When London Mayor Boris Johnson joined in a carol service last week at the ultra-conservative church Jesus House, he could be sure of one thing: that whatever the reaction, the media would not give him nearly as hard a time as if he had associated himself with a group of fundamentalist Muslims.
Compare the response when his predecessor Ken Livingstone hosted the homophobic Muslim Yusaf al-Qaradawi in 2004. Newspaper headlines proclaimed their outrage.
Islamic fundamentalism is certainly unpleasant. As also is the Redeemed Christian Church of God, of which Jesus House is part. The Church carries out “exorcisms” of gay people.
Jesus House describes itself as the “elder sibling” of Victory House, a church whose website declares that AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are the means by which God carries out his sentence of death on homosexuals. Given that most people who die of AIDS are not gay, this suggests that God has a rather poor aim.
What did Johnson think he was doing? I appreciate that the Mayor of London does not have time personally to investigate every organisation he visits. But in selecting carol services, did his staff not think to be careful? Did he not think to ask them if there was anything about any of the services to which he might take exception?
Johnson's office said that he attended the service “to kick off a host of festive celebrations across the capital”. But inasmuch as Christmas is about Christ, it involves the celebration of the birth of a man who devoted considerable energy to attacking religious hypocrisy and the abuse of power, and eventually paid with his life.
Of course, it is right for the Mayor to talk with all sorts of groups. But in picking three or four carol services to attend, his choice implies endorsement or acceptance. Of the thousands of churches in London, there are many that proclaim Christ's message of love and liberation and actively reject homophobia. Why could Johnson not have chosen one of those?
We can only imagine the response if the Mayor had worshiped with a group of fundamentalist Muslims. The right-wing press would now be screaming their outrage. While Boris Johnson needs to apologise, the response of the media is just as important.
This is an opportunity for columnists and editors to show some consistency, by recognising that fundamentalist Christianity is as dangerous as fundamentalist Islam. Call me pessimistic, but it's not an opportunity that I'm expecting many of them to take up.