Whither freedom of expression in public life?

In a story published by the Guardian, Lady Warsi has attacked what she describes as ‘militant secularisation’ which ‘demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities’. She has also called for Christianity to be given a central role in public life arguing that ‘intolerant secularisation has to be held back by reaffirming the religious foundations on which our societies are built’.


This is indeed a thoroughly bizarre situation. A Muslim calling for greater Christian influence in public life, a right-winger championing freedom of religion and religious expression – historically a major driver on the left (see ‘Right-Wing Evangelicalism has forgotten it’s heritage), and this writer in broad agreement with a Tory! Of course, all this has been prompted by a delegation taking a jolly to the Vatican. In light of Pope Benedict XVI’s comments regarding the onward march of secularism and more recent press stories concerning the perceived purge of religious expression from public life, Lady Warsi’s statement is perhaps not so surprising. Nevertheless, for those on either side of the non/believing debate, her comments are no doubt pertinent.


I am only in broad agreement with Lady Warsi. I concur that a militant secularisation undoubtedly exists which hopes to expunge any form of religious expression from the public sphere. Organisations such as the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association make no bones about such desires. It is patently absurd, as these groups claim, that secularisation is unbiased – it is the non-believers theocracy. It allows Atheists to bring their religious convictions to boot on matters of public life – the positive affirmation that there is no God is a religious conviction – whilst refusing convinced believers the same courtesy. Indeed, whilst believers hold many views about society and law which are informed by their religious convictions, so too the affirmation that there is no God will have an outworking in one’s view of public policy. To pretend otherwise is quite frankly disingenuous. So, I fully accept Lady Warsi’s premise and agree that free expression of religion, from whatever background or culture they emerge, should be allowed to continue in public life.


Nevertheless, I am not fully on board with Lady Warsi’s comments. She argues that we must counteract this secularism by reaffirming the religious values inherent in Britain’s history and culture. However, I simply do not agree for exactly the same reason as my disinclination toward complete secularisation. I find the installation of a Christian theocracy little more palatable  (though, as a Christian, I would no doubt find it a little more palatable) than the alternative non-believers charter. Whilst we may once have been a “Christian Country”, a claim which I believe caused much damage (1), we almost certainly cannot be considered such today. No doubt many would argue that we must use some basis for enacting laws and Christian values are as good as any. This is an assessment with which I disagree (for my thoughts on this see ‘Should Christians try to bring biblical law into civil society‘).


I would contend, like Lady Warsi, that individuals should be free to express their religion in the public sphere. I would also agree that complete secularisation is not a means by which all people are considered equal. This view circumvents the reality that religious conviction – whether belief or non-belief – impacts one’s view of public policy. Secularisation allows non-believers to bring such convictions to boot in the public sphere whilst, at the same time, insisting believers cannot. Therefore, this is no more preferable than any other religious theocracy. Unlike Lady Warsi, I do not particularly believe Christian values must be imposed on civil society. Indeed, I would contend that our law should be enacted on the basis of that which leads to equality and that which upholds the rights common to man, whatever they may be.


Notes

  1. The cultural Christianity of the past led many to the false belief that they were Christians as a direct result of their cultural upbringing. Whilst they may have been culturally Christian, this in no way transpired into any sort of saving faith as described in the Bible. Nevertheless, this is the sort of faith many believed they possessed simply because of their cultural background and potentially because of church attendance.