As well as being World AIDS Day and Prisoners for Peace Day, today (1 December) is also “Not Ashamed” Day. The socially conservative lobby group Christian Concern, backed by former Archbishop George Carey, have launched the Day to encourage Christians to “stand up for Jesus Christ in public life”.
I am not ashamed to be a Christian active in public life, but I am not wearing one of the “Not Ashamed” badges. This is because the campaign aims to encourage only a certain sort of Christian to engage in particular forms of public life.
The campaign is based on the false premise that Christians as a group are facing “discrimination” in Britain. This view is the main preoccupation of Christian Concern, who were until recently known as Christian Concern For Our Nation, or CCFON. Given the organisation’s policies – which include opposition to equality legislation, hostility to civil partnerships, a ban on abortion in all circumstances and the reintroduction of the death penalty – it might be thought that it wasn’t the name that needed changing.
Every case which Christian Concern takes on is wedged into their narrative about the supposed marginalisation of British Christians. Yet the cases cited in support of this view are widely varied.
Some have clearly involved an abuse of civil liberties – though usually due to authoritarian uniform codes and the like rather than anti-Christian prejudice. Others have been about the “right” of Christians to practise discrimination themselves. Most have been complex and confused by a range of individual circumstances.
As Christians, we are called to treat others as we wish to be treated. I suggest we should therefore be ready to promote the liberties of others as well as those of Christians. If I love my Muslim neighbour as myself, I will stand up for her freedom to wear a hijab as much as my freedom to wear a cross. If I love my atheist neighbour as myself, I will defend his right to say that he does not believe in God as much as my right to say that I do.
While standing up for the civil liberties of all people, we should also be prepared to give up privileges from which Christians benefit. These include bishops in the House of Lords, opt-outs from employment legislation and special status for faith schools (over 99 per cent of which are Christian). What better way could we witness to the love of Jesus than to say we will not accept discrimination against non-Christians?
We should not of course overlook those Christians in this country who do face discrimination. But the people discriminating against them are often other Christians.
For example, when certain groups lobbied successfully for religious exemptions from this year’s Equality Act, they effectively ensured that Christian organisations will be allowed to practice homophobia when recruiting staff. As most people applying for jobs with such organisations are Christians, those who are most likely to lose out as a result will be gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians. Christian Concern are certainly not standing up for the rights of those Christians.
The Christian Legal Centre (CLC), which is closely linked with Christian Concern, has taken on many of the cases of supposed anti-Christian discrimination at a legal level. Yet I know several Christians whose faith has motivated them to take action that lands them in court, but who never hear from the CLC.
How about the three Catholics who recently cut through the fence at the Aldermaston nuclear base and declared it “open for decommissioning”? What of those whose Christianity leads them to take nonviolent direct action at the biennial London Arms Fair? Or Christians who are moved to shelter refused asylum-seekers, destitute and desperate to avoid deportation back to oppression?
Does the CLC ever contact any of these people? And if not, why not?
The reality is that Christian Concern and George Carey define Christian political engagement very narrowly. Andrea Williams, Director of Christian Concern, speaks of the “right to life”, yet encourages support for the Christian Party, who are keen for the UK government to retain its nuclear weapons. Carey has said publicly that Britain should be proud of its arms industry.
The “Not Ashamed” campaign fails to promote the breadth and depth of Christian engagement in public life and thus does a disservice to the cause it claims to champion.
Like so many other initiatives, it gives the impression that British Christians are a paranoid group concerned only with their own interests and clinging desperately onto privileges which compromise their integrity.
And that really is something to be ashamed of.
(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, which can be ordered at http://www.newint.org/books/no-nonsense-guides/religion .
Part of this article appeared in the Baptist Times on 30 September 2010.