Conservative Home

« Martin Parsons: Labour's attack on Christian liberties | Main | Martin Parsons: The scale of the Christian voting community »

Martin Parsons: Conservative response to Labour's attack on Christian liberties

Martin_parsons This is the second of a five part series looking at the Conservative Party's relationship with churchgoers after thirteen years of Labour government. Dr Martin Parsons is a regular contributor to CentreRight.

In part 1 we saw how many practising Christians had begun to move away from Labour in the 2-3 years prior to the election largely as a result of Labour’s sustained attack on freedom of religion.

Now just for a minute imagine yourself to be a committed Christian. You have just seen the Labour government pass a law that required Catholic adoption agencies to act in a way that is completely contrary to the teaching of the Bible and the historic teaching of the Christian faith for the last 2,000 years. If this has now happened to a Christian organisation, what will happen next…will this sort of legislation be enforced not only on Christian organisations but also the church itself…? That is why Labour’s attack on freedom of religion was THE issue of the election for a great many practising Christians.

In fact, the Labour government got very close to actually telling the Church which parts of the Bible’s teaching it could not preach, but were rebuffed as a result of amendments put down in the Lords by Conservative peers:

Firstly, Labour’s 2008 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act was so framed that it could have led to the prosecution of any Christian preachers who made a statement that a gay person might be offended at, It was only an amendment successfully proposed by former Conservative Home Secretary Lord Waddington that prevented this. The amendment was important as a number of Christians including OAPs, Christian ministers and a bishop have been subjected to ‘intimidating’ police questioning and even arrestas a result of complaints made by gay rights activists who disagreed with their beliefs. In each case it was evident from the outset that no actual ‘crime’ had been committed. However, even before the amended bill had received the royal assent, the Labour government tried to repeal the Waddington ‘free speech amendment’ by using the 2009 Coroners and Criminal Justice bill, which ironically it sought to push through the Commons only hours after Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith had gone on the Today programme to defend freedom of speech for Islamic extremists...This was despite the Wadington amendment having been described by former chief constable and chief inspector of constabulary Lord Dear as “essential” if police officers were to enforce the Government’s ‘homophobic hatred’ law with “good judgment and a light touch”.

Secondly, Labour’s recent Equality bill contained a clause that had it not been amended by three Conservative peers acting with the support of the Conservative whips, would have removed the right of churches to appoint people who adhere to the teachings of the Christian faith. The proposed ‘anti discrimination’ legislation was the equivalent for the church and Christian organisations of legally requiring the Conservative Party not to discriminate against someone with socialist views when selecting parliamentary candidates, only it was not pragmatic political beliefs that were at stake, but deeply held religious beliefs about morality. It amounted to a degree of government interference in the church that would seriously have compromised freedom of religion in Britain. Significantly Conservative peers voted unanimously for the amendment, but almost all Labour and Lib-Dem peers voted against it.

Astonishingly for Christians, far from recognising the deep inroads that it was making to historic British values of freedom of religion and freedom of speech, the Labour bandwagon simply steamrollered ahead with a manifesto promise to reintroduce its attempt to repeal the Waddington amendment, an action which would have effectively criminalised any ethical criticism of gay sex acts. Labour somehow lost the plot that in a free society we defend people – not ideas. That means we should defend gay people from mistreatment, rather than using the criminal law to defend the belief of social liberalism that gay sex acts are morally ‘good’. If you do the latter you actually victimise another group of people – those who disagree with that belief.

This distinction between protecting people – which is the proper function of the criminal law – and protecting particular beliefs (in this case that gay sex acts are morally ‘good’) is absolutely central to what it means to be a free society. However, this is a distinction that Labour deliberately ignored. It is also a distinction that is absolutely central to the perception among a very large number of practising Christians that they are increasingly being subject to intolerance, discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion from public life. What Christians feel so concerned about is not at all the right of gay people to practise their own sexual ethics, it is a concerted attempt to ban Christians from stating and acting on the basis of their beliefs on sexual ethics and to exclude them from public life if they do so.

In this context it needs to be clearly stated that ‘disagreement’ and ‘intolerance’ are not the same thing. In fact the very concept of ‘tolerance’ implies disagreement – you only ‘tolerate’ someone when you disagree with them. Disagreement about an ethical issue – whether it is the morality of abortion, gay sex acts or anything else does not make either group ‘intolerant’. In fact, it is this ‘tolerance of disagreement’ that is fundamental to the functioning of a free democratic society, where we decide contentious issues by open debate. ‘Intolerance’ however, is when one party seeks to prevent people they disagree with from expressing or acting upon their opinions and beliefs or excludes them from public life if they hold such beliefs.

The growing exclusion of conservative Christians (principally, though not exclusively around 4 million or so Evangelicals and Catholics) from certain areas of the public services and public life is a very regressive step in terms of Britain’s proud history of tolerance and freedom of religion. It is sobering to compare the impact of the last Labour government’s ‘equality’ laws with the 1673 Tests Act, which excluded anyone who did not hold to a particular belief system (Anglicanism) from holding public office, such as being a magistrate. It was the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and the passing of the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act by Wellington’s Tory government that really started to create genuine religious freedom in Britain. Whilst the belief system one is now required to assent to is a secular liberal pluralist worldview, the comparison, even to some degree, with the situation faced by Non Conformists and Catholics before the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts is one that is, and should be, profoundly uncomfortable for any democratic politician.

A month before the general election the BBC broadcast a documentary entitled ‘Are Christians being persecuted in Britain’. The issue it addressed was actually discrimination against Christians rather than persecution. But the fact that even the liberal minded BBC addressed this shows how important an issue it was in the months leading up to the general election.

As someone who has been privileged to work with the persecuted church overseas, I do not believe that ‘persecution’ is the correct word to describe such changes in the law. However, in many contexts overseas Christian minorities are not so much persecuted as subject to various degrees of discrimination. What is most disconcerting about the manner in which that last Labour government brought in new laws to our own country is that it clearly has created a degree of discrimination against Christians in certain parts of the public sector. It was also significantly responsible for a much more disturbing rise in intolerance towards Christians and historic Christian beliefs on issues such as sexual ethics, so that as Melancthon recently observed on Centre Right anyone who voices an orthodox Christian view of sexual ethics is likely to be treated as a social pariah and labelled quite wrongly ‘homophobic’.

Some academics have used the term 'Christianophobia' or 'Christophobia' to label this growing intolerance of Christian beliefs and incidents of discrimination against Christians. Personally, I dislike the term as it sounds far too politically correct, and in reality Christians are more victims of political correctness than one of its beneficiary groups. However, whether or not one gives it a name, it is undeniable that there has been not simply disagreement with, but a growing intolerance of Christian beliefs in Britain since Labour came to power in 1997. It is also true to say that the opposition that did come to this attack on freedom of religion was not from the Liberal Democrats who wholeheartedly supported the Labour government on this – but from Conservatives, particularly in the Hose of Lords.

> It was for these reasons that there was a real potential for the Conservative Party to have won a significant number of practising Christians who had not voted for us in the previous election, a subject we will examine in part 3.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.