A new survey carried out by the BBC has revealed that 33 per cent of Christians in the UK think that the way they are portrayed in the media amounts to discrimination. And 25% said they also experienced discrimination from colleagues in the workplace when their faith was known or talked about.
The poll was carried out for the BBC’s Heaven and Earth programme, based on a representative sample of 604 people. Another 22% said they thought Christians faced discrimination in their local community. 19 per cent said they would be passed over for promotion. A third thought the media distorted Christian issues.
Matters like the British Airways prohibition on costume jewellery, which prevented an employee from wearing a cross, and suspicion towards Christian service organizations by funding bodies, were cited as examples.
Conservative MP Anne Widdecombe, an Anglican who became a Catholic, said: “It’s now entirely a matter for Christians whether we fight back or take it. My own belief is that we should stand together and fight this discrimination.”
But the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which said that the findings confirmed the discoveries of its own research over the past four years, argued that “retreating into a persecution mentality” is bad for Christianity and bad for society.
“Christians are also privileged – for example there are 26 unelected bishops in the house of Lords, and a quarter of state-funded primary schools are run by churches selecting on the basis of people's faith”, said Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley on The Heaven and Earth Show this morning.
He also said that when Muslims and Jews faced attacks and desecration of their cemeteries, talk of “persecution” needed to be put into context.
“The reason a sizable minority of Christians, especially more conservative ones, are feeling ‘got at’ is because the historic privilege and influence of the churches is being eroded in the public sphere” commented Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow after the show.
“But this demonstrates how easy it has been, during the era of Christendom, for Christians to mistake their own power for the gospel message – which involves Jesus embodying God’s special concern for those at the margins, not demanding special treatment for religion” he added.
Ekklesia argues that loss of automatic privileges, the challenges of pluralism in public life, and the criticism churches face over discrimination in schools and services is “a historic opportunity for them to recover a vision of the Christian message as rooted in justice and equality. Self-interest and trying to grab power back is an unhelpful response - a counter-witness, even.”
The think-tank has also warned about the dangers of "the politics of competitive grievance", where Christians, secularists, Muslims and others try to out-do each others with claims of discrimination, rather than looking at how to work together.
A BBC researcher on the Heaven and Earth show team spoke to four other Christian agencies, which made similar claims to those demonstrated in their survey. A spokesperson for one charity in London said it was told to ‘de-Christianize’ if it had any chance of getting funding. Another was told it needed to take all mention of Christianity off its website; otherwise it was at risk of not receiving any money.
A Reading-based Christian homeless group also complained that it was no longer able to employ only Christians. However Ekklesia’s Jonathan Bartley said this was not discrimination, but equal opportunities which Christians, alongside others, were rightly expected to uphold when public money was involved.
And the Anglican Bishop of Bolton, David Gillett, responded: “Religion is big news these days, so people have become more conscious of faith issues. That means Christians are now finding decisions going against them in a more high-profile way. But it’s a case of those issues getting more attention, rather than there being more discrimination.”
Meanwhile former PR guru Lynne Franks told the BBC's Heaven and Earth show that claims of discrimination against Christians, defended by outspoken Catholic journalist Joanna Bogle, were "off the mark". The National Secular Society's news monitoring service dubbed them "crackpot" and said Christians were "over-privileged".
Full Ekklesia press release: Crying 'discrimination' harms churches' message.