The Government thinks traditional, conservative Christians are “a bit bonkers”.
That's according to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He's said it is the result of widespread religious illiteracy which extends even to Government ministers. To prove his point, Welby used a recent speech to tell the story of a meeting he had with a senior politician, who tried to persuade Welby that anyone who said their faith was more important to them than the rule of law should be called an extremist.
A risk to religious freedom
I’ve been reflecting on what Welby has exposed. Am I now an extremist? Like Welby, I have great respect for the rule of law but my faith will always come first. My life is shaped by a passionate belief in Jesus Christ: that he was miraculously born of a virgin; that he died for my sins; that he was raised to life on the third day. Because of Jesus, I have been born again; I enjoy being in a relationship with God; I try and tell others about the amazing good news of Jesus Christ.
By all accounts I'm just an ordinary evangelical. My ultimate authority in life is the Bible, not a voice in my head or a gut feeling I might have. For holding my faith so seriously, the Government now seems to think I am an extremist.
When extremist Muslim sects and groups are being lumped together with ordinary evangelicals and both defined as extremists, then we have a problem.
We are in a situation where the Archbishop of Canterbury could be considered an extremist under the Government’s own definition
That we are even in a situation where the Archbishop of Canterbury could be considered an extremist under the Government’s own definition of the term only highlights how muddled Government thinking is. In attempting to enshrine in law a legally workable definition of both violent extremism and non-violent extremism, the Government is facing mission impossible.
Not that long ago, Professor Julian Rivers, the leading expert on law and religious belief in the UK was warning that the Government’s definitions of extremism poses a serious risk to religious freedom and could even be illegal. It is clear that the Government is tying itself in knots and fumbling around in the dark trying to define the indefinable.
Time and again in recent years we have been reminded that the Government simply cannot grasp the reality that for ordinary evangelicals like me, faith is everything. There is a public dimension to my faith and it’s not just something I keep at home. My ultimate allegiance is not to the rule of law, but to God’s Word. In turn, this means I try and respect the authorities, because that is what the Bible tells me to do (Romans 13). It means I pray for the Government (1 Timothy 2) and seek to live at peace with everyone.
The Bible categorically commands me to love others before myself. I think being a Christian will cause me to be a better citizen in a democratic society, respecting leaders and serving others. Surely the Government should be embracing that, rather than trying to force me to sign up their own list of values?
The State has no business appointing itself as some sort of thought police, telling us what ideas are in accord with so-called 'British values'. These categories are extraordinarily subjective and the Government risks missing the wood for the trees. Instead of actual extremists getting caught, harmless street preachers could be targeted. What an awful waste of time and taxpayers money.
Real, genuine, Islamic extremism absolutely needs to be tackled. The answer, however, is not some broad, sledge-hammer approach that will demolish vital and hard won freedoms.
If the Government really want to get the new Counter Extremism legislation right, then they need to talk to evangelicals (and others) and listen to our concerns. And we evangelicals need to get ready to tell the Government what we believe. It would be tragic if the noble intention of protecting people from radicalisation and extremism became the means of undermining the vital principle of religious freedom and free speech.
James Mildred writes on a range of issues from an evangelical perspective. Formerly a press officer for Ruth Davidson MSP, he then ran CARE’s press office before moving west to train with Grace Church Yate, near Bristol.