With sad predictability, the latest attempts to smear Peter Tatchell began before his documentary on the Pope had been broadcast on Channel Four. The Catholic Bishop of Paisley, Philip Tartaglia, attacked him at the weekend by quoting out of context one sentence he wrote 24 years ago - in a different publication to the one cited, and against the meaning he intended.
This was presumably a pre-emptive strike before the documentary was aired on Monday evening (13 September).
Some may have been expecting – or hoping - that the programme would be an hour of anti-papal, anti-Christian ranting. This would certainly have been easier to denounce than the far more sophisticated treatment that Peter Tatchell gave to his subject.
I was impressed by Peter's insistence that he is not attacking grassroots Catholics, a number of whom were interviewed. As a Christian, I never once felt that my religion was under attack. His exploration of certain issues was very powerful - the child abuse scandal, Benedict's personal history and the effects of papal teaching in the Philippines.
The programme's main weakness was its failure to explain the concept of papal infallibility. But ironically, it was a Catholic lawyer in the Philippines, and not Peter Tatchell himself, who said that Catholics believe the pope is always infallible. In reality, official Catholic teaching states that the pope is infallible only on the very rare occasions when he speaks ex cathedra.
Most viewers, whether or not they agree with the opinions expressed, will realise that the programme highlights questions that need answers. But some have decided to avoid answering them by shooting the messenger.
By uprooting old quotes from their context, Philip Tartaglia looks remarkably similar to Anglican Mainstream, who this year attacked the Greenbelt Christian festival for inviting Peter Tatchell to speak. They even went so far as to suggest that his presence at the festival would put children at risk.
Christians at Greenbelt gave Peter a standing ovation. This seemed only to outrage his critics further. Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON) decided to put inverted commas around “Christian” when describing Greenbelt as a Christian festival. In their weekly bulletin for supporters, they denounced Peter's views on “orgies, sadomasochism and public cruising for sex” - none of which were relevant to his talk at Greenbelt.
Stephen Green of Christian Voice, who may well regard CCFON as a bunch of woolly liberals, went further, accusing Greenbelt of believing that “salvation is worked out by buying Fairtrade coffee”. Last weekend, he suggested that the Catholic Church child abuse scandal was caused by “homosexual men who fancy teenagers, as many do” – conveniently ignoring the reality that most victims of child abuse are abused by someone of a different sex to themselves.
These organisations may be interested to note that Peter Tatchell has also been attacked from the other direction. Matthew Adams, writing on the Guardian website, accused him of being too soft on Christians in his Greenbelt talk. Adams regards Christianity as inherently homophobic. Indeed, he describes Peter Tatchell's view that “discrimination against homosexuals is not a Christian value” as a “patent untruth”. This suggests that Matthew Adams' view of Christianity is not too dissimilar from that of CCFON and Anglican Mainstream.
Whatever you may think of Peter Tatchell, you can hardly accuse him of being afraid to say what he thinks. The reason he does not attack Christians in general is because he respects the many Christians who promote human rights and he regards Jesus as a teacher of compassion. Consider his words about love:
”If we all had love for the wider human family and a zero tolerance of suffering, most of the world's great injustices, like tyranny and hunger, would soon be solved. These values are shared by many people with faith and without faith. Despite our different belief systems, we can and should work together to solve the great wrongs that beset humanity.”
While I admire Peter Tatchell and agree with many of his views on love, human rights and sexuality, I also disagree with him on a number of issues - from the existence of God to the nature of the Bible to the age of consent. I share many, but not all, of his opinions on the Pope but I am fairly critical of the Protest the Pope coalition. I realise that many Christians and others will disagree with him far more than I do. I respect their right to do so, and in many cases I can understand why they do.
But what sort of example are Christians setting, how are we witnessing to Christ in the world, if we are prepared to bear false witness by misrepresenting somebody's views and smearing him instead of answering his questions? How is the Kingdom of God advanced by such behaviour?
Many of those who admire Peter Tatchell do so because they have taken the time both to listen to his words and to observe his actions. This is a man who has worked for equality and human rights not only in Britain but in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Iran, Russia and elsewhere.
I first worked with Peter when I was employed by the Campaign Against Arms Trade and we were protesting against the Saudi King's state visit to the UK. In that campaign, he spoke on television about the persecution of Catholics in Saudi Arabia. When homophobic street preachers have been prosecuted for “hate crime”, Peter Tatchell has defended their right to free speech – a principle on which many of his critics seem far less keen.
By their fruits you shall know them.
© Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. His book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, can be bought at http://www.newint.org/books/no-nonsense-guides/religion.