Are Christians facing discrimination?

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
8 May 2008

Hardly a month seems to go by these days without a high profile story in the newspapers concerning another Christian who is feeling discriminated against or claims by church leaders that Christianity is being ‘marginalised’.

Back in December it was local authorities rebranding the Christmas season ‘Winterval’, schools failing to stage traditional nativity plays, as well as a conspiratorial tale about the Post Office issuing a secret memo (of which no one yet seems to have found a copy) telling its workers not to sell religiously themed stamps. One MP even raised the spectre of ‘Christianophobia’ in a debate in the House of Commons.

I was asked to come on Radio 4’s Sunday Programme to discuss the idea with Mark Pritchard, the Tory in question, and dispute his claims. However I was subsequently called by the producer to say that the MP had refused to debate with me. Apparently Pritchard doesn’t believe that Christians should be seen to disagree publicly. (Treating me less favourably because of my faith, I suggested mischieviously!)

But the MP was quite prepared to publicly criticise the Archbishop of Canterbury over his Sharia comments - so it seems there must have been another reason. One possibility is that the claims being made simply don’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

It is not well known, but it is often the same people who are fuelling the scare stories of Christian marginalisation that appear in the papers. A small collection of lobby groups, these usual suspects are actively seeking out potential cases of discrimination which they can then publicise, make a political campaign out of, or pursue in the courts. They are also drawing advice and training from the US, where similar strategies have been pursued.

What is behind their zeal? Their agenda is a desperate attempt to win back, or at least try to maintain, many of the special privileges and exemptions that Christianity has previously enjoyed, but which society is no longer willing to grant. Their argument is that since Britain is a 'Christian country', their faith, and its adherents, should have special recognition and dispensation.

But they are faced with an internal contradiction which virtually guarantees their failure - and helps to explain why their have had so little success.

On the one hand they advance their arguments by citing the 70% of the country which identified with Christianity at the last census. This majority position, they argue, means that Christianity should still be given pride of place. However in the next breath, they plead Christians as a vulnerable and persecuted minority in need of special protections - which entirely undermines their case.

Their dilemma will not be resolved anytime soon. But this won’t end the conviction that drives them. Indeed, every failure only serves to reinforce their conviction that Christians are being marginalised and sidelined, and that they must fight even harder!

So prepare for a lot more of the same in the months to come – but don’t be afraid to treat the headlines with the scepticism they deserve.

Meanwhile, there's an important job for Christians to be doing. Not shoring up privilege (hardly a suitable occupation for followers of Jesus), but putting the self-giving, neighbour-loving dynamic of the Gospel into action in the public arena.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This is adapted from a series of articles on Public Christianity appearing on the website of New Statesman magazine: http://www.newstatesman.com/

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