Rights compete for privileged status in a liberal society. The right to redefine one’s gender, for instance, conflicts with a woman’s right to undress in a room reserved strictly for women. The right to speak one’s mind on campus comes up against the right of students to live free from unwelcome opinions. And the right to articulate a deeply held religious belief crashes headlong into the right of a whole smorgasbord of groups who don’t want to hear it.
Last year, a Christian bakery in Northern Ireland was fined for refusing to make a cake promoting gay marriage. The prosecution was backed by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which covered nearly £39,000 in legal fees. This story isn’t necessarily evidence of a conspiracy against true believers. It’s what happens when a society shrugs off its ancient cultural assumptions, embraces relativism, and invites people to sue their way to justice.
Christians have to accept that we can’t take Britain’s Christian identity for granted anymore. Church attendance is way down, multiculturalism is a reality, atheism is popular, and the establishment is almost antipathetic towards people of faith. While mainstream culture is prepared to accept faith as a vague and private matter, expressions of orthodox dogma are seen as warning signs of insanity – as demonstrated by reactions to BBC1’s appointment of a Creationist to present its morning show. Why Dan Walker’s private views generated such outrage is unclear. BBC Breakfast mostly presents items on celebrity weight loss and the Oscars. The day that it tackles Darwinian evolution is the day that it goes dangerously beyond its remit.
All of this is doubly irritating in an age in which horoscopes are widely read and a significant slice of the population thinks Earth has been visited by aliens. The human race is no less credulous than it once was. It’s just that its taste in the fantastic has moved on. So we now live in a post-Christian society, surrounded by the archaeology of an almost forgotten faith. One of the jobs of Christians in the next few decades will simply be to preserve – keep the churches open, keep the assemblies going, keep the Church of England’s role as the national church. As Hector says in The History Boys: 'pass it on, boys, pass it on.'
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Britain has gone through periods of near-faithlessness before – and come out of them thanks to waves of mini-awakenings fired by popular zeal. In the mid-19th century, Anglo-Catholicism and non-conformism revived the spirit in urban centres. They also injected themselves into politics by fighting child labour and poverty. The idea that some separation of church and state exists in England is a recent, fatuous import from America: we still have an established church and policy has always been framed by religious viewpoints. The Labour Party was a movement dominated by Methodists and Catholics. The Anglicans were once called 'the Tory Party at prayer'. In the arts, too, Christians need to be as visible as CS Lewis, GK Chesterton or Malcolm Muggeridge. Speak up, speak out. Let people know that you’re a believer.
Christians ought to illustrate the ways in which their faith has informed so much that is lazily associated with secular liberalism. Humanism, they should remind the public, began in the Catholic renaissance. Tolerance evolved from the notion that conversion should be entirely a matter of free will. Even Britain’s constant guilt over its past treatment of religious minorities is, ironically, a Christian thing: there’s no such culture of self-abasement in Turkey, even if it did previously rule millions with an iron fist during the Ottoman period.
Doubt and criticism of one’s motives are essential to the Christian ethic. The things that sometimes seem weakest about Western society are actually signs of its moral strength. The certainty and cultural homogeneity found in Arab societies, for instance, has only bred prejudice.
Re-evangelisation of Britain, however, has to start with acceptance that Christianity is no longer in control of European society. Christians have to think and act like a minority. That means being as loud and righteous as other groups have been when pursuing their goals. Happily, legal funds now exist to defend people who are denied the right to wear a cross at work or refuse an unreasonable demand for customer service. We need to be more vocal about fighting for the freedom to preach in the street or to avoid participating in abortion. A fine is deeply irritating, imprisonment an injustice. But both might be blessings in disguise. If the cost of standing up for the tenets of the Christian faith is persecution then that’s the price that has to be paid – and it could stir the hearts of onlookers. Never forget that a martyr is a witness. And the Christian story required witnesses for it to be told.
Christians have to prove not only that they have a right to speak their mind but also that everyone else benefits from having a healthy religious culture. In the past few centuries, Christians have contributed towards the abolition of slavery, the clearing of slums, the fight against low wages and the resistance to totalitarianism. They still have many wonders to perform.
This is an essay from 'Conservatism and human rights', a collection of essays published by Bright Blue. Tim Stanley is leader writer for the Daily Telegraph and contributing editor for the Catholic Herald.