Ukip hogs the limelight but the hot issue of the moment is religion in modern Britain. David Cameron declared this nation “Christian” and wants believers to be more evangelical. Must be why humble proselytisers – Seventh Day Adventists and other messengers of Christ – rang the doorbell this Sunday. I politely told them I would not be converted and that I kept my faith matters private. They were kindly, though disappointed, and two of them said they’d be back. Oh, please, no.
Our PM neatly passed over the Reformation, the break from Rome, etc. And the ongoing sectarianism between Christ’s people in Northern Ireland. In this Jerusalem, Catholics were and still are sometimes treated as second class, or suspect citizens. Some Christians matter more than others. When the Coalition Government – honourably and impressively – pushed through gay marriage laws, the phalanx of multi-faith objectors tried but could not stop Parliament. Millions of Christians oppose this law. Was this not a Christian country when it was passed?
A group of eminent academics, writers, scientists and artists, including Philip Pullman, Ken Follett, Professor Steve Jones and Professor Jim Al-Khalili – reacted to the PM’s thoughtless and incendiary comments. Interestingly, most savvy faith communities didn’t object. Of course, they didn’t. Britain’s highly organised Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and others know and rejoice that the man in charge is not a proper secularist. If they support his Christian mission, he will grant them influence in public affairs. Religion and politics are getting closer. God help us all.
I have faith and pray and avoid the company of noisy, atheist wolves. Religion is a vital part of a decent, civil society. When archbishops speak up for the poor (and irritate Iain Duncan Smith), when rabbis offer support to asylum-seekers, when Sikh priests give food to the hungry in their temples, when Muslim imams encourage charity, when faith leaders oppose state violence, they are the nation’s conscience. But, bit by bit, religions are demanding special rights and dispensations, and with well-honed piety are emasculating human rights, equality and autonomy. (They actually use the concepts of human rights and equality to get their own fiefdoms, segregation and legal adjustments.)
Here are a few examples: among Michael Gove’s free school fiascos are not only hard-line Muslim academies, but Christian, Hindu and Sikh ones, too, which secede from mainstream education and brainwash pupils to follow what they are taught, and to think of themselves as members of that community and not of our multi-part nation.
The Law Society has just issued a briefing note to lawyers about sharia inheritance diktats which give females less or no inheritance. For Orthodox Jews, divorce is only possible if the husband agrees. That agreement is called get. Without his permission, a wife is a chained woman. The 2002 Divorce (Religious Marriage) Act stipulated that, without get, a civil decree absolute can be denied to the wife. Within Hindu families, religious texts are used as alibis to steal property rights from widows. The law does not protect them.
Cameron’s call is religious braggadocio, put out for political effect. And it did fly. At the weekend, the Lib Dem president, Tim Farron, confessed he was a committed Christian; Lord Rowan Williams ruefully spoke about empty churches and our “post-Christian” age; Jack Straw backed the PM; Tony Blair called for another Crusade against “evil” Muslims, and the Muslim Baroness Sayeeda Warsi joined the unholy choir: “Politicians didn’t talk about their faith because they were seen as odd to do so ... People don’t feel they can dress in a Christian manner, [they] can’t talk about Christianity and faith.” And that, claims the Lady, our Minister for Faith, leads to increased support for far-right groups. Silly comments, from a ministry of utter folly.
Let this go on and we could end up with abortion laws that kill women. (Read Savita by Kitty Holland on the young Indian woman who perished because medical staff in a hospital in Ireland couldn’t perform a life-saving abortion.) And with kids never playing with those outside their religions. This is happening in faith schools of all denominations. My own daughter was treated as an outcast by some staff and parents in a Church of England primary school which my taxes help pay for. And with religious apartheid in universities – already well progressed. And with religious relativism.
Nick Clegg is right: disestablish the Church of England and cut the links between crown, state and church. We must also stop religious leaders from getting into the Lords, phase out faith schools or make them mixed, and ensure there is one law for all. Politicians should be democrats, not representatives of chosen gods.
This column is a song for secular democracy – the only fair, safe and universalising governance system. America, hyper-diverse and the most fiercely Christian nation in the West, is a secular state. Yes, we can be, too. And must be.