As a full-time journalist on the Premier newsdesk, I regularly cover cases involving Christians facing legal action.
Take for example the high-profile case of Ashers Baking Company. The owners were found guilty in 2015 of discrimination for refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. The Belfast firm hopes to launch an appeal at the Supreme Court this autumn.
Or, Bristol street preachers Michael Overd, 53, and Michael Stockwell, 51, who were acquitted in June this year after initially being found guilty of religiously motivated public order offences.
The details of these cases are rarely simple, but speaking at the time, Mr Stockwell gave a stark warning: “Freedom of speech is under increasing assault in this nation.” It seems many ordinary Christians would agree with this assessment. Premier recently surveyed nearly 12,000 Christians across the country.
The responses to this ‘State of the Faith’ questionnaire revealed a very clear trend in one direction – Christians say they feel less able to express their faith freely than ever before.
Ninety-three per cent said they believed Christianity was being marginalised in society. Half said they had personally experienced prejudice.
Naturally, many often say that talk of ‘persecution’ is unnecessary; arguing the climate here shouldn’t be compared to places like Iraq or North Korea. Nevertheless, there are challenges for UK believers. Survey respondents cited examples including negative portrayals of Christians in the media and growing resistance to “the biblical worldview”.
Tim Dieppe, head of Public Policy at Christian Concern – which supported Mr Overd and Mr Stockwell under the auspices of the Christian Legal Centre – said the results resonate with their experiences.
“People try and say that our cases are the exception...I think what [Premier’s] research shows is that it’s the tip of the iceberg and actually underlying this there is a very strong ground swell of feeling and experience of prejudice or marginalisation.”
Nola Leach, chief executive of Care – a Christian group which lobbies politicians – agreed that there are “worrying signs” that Christian viewpoints are being sidelined.
“Partly because of illiteracy [and] partly because of those who have a very different agenda, we may be moving into a period when debate is shut down – where you can’t have an honest debate and agree to differ.”
Concern over so-called Christian illiteracy was a sentiment shared by Gary Streeter, a Christian and Conservative MP for South West Devon. “Many decision-makers in their 40s and 50s have what you might call religious illiteracy,” he explained.
Adding a proviso, he said: “But, at the same time I believe there’s actually more opportunity now for Christians to serve and share than at any other time in my adult life.”
Afraid to share faith
Four in five of the people who took part in the ‘State of the Faith’ research said they didn’t believe Christianity received the same respect in society as other religions.
Most (67 per cent) said they don’t think it is considered socially acceptable for Christians to share their faith with others.
Are perceptions among Christians of marginalisation a perfect reflection of reality? Not everyone thinks so. Media commentator Andrew Graystone argues, “Christians have got enormous freedom to operate and to act. Nobody stops Christians from meeting together. Nobody stops Christians from standing for parliament. Nobody stops Christians from talking about their faith.”
London pastor Nims Obunge reflected on Paul’s warning in Ephesians 6:12 that “our [battle] is not against human beings…It is against the spiritual forces of evil…” (NIRV).
Obunge explained: “No matter how much it looks as if we’re living in liberal society, that liberal society has spiritual opposition. So I think we have to go to our knees in prayer.”
Only a quarter of respondents said they are able to be open about their personal faith in their workplace.
The statistics also suggest a generational gap in views on Christian marginalisation. Asked whether Christianity is being marginalised in society, 94 per cent of pensioners agreed, compared to 77 per cent of 15 to 19-year-olds.
Paradoxically, 70 per cent of 15 to 19-year-olds said they had experienced prejudice because of their faith – compared to just 51 per cent of pensioners.
The State of the Faith
More than 12,000 people responded to Premier’s survey
93%of respondents said they felt their faith was being marginalised by society
50%say they have personally experienced prejudice as a result of their faith
23%said they feel unable to be open about their beliefs in the workplace
18%said Christianity is given the same respect in society as other worldviews and religions
Alex Cunningham, a Christian and Labour politician, said that 93 per cent of participants feeling their faith is marginalised was a “frightening statistic”.
The MP for Stockton North said efforts by believers to challenge negative perceptions among nonbelievers could help lead to fewer Christians feeling marginalised.
He said: “We can all talk about them [Christian values] but actually doing the practical things – I think those are the things that change [that] perception.”
The offence of the gospel
Speaking on marginalisation, Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford said believers should not be surprised or downhearted when “the sheer beauty of the gospel is a shock and an affront to a fallen world”.
Christians say they feel less able to express their faith freely than ever before
He said: “The world has never been in accord with the gospel of Jesus Christ and we’ve always had the challenge that we need to live it and share it.”
Lord Bourne, minister for faith and integration responded to the survey, saying: “The Christian faith contributes a huge amount to our communities and allows other faith groups to flourish. We’ve been clear that people need to be able to feel strong in their religious identities and are making sure that the voices of people of faith are heard in government.”
While there is disagreement over the reality of Christian marginalisation in the UK, the ‘State of the Faith’ survey reveals thousands of believers at least think it exists.
Whether or not the tide is continuing to turn on believers, the New Testament instructs Christians to continue in “the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12). And for those who are concerned about marginalisation, perhaps Matthew 5:12 is relevant: “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Read the survey results at ordinarychristian.org.uk