The End of Christendom as a Political Threat

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
9 Jan 2007
“The Church will go through a time of great persecution”. Such a statement might have been expected from one of the many organisations that campaign for religious liberty around the world in places where churches face constant discrimination, oppression and even death at the hands of repressive regimes.

But what made this warning somewhat surprising was that it referred to the UK. It came in fact from Jayne Ozanne, then a member of the Church of England’s Archbishops’ Council, who predicted that Christianity could soon be driven underground in the West. Her view, which to many appeared extreme, in fact articulated the feelings of many (especially evangelical, or other conservative) Christians in the UK, across continental Europe and even in the US, who believe that a form of persecution is not just a future possibility but a current reality.

The move toward an alliance of church and Empire that began under Constantine promised an end to the terrible persecution that the church had previously faced. In the US too, the constitutional arrangements that underlay the founding of the nation were at least in part a response to persecution that some had experienced in Europe. It should come as no surprise then that in Post-Christendom, as the church moves away from its place of privilege and protection, fears of persecution are re-emerging. The current argument about the Sexual Orientation Regulations is a good example of this.

Whether such fears are well-founded, valid or even justifiable is disputed. Ekklesia, for example, takes a radically different ‘positive’ approach to the demise of Christendom, seeing the ending of the churches’ privileged position in society as an exciting opportunity to recapture the radical social vision of the Gospel of Jesus. This, however, does not negate the fact that fears of institutional anti-Christian prejudice are deeply felt by a significant number of people.

Nor is this account – which seeks to show how pro-Christendom voices perceive the current situation in the UK – negated by the fact that other, quite contradictory ‘victim narratives’ are possible. For example, it would be possible to produce a long and different list on behalf of advocates of secularism showing that, far from Christianity being persecuted, it is reasserting itself in ways that threaten cultural freedom, democracy and human rights. Indeed, in many ways these groups are struggling over the same terrain.

What follows, then, is not an endorsement but a description of a viewpoint – one which, whatever we make of it, is influential and has to be understood and responded to humanely and thoughtfully if the current public debates about religion and society are not to degenerate into ugly and unproductive confrontation.

An ‘open season’ on Christians?

Within weeks of the Ozanne statement that the church would face a time of great persecution, came what many Christians saw as confirmation of their fears. It was for them a classic example, typifying the new situation in which Christianity now found itself. The BBC televised “Jerry Springer: The Opera”.

Christian objections arose primarily from the presence of such figures representing Jesus Christ, God and Mary. Many Christians felt that the show wasn’t in fact blasphemous. It nevertheless provoked outcry and complaints from tens of thousands of people, even before it was shown.

The production had been running for a number of years in the theatre. However, it was the decision to televise it on BBC2 that lay at the heart of objections. It was seen as the promotion of blasphemous material by public service broadcasting. Money collected from the general public through the license fee it was said, was being used to fund anti-Christian activities.

For many this was weighty and convincing evidence confirming an existing trend. An editorial in a well known Christian magazine claimed: “This is the landscape we live in. Our faith is under attack in a way that it has not faced for hundreds of years. In the school playground, in the world of business, in university, in politics, in the workplace and on our TV screens, it is open season – we are fair game to be shot at. The prejudice against us is breathtaking.”

The ways in which it is often suggested Post-Christendom is the context for an “open season” against Christians are too many to list. But there are several identifiable ways in which Christians feel that attacks against them are taking place.

1. Humiliation. One of the central features of the “persecution” that Jayne Ozanne suggested Christians would face, was through increasing ridicule of Christianity, Christian leaders, God, Jesus and other biblical characters.

2. Marginalisation. Evidence that Christian faith is being marginalized is also felt by many to be a sign of anti-Christian feeling. Religious TV and radio programming schedules appear to be moving religious content from prime time, to off-peak scheduling. Christian acts of worship in schools appear to be in decline, and having to give space to other faiths. Proposals to slim down the number of bishops in the House of Lords are seen as evidence of diminishing political influence. Sunday shop opening for many reflects the move from the centrality of the Christian faith to the margins. But it is also seen in the removal of religious symbols such as bibles and crosses from public places and institutions such as funeral parlours, and hospitals.

3. Criminalization. Many feel that they are being criminalized for behaviour which has previously been considered “Christian”. When new laws designed to protect children from being abused were introduced which restricted the rights of parents to smack their children, they were met with opposition from church groups. Campaigners suggested that ordinary people would be criminalized for using physical punishment against their children. Measures proposed by the Government in the UK to outlaw incitement to religious hatred have been seen as potentially criminalizing evangelism. In employment law, major campaigns have been initiated in the belief that Christian organisations could soon find themselves on the wrong side of the law if they refused to employ non-believers. There have been fears that religious adoption agencies will break the law if they refuse to place children with homosexual couples or hospices don’t publicise the views of pro-euthanasia groups. Para-church organisations have suggested that they might soon find themselves breaking the law for their views on homosexuality.

4. Discrimination. A recurring theme is that individual Christians and churches are being discriminated against. A survey of over 3,000 UK churches revealed that that one in five felt that their community projects have been excluded from government funding because of their faith basis. High profile cases reported in the media have also contributed to feelings that Christians are facing many practical discriminations such as being forced to work on Sundays. Following the aborted attempt to appoint Rocco Buttligione as a European Commissioner, scuppered by remarks he made about homosexuality and the role of women during a confirmation hearing, the Vatican pressed the United Nations to recognise "Christianophobia" as an evil equal to that of anti-Semitism or "Islamophobia”.

5. Restriction. Many Christians feel that their rights to free speech, specifically to criticise and attack other religions, and people’s behaviours such as homosexuality, are also being curtailed, particularly in the area of broadcasting. For a number of years explicitly religious organisations were not allowed to hold a national radio licence, an ITV franchise or any of the new digital licences. Some Christians saw this as a form of deliberate discrimination. The claim was made that it was “easier to broadcast pornography than the Christian faith.” But the feelings of injustice are also felt in rulings against Christians when they are judged to have overstepped the mark when speaking about those of other faiths. A Christian Radio station was given a ‘yellow card’ by the Radio Authority for a number of breaches of programme rules, including criticism of other religions, and suggesting that the Qur’an and the holy books of Hindus and Buddhists were "full of superstition and absurdities".

6. Victimisation. While fears are growing that conservative Christians are losing the right to criticise other religions, other religions appear to be afforded more protections than they are. In a poll following the screening of Jerry Springer the Opera nine out of ten Christians said that they did not believe that the BBC would show a programme that was offensive to Muslims. Complaints by Christians which have not been upheld are also taken as evidence that Christianity does not receive equal consideration. Peter Kerridge from evangelical Radio Station Premier Radio criticised the decision of the advertising standards agency not to uphold their complaint about an advert on Channel 4 which they said portrayed the Last Supper in an offensive way.

7. Disempowerment. Some also feel that Christian organisations are losing is the right to sack their own employees. Church schools, it has been claimed, might be unable to get rid of head teachers who commit adultery or convert to a non-Christian faith. Religious charities might be unable to dismiss those who fundamentally disagree with the charity on moral or doctrinal issues. It has been claimed that church schools could also be forced to consider employing atheists or practising homosexuals. Aspects of the proposed European constitution were also opposed on the basis that the Treaty’s duty to integrate a non-discrimination strategy into all areas of EU law would prevent discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

In practice many churches have been able to discriminate for many years on a wide scale, in favour of their own through admission’s policies to church schools. Churches often openly and legally apply criteria in admissions that favour the children who attend their own schools, even though these schools are publicly funded. The idea is to maintain the ethos of the Christian school. It also suits clergy who want more people to attend their churches. When suggestions are made that churches should end the discrimination, Christians have fiercely resisted.

The ways in which many Christians feel it is ‘open season’ against them are, then, manifold. And these feelings are eliciting a distinctly political response. For many, much of the threat is coming in the form of Government action and legislation, which needs to be resisted. One of the features of Christendom was the introduction of laws which sought to impose Christian ideas of morality, particularly in the area of sexuality. As these have changed or disappear, so the alarm bells have begun to ring, and calls have been made “for the drift away from the Christian ethos in British public life to end”.

A prevalent feeling amongst those who view the emerging Post-Christendom with a sense of foreboding is that the very ‘Christian glue’ that holds society together is disappearing and institutions are disintegrating. The move away from conceptions of law based on the Ten Commandments and their replacement by ‘faddish theories’ or ‘political correctness’, is sometimes blamed for undermining social institutions such as the family, the criminal justice system and schools.

There are many more examples that could be cited. All of them have one thing in common. Some Christians are fearful, not just about perceived discrimination and even persecution that Post-Christendom appears to be bringing with it, but also by the changing society they see around them. In this they are backed by a range of other conservatives, and by powerful newspapers such as the Daily Mail. Things that they have seen as good, have equated with the Christian faith, and would wish to remain, appear to be changing and even disappearing. And as they are, they are being politically radicalised in attempts to do something about it. It is not a phenomenon we can afford to ignore.

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The background to these developments and an alternative, positive vision is set out in Jonathan Bartley’s book Faith and Politics After Christendom: The Church as a Movement for Anarchy, from which this is an adapted and edited excerpt.

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