Monday, March 19, 2007

Crackpots or cracked pots?

Those who claim that Christians are being discriminated against are wrong, but not mad.

Simon Barrow - Guardian CiF

It's very easy to dismiss those you strongly disagree with as a bit mad. Far too easy, in fact. Take the fulminations of right-wing evangelist Pat Robertson in the USA. Here is a man who apparently holds gays, environmentalists, liberals and a lot of other people he doesn't like as responsible for everything from an impending apocalypse to a broken washing machine. Hard not to detect a screw loose there, surely?

Well, yes, except that he has a clear ideology and procedure for "reading the world" which tells you why he thinks those things, untenable though I would argue they are. It's not an outlook susceptible to what philosophers call reflexivity. But it's amenable to being strongly argued against and shown to be inadequate, whatever the personal foibles (and political machinations) of its purveyor.

In Britain, the National Secular Society, which seeks to stand on the solid bank of rationality, has labelled those Christians who think they are being discriminated against in the UK "crackpots". The backdrop to this is a new BBC survey which claims that up to a third of Christians in Britain believe they have been subject to some kind of unfair prejudice on grounds of their faith - in the workplace, in the way the country is run, in the media and in the street.

Now some of these people may indeed be a bit bonkers. Mental health problems hit an awful lot of us, right across the spectrum. Its no joshing matter. The point is, what do such labels help to achieve or explain in political argument? Very little. They just make their users feel good (apparently) and forestall a reasoned debate. I'm not picking on secularists, either. Religious people certainly do it. Friends of mine do it. I'm sure I've done it.

Personally, I disagree profoundly with those who think that Christians are being picked on in any organised way. I think their selection and estimation of the facts is wrong, and I think their assumptions are incorrect. I find the ways some of them argue (as well as the content of their argument) disturbing. But I recognise that they feel wounded, and I am as concerned to understand why and to seek to address that as I am to put a contrary estimate of the situation.

I think the reason for mostly conservative Christians feeling discriminated against is this. They have grown up accustomed to the idea that Britain is a "Christian country" and that Christian institutions, symbols, representatives and (what they take to be) Christian values have a fixed place at the centre of our national culture.

Others now point out that practising Christianity is a minority pursuit in a multi-conviction society. They say that, in any case, Christians are a mixed bunch who disagree among themselves pretty vociferously. So privileging one outlook (particularly, one faith) is no longer tenable.

This means that Christians no longer automatically set the ground rules. They have to negotiate with others - and their Christian identity is not necessarily the ground on which this will happen. Moreover when churches and faith bodies receive public money and provide public services (as opposed to financing their own activities for an in-group) they are now required to do so on the basis of "comprehensive equalities" - equal access and fair treatment for all.

Irrespective of whether you think such funding is a good idea (I'm among the sceptics), this looks pretty reasonable to many - probably most - people. But to those who have been used to their cherished ideas holding sway in the public square, the removal of the ground from under their feet appears pretty threatening. It is the end of the Christendom era, the lengthy time in European history when the interests of government and church were mutually reinforcing.

Of course, we still live with the legacy of that in some pretty major ways: an established church, blasphemy laws, tax breaks, unelected bishops in a second parliamentary house based on patronage, and exemptions from various bits of legislation. But these things are under pressure too. They will not be sustainable into the next century.

So those who cry in protest have a point. They may be wrong to confuse the removal of power, influence and exemption with being discriminated against - but they are far from mad to see the writing on the wall.

What is needed is a reasoned argument about this, not a bloody row in which people question each others' sanity. We are mostly dealing with cracked pots, not crackpots, and they will not be mended or rendered usable by flinging insults.

For my part, I'd like to argue that Christians are entirely on the wrong track trying to defend the vestiges of a "Christian nation". The gospel message, long submerged by the churches' collusion with the state, is one of radical equality, a reversal of social norms, even. It argues that the first shall be last and the last first.

For this reason, Christians should not be out to defend their institutional privileges, let alone denying equal rights. On the contrary, they have an opportunity to embrace (rather than fear) a new status as a creative minority within a society which, helpfully, tries to offer a place for all. That fairness is something worth arguing for. But it cannot coexist with privilege.

In post-Christendom churches should be free to dissent. I hope they will. There is much to protest - like the appalling mistreatment of asylum seekers, on which the churches' voice has been strong. But in order to do that we Christians need to build something different: a radically welcoming community, and a willingness to put ourselves on the line politically and economically for those pushed to the margins. Now that might be really mad. But usefully so.

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