportunity to undermine the traditional British way of life, or they are gripped by a self-hatred and multiculturalist dogma that renders them powerless to defend the national culture. Or both.

The notion that Christians are suffering widespread persecution in Britain is paradoxical. There are, after all, thousands of Christian schools. Every hospital and regiment has its Christian chaplains. There are 26 Anglican bishops in the House of Lords. Most contributors to Thought for the Day, even now, are Christian. The uncritical enthusiasm with which the BBC - usually singled out as a hotbed of liberal anti-Christian political correctness - reported on the Pope's recent visit was striking.

But then the whole basis of Christian Concern is a paradox. On the one hand, they claim for Christians a minority status, which they need in order to prove that they are being discriminated against. At times, they seem to be advocating a new sort of identity politics, in which Christians (or just fundamentalist evangelical Christians) as a self-designated minority group demand rights and special privileges. The invention of the term "Christianophobia" (or sometimes "Christophobia" - they haven't quite worked out what to call it) speaks to this embrace of grievance culture. The analogy with "Islamophobia", coined as part of an Islamist political project to conflate valid questioning of religious attitudes with racism, is entirely deliberate.

And indeed, unless you believe the Census returns, Christians - committed, religiously active Christians - are a minority in Britain, though they remain comfortably the largest and most publicly prominent of our religious minorities. And Christian Concern represents only a minority of this minority. A glance at their website reveals a particular set of obsessions - abortion, opposition to gay rights, the supposed decline of marriage, the right to proselytise at work - that are clearly not those of the majority of Christians, let alone of society as a whole. Their main, unacknowledged struggle seems to be for control of British Christianity. In this, as in their authoritarian and somewhat paranoid outlook, they strangely resemble Islamists. And of course their call for more overt religiosity in public life runs counter to the long-standing British reluctance to talk too much about God.

On the other hand, Christian Concern claim to represent the historic national culture of the majority. They appear, indeed, to claim exclusive ownership of large parts of our national life, like Christmas, for their narrow brand of Christianity. And so when they (though not the religiously apathetic or tacitly humanist majority of their fellow-citizens) are inconvenienced or merely annoyed by some manifestation of political correctness, they assert that the whole country is the victim of anti-Christian persecution. Not only do they believe that society as a whole should reflect their particular set of prejudices, they seem genuinely confused when it does not. And angry: in some ways Christian Concern resembles the English Defence League at prayer. There is, for example, a section of their website devoted to warning about the threat of Islam.

Christian Concern seem to think that persecution is just another word for not being in charge.