The dangers in controlling extremists

 

One of the great dangers facing us in a free society is that seeking to control extremists will lead to control of those who are not extremists. This is a current issue in Britain today. In February Conservative MP Michael Fabricant said that some of the views of conservative Anglicans “differ little from ISIL” (or ISIS). The Archbishop of Canterbury commented that some modern politicians can’t see “the difference between an extremist Muslim group like the Muslim Brotherhood and a sort of conservative evangelical group in a Church of England church”.

 

Fabricant’s profoundly ignorant and offensive comment illustrates the danger very well. The implication seems to be we must control ISIS so we should control conservative Anglicans too! He added that the Church of England risked becoming “out of step with 21st century Western liberal values.” My response is that it should be out of step with some 21st century Western liberal values and long may that continue. Fabricant is so ignorant of the Christian Faith that he imagines the church must change its views to suit society. To be fair though, some church leaders seem to agree with him!

 

Sadly, Fabricant is not alone in his ignorance of Christianity. The government’s counter extremism policy suffers from the same weakness and theological illiteracy. Of course, we must respect people of other faiths but that does not mean we should accept or support their beliefs or avoid reasonable criticism of them. The government’s official definition is: “Extremism is the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” This could mean that Christians may be penalised for expressing opposition to beliefs or practice we disagree with.

 

The Archbishop also reported a conversation with a ‘very senior politician’ who asked: “Are you seriously going to tell me that I don’t call someone an extremist if they say that their faith is more important than the rule of law?” The Archbishop responded: “Well, you’ve got a real problem here because for me personally my faith is more important than the rule of law so you’ve got an extremist sitting in here with you … We do not believe as Christians that the rule of law outweighs everything else, we believe that the kingdom of God outweighs everything else.”

 

Speaking to the House of Lords in February 2016 he said: “It is widely agreed that all statements that tend towards causing hatred, contempt, violence, for other faiths should not be permitted. Nevertheless, it is not extremist in any way, and should be encouraged, that there are statements that are frank and categorical assertions of faith, or no faith, and that there is no right not to be offended, or to be hurt, by such statements.”

 

David Anderson QC said it was “dangerous” to introduce measures to silence people simply because they oppose certain Government-approved values. He added “the police are going to feel they have to investigate all sorts of people who are miles away from being terrorists but may just practise religion in a conservative way or may have eccentric political views … Silence coerced by law is a very dangerous business particularly when you’re looking at something as vague as extremism”.

 

The prime minister, speaking in the House of Commons in November 2016 stated that the ability to “speak freely, respectfully and responsibly about one’s religion should be a jealously guarded principle” She added: “I am sure we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith.” However, the way the government’s anti-extremism policy is being interpreted threatens freedom of speech about one’s faith.

 

The indoctrination of children

 

We should be particularly concerned that children are a main target of the theologically illiterate counter-extremism activists. If they have their way these activists will gradually undermine Christianity much more seriously than it is undermined in current society.

 

In a particularly sinister development, despite earlier reports of it deciding not to do so, the government plans to register church groups and Sunday schools which involve children for a total of six hours a week and to make them open to OFSTED inspections. True, many church groups won’t qualify but not to see this as the thin end of the wedge of government interference in all church groups is naïve. The government arrogantly assumes that it is capable of defining mandatory “British values” whilst not informed about, respecting or understanding the centuries of Christian history in this country.

 

Simon McCrossan, Evangelical Alliance head of public policy, accused the government of treating religious freedom as “an after-thought at best” and added: “These plans could lead the way to a register of Sunday schools, and making the government the arbiter of what doctrine is or isn’t desirable.” Stephen Timms MP, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, accused the government of seeing religious faith as “a problem.” Sir Gerald Howarth MP said, “regulating groups such as Sunday schools is clearly absurd. It would place a huge administrative burden on such groups, would severely damage volunteering and would be a serious infringement of personal liberty and freedom of association.”

 

UN condemns compulsory school assemblies

 

A recent report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child says that the fact that pupils are legally required to attend assemblies which are “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” violates their human rights. They recommend that the UK government “repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship”. Parents can already withdraw their children from assemblies but the committee wants to give children the right to act independently of their parents.

 

Parents fear children will be rejected if they express faith

 

A recent ComRes survey commissioned by the Theos think tank found that 23% of parents didn’t pass on their faith to their children for fear the children would be alienated at school. 18% of parents said it was not their responsibility to pass on their beliefs to their children. Only 40% of parents said they had spoken to their children about their faith.

 

Moves towards enforcing support for gay marriage

 

UK Communities Secretary Sajid Javid wrote in the Sunday Times in December 2016 that people in public life should accept basic British values: “I’m talking about tolerating the views of others, even if you disagree with them. About believing in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from abuse. I’m talking about a belief in equality, democracy and the democratic process. And about respect for the law, even if you think the law is an ass. Because if you do disagree, you can change it. That’s what freedom and democracy are all about.”

 

This all sounds good but it all depends on how it is worked out. Of course, all human beings are equal, but equality is sometimes referring to equality, not of people but of behaviour. This is particularly the case with the whole gay marriage issue. The danger is illustrated by the comments of Dame Louise Casey who works for the British government and conducted a review into integration and opportunity in isolated and deprived communities, published in December 2016. She supports an “equality oath.” Shortly after her review was published she called church schools who supported traditional marriage “homophobic” and accused them of using “religious conservatism as a veil for anti-equality views.” And this is despite the official line that schools do not have to support and endorse same-sex marriage. On being criticised she backed off. The Department for Communities and Local Government stated: “Dame Louise is a supporter of the right to gay marriage now enshrined in law, however she does respect and understand the Catholic Church’s long-held view that marriage is between a man and a woman, even if that is not her own view.

She is not threatening the right of the Church or individuals of faith to hold that view, or to include it in teaching it as a fundamental tenet of faith. That is indeed an important aspect of a shared British value of freedom of religious expression.” But the dangerous trend continues.

 

In November a school in St. Austell issued an apology to a teaching assistant whom they had disciplined for saying to a pupil who asked her about the matter that she did not support gay marriage.

 

Former MP Ann Widdecombe wrote about the case of the Ashers Bakery Co (a Christian bakery prosecuted for refusing to make a cake with a slogan promoting gay marriage). She said that historically being forced to affirm beliefs contrary to conscience was “rightly recognised as the hallmark of totalitarianism itself.” She added: “In the Ashers case, the principle of not being allowed to express a view has been extended to being forced to affirm one – an infringement of individual liberty that would have been unthinkable not so very long ago.” She warned Christians not to “sleepwalk through this”, or they would risk seeing more of their civil liberties gradually removed.

 

Even Peter Tatchell, a long-term campaigner for gay rights, strongly disapproves of the judgment against the Ashers:

“Although I strongly disagree with Ashers’ opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be compelled to facilitate a political idea they oppose. Ashers did not discriminate against the customer, Gareth Lee, because he was gay. They objected to the message he wanted on the cake: “Support gay marriage.”

Discrimination against LGBT people is wrong and is rightly unlawful. But in a democratic society, people should be able to discriminate against ideas they disagree with. I am saddened that the court did not reach the same conclusion.

This judgment opens a can of worms. It means that a Muslim printer could be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed and a Jewish printer could be required to publish a book that propagates Holocaust denial. It could also encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakers and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions. What the court has decided sets a dangerous, authoritarian precedent that is open to serious abuse. Discrimination against people should be illegal but not discrimination against ideas and opinions.”

 

Queen’s chaplain urged to resign over defending Jesus as divine

 

The Rev Gavin Ashenden was clearly pressed to resign as a Queen’s chaplain after he opposed a reading from the Koran in Glasgow Cathedral which denied the deity of Jesus. The reading was about the birth of Jesus but denied that he is the Son of God and says he should not be worshipped. This is a very serious error and if the cathedral authorities were aware that this was going to be read they should resign. If they weren’t they should profoundly apologise. Here we have another ‘equality’ confusion. People of different faiths (or no faith) are equal as human beings and we must regard them as such. But we are not required to regard different religious beliefs as equally valid. So I will respect our Muslim friends but I regard their beliefs as seriously wrong, and have the right to say so publicly. Christian leaders who allow public contradiction of basic creedal beliefs in church services are incompetent and seriously failing in their duties. Gavin Ashenden said: “After a conversation instigated by officials at Buckingham Palace, I decided the most honourable course of action was to resign.” In other words he was pressed to resign.

 

It is obvious that the trend in society is moving towards serious oppression of Christians and we need to be alert to this without falling into paranoid overreaction. We need to pray and, where possible, act to oppose this trend.

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