I had an inspiring evening yesterday while representing Ekklesia at the launch of Cutting Edge, a coalition of faith groups, human rights campaigns, trades unions and others aimed at promoting equality and protecting people from unjust discrimination. One of the most interesting aspects of the meeting was the ways in which participants spoke about religion.
Cutting Edge is opposing attempts to water down the Equality Bill currently going through Parliament. We are taking a different stance from those groups who are asking for the “right” to be allowed to discriminate in employment on grounds of sexuality.
I strongly believe in democracy and thus I respect the right of such groups to hold their views on sexuality. But democracy is not about allowing relatively powerful organisations to ill-treat marginalised groups. A sign that says “no gays” is as wrong as one that says “no blacks” - or “no Christians”.
What I found most encouraging about the meeting was the positivity and respect shown by members of different groups towards each other, in the context of uniting for equality. Several of the secular groups there were clearly delighted to have so many religious activists – Christian, Muslim and Jewish – working alongside them. Only one or two of people present found this difficult to cope with and took the opportunity to make negative comments about religion.
Nonetheless, some were understandably angered and alarmed by the aggressiveness exhibited by certain organisations campaigning against the Equality Bill.
I appreciate how they feel. I am torn between laughter and tears by an absurd headline on the website of Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON), which suggests that “Equality Bill could lead to ban on Christmas”. This is an over-the-top reaction even by CCFON's standards.
So it is no surprise that some of those present expressed concern about a “powerful religious lobby” working against equality. They are right in as much as certain organisations are claiming that their religion is an excuse for homophobia and that they should be allowed to marginalise whole groups of people because of their sexuality or gender.
But I told the meeting that I think there is also another powerful religious lobby – of people working for equality. There are many Christians, and other people of faith, who passionately believe in human rights and equal treatment. This is a natural political outworking of the Golden Rule, the principal of treating others as you wish to be treated, which is found in virtually every religion.
We need only to look at the vast numbers of Christians concerned about climate change, poverty and war, at those who marched with Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History, to see that many, many Christians regard political engagement as more than an opportunity to demand the chance to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove.
Of course, things need to go much further – Christians could achieve so much for equality and peace if we could all truly recognise their centrality to the Gospel. But there is enough of a politically progressive Christian movement out there for it to be clear that groups such as CCFON do not speak for all of us. Many people are motivated by their faith to campaign for equality.
Occasionally, I'll hear someone say “Symon's against homophobia, even though he's a Christian”. That's just not true. I'm against homophobia because I'm a Christian.