Wednesday, 1 December 2010
Today Christian Concern launches its ‘Not Ashamed’ campaign. This new intiative hopes to provide an opportunity for Christians in the UK to spend December standing publicly for their faith, due to concerns that Christianity is being erased from the public domain.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey has declared his support for Not Ashamed – on its website and in national newspapers - by speaking of the way Christianity is being ‘airbrushed’ from UK life, using examples of Christmas cards proclaiming ‘Season’s Greetings’ (forgive me if I’m wrong but cards like that have been around for decades, right?) and local councils using the word ‘winter’ instead of ‘Christmas’, which as we all know is part of our old favourite – the Winterval myth – the festival which, despite having only ever happened in one city in 1997 and 1998, continues to outrage tabloid readers every single year.
Just recently I’ve become aware that Christian Concern is a sister organisation of The Christian Legal Centre, which is, to be honest, not a group I'd want to align myself with. CLC and its director, self-described fundamentalist Andrea Williams - have been on the radar for a while but in the past few years they’ve received much more attention with regard to the debate on abortion and also due to court cases involving Christians who feel they have been discriminated against because of their faith.
The CLC and another group, The Christian Institute, have represented some of these people – such as Lillian Ladele, the Islington registrar who refused to officiate at civil partnerships due to her beliefs and lost her religious discrimination appeal. Other cases receiving media attention in recent months have been those of BA employee Nadia Eweida - who plans to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights – and nurse Caroline Petrie, who was suspended from her post after offering to pray for a patient who was worried that others might be uncomfortable with this. Mrs Petrie later returned to work.
The inevitable focus on these cases – primarily covered by the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, have prompted a host of accusations that Christians are now being victimised by the law and by society, which is supposedly favouring minority groups at the expense of a faith group which has been a major part of British life for centuries. In October, a group of seven prominent clerics wrote to the Telegraph, warning that Christians’ freedom to express their faith is at risk.
Now the groups and individuals at the heart of such court cases and campaigns are often referred to as ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘evangelicals’ and I’ve seen the two terms used pretty much interchangeably in some blog posts, particularly following the airing of the controversial 2008 Dispatches programme entitled ‘In God’s Name’.
It’s important to be clear on this point, that the word ‘evangelical’ refers to certain doctrines and focuses of belief within the faith and is not synonymous with ultra-right wing bigotry, although many fundamentalists would also think of themselves as evangelical. Evangelical Christians position themselves right across the political spectrum and many would be keen to disassociate themselves from the views expressed by Andrea Williams et al.
The use of the word in the pejorative sense is something very common in the US, where as we know too well the ‘Christian Right’ has wielded considerable power for many years and tends to be associated with evangelicalism. But even many key figures in the movement denounce fundamentalism, criticising the way it seems to focus more on attacking people and spreading hatred than anything else. For this reason it’s probably best to continue to refer to people espousing these views as ‘fundamentalists’ (as several of them have actually described themselves) or ‘the Christian right’.
Christian fundamentalism in Britain certainly does not wield influence in the same way it does across the pond. But for your average churchgoer, the way CLC and Christian Concern present their views could start to look very attractive at a time when we’re faced with news stories about ‘discrimination’ and issues which hit all the emotional buttons – abortion and ‘the family’, for example. People are passionate about their faith and want to defend it, so naturally all this talk of Christians being marginalised by society and government is going to have some sort of effect.
On the face of it, the Not Ashamed campaign seems pretty harmless, focusing as it does on declaring that you’re not ashamed to be a Christian, as support for the continuation of the visibility of Christianity in the UK. As a Christian and a person who is ‘not ashamed’ of their faith, I know many others who would say the same thing. But initiatives run by Christian Concern are not ones I wish to sign up to, because I find their bigotry and scaremongering about abortion, sex education, equality and religious freedom unpleasant and over the top. Being unashamed of my faith doesn’t mean signing up to their particular issues. I’ve got my own concerns about our nation.
Abortion is one of the issues we’re seeing the most about at the moment. Sunny Hundal has in the past written about the links Nadine Dorries MP has with groups like CLC and how they were involved with her campaign to lower the time limit at which abortions can be carried out. Indeed, Andrea Williams believes that abortion should be completely illegal. Dorries has of course been spending the past month or so promoting her views about the highly-dubious ‘post-abortion syndrome’ and links with a group, Forsaken, which describes itself as ‘non-aligned’ but seems to be very obviously anti-choice.
While Dorries’s integrity is being repeatedly called into question at the moment, we shouldn’t forget that she’s still an MP who’s getting her views out there and attempting to influence policy, resorting to unsubstantiated claims to do so.
In light of all this, in a month when I'm supposed to be standing up for my religious beliefs, I'll do so because the fact is, I'm not ashamed to be a Christian. But I'll do so independently of Christian Concern's campaign. I’m not ashamed to call myself a Christian but I don’t think that the mere existence of other belief systems is tantamount to the ‘marginalisation’ of Christianity. I’m not ashamed to call myself a Christian but we live in a world where many of my fellow believers die for their faith and I do not think that these UK court cases are evidence of society's hatred for Christianity. I’m not ashamed to call myself a Christian but I also believe in equality and compassion for those who don't share my beliefs.
Edit: Simon Barrow has written a great piece about this for Ekklesia, which you can read here. I totally agree with him when he says:
'That Christians do not rule others in the way they once did, in the fading Christendom era, does not amount to persecution. Rather, it is an invitation, in the midst of some pain and adjustment no doubt, to rediscover patterns of church life in a plural society which show the heart of the Christian message to be about embracing others, not isolating ourselves; multiplying hope, not spreading fear; developing peaceableness, not resorting to aggression; and advancing compassion, rather than retreating into defensiveness.'
Ekklesia is also covering some other criticisms made about the campaign's misleading nature so there are several articles relating to it up today.
It's also worth checking out some posts about the Winterval/'war on Christmas' myth, such as this one at Tabloid Watch. It's disappointing when Christian groups adopt it as an example of 'persecution' when as the post shows, there's really nothing to be concerned about.