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Dear Joey, please don't give up your day job

If he were Prime Minister footballer Joey Barton would call on religion to be 'privatised' and for churches to lose state support. David Robertson writes an open letter to Barton pointing out some flaws in his plan.

Dear Joey,

Congratulations for getting involved in serious debate and putting forward your ideas on what you would do if you became Prime Minister. It certainly helps dispel the somewhat unfortunate media image (aka mindless football thug) that you have. So… kudos. 

There are those of us who would agree with some aspects of what you propose. For example, I am not personally opposed to the bishops losing their automatic seats in the House of Lords. Although I wonder why you pick on bishops – why have a House of Lords at all? Are bankers more worthy than bishops?

However, I’m afraid that your article about privatising ‘religion’ is wrong in several areas. You seem to think that the church is living in rent-free property that belongs to the State. You seem to think that a great deal of taxpayers’ money is subsidising religion in general and Christianity in particular and that therefore you, as an atheist, are subsidising the livelihood of vicars and priests.

Do some fact checking

But your ‘facts’ are all wrong. The government does not own the 20,000 church buildings or the land on which they are built. What you are proposing amounts to a state land grab of all the assets of the church (something that has actually happened in some of the worst examples of totalitarian atheist regimes). That’s what we call theft! 

Your taxes do not pay for vicars and priests; they are paid for from the congregations of the church. Yes, churches with charitable status are allowed to reclaim Gift Aid on donations (like any other charity). They receive the income tax that would have gone to the government, from the donor’s earnings.  But don’t worry, the taxes from your generous football pay packet won’t be involved in supporting the meagre income of the average parish priest.  In other words the church already pays for itself, so the first part of your proposal is completely redundant.  

Take my own small church for example. We have provided a £1 million public building which is well used by the local community, we provide youth work, debt counselling, relationship counselling, family support, musical concerts etc. without a single penny coming from the tax payer… as Prime Minister you should be offering us money to do the work that we do (at a fraction of the cost that the State does), not threatening to take away our buildings and freedom! We actually save taxpayers a massive amount of money. Church social work alone costs over £2.5 billion per year in the UK.

The small matter of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Lets talk about your proposal for faith based state schools. It’s kind of you to say that parents are free to teach their children in their own homes.  Thanks for allowing us that. But your statement that parents are not allowed to educate their children according to their own faith is contrary to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights – which in article 26 declares -  “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

But you will say, ‘not with taxpayers’ money’. You are forgetting that the majority of people who send their children to faith-based schools are taxpayers as well. Do they have no say in how their children should be educated with their money?  

The UN article 26 also declares ‘Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.’ Your problem is that you seem to think that education based upon your humanist principles is ‘neutral’.  But education can never be neutral.  It is always based upon some particular philosophy and ethos. Given that the Christian faith has served as the philosophy and ethos for most of the education in this country for the past several hundred years, why would you want to exclude it now?  What value system would you want our education system to be based upon? Yours?

Shall we nationalise football?

Finally, you declare ‘we shouldn't waste public money on religion when we can better serve the common good by spending money saved on social housing, the NHS and a pluralist education.’  Do you actually know how much public money is spent on religion? A pittance compared with the amount that is spent on sport! Maybe we should close down the Premier League, nationalise all football grounds, and spend the vast amounts of money used for footballers' wages on social housing, the NHS and education?!

The trouble is that your analysis of the ‘problem’ is all wrong. Its not that there is too much Christianity in the UK - it’s that there is too little. The Christian Church provides much of the youth work in the country, most of the food banks and much of the social care.  Yet you regard us as some kind of parasite on the nation’s taxpayers.

If I were Dictator

Your article should really be entitled ‘If I were Dictator’, not Prime Minister. The Joey Barton dictatorship would rob the churches of their resources, cancel the UN charter of human rights on education, and insist that every child is indoctrinated into your philosophy. Thankfully I grew up in a democracy based upon Christianity, where tolerance, freedom of choice and a good education were still valued. I want to continue to live in that country – God forbid that we should ever turn into the kind of authoritarian, intolerant, Secularist State you propose!

Anyway thanks for the stimulation and the encouragement to debate. Maybe you and I could get together some time to discuss these things further.  It is after all better to ‘jaw, jaw than war, war’!  All the best,

David Robertson is the minister of St Peter's Free Church and director of Solas Centre for Public Christianity in Dundee

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