When secular puritanism is pitted against religious beliefs, it can produce no winners, argues Rev George Pitcher. He’s not sure he wants any part in it
I’m wondering where I stand on the culture wars.
Not whether a child causing the Koran to be dropped in a school corridor is guilty of a hate crime, or whether trans women should be allowed in female prisons, or whether I’m instinctively woke or a gammon.
No, I’m wondering whether being a Christian automatically makes me a soldier in culture wars.
First of all, I’m not at all sure I want to be a cultural Christian. I’m very happy to accept that we grew up in a nation whose history is rich in Christian culture; from education and health services for all to freedom under the law and the primacy of family.
There is a growing secular puritanism that is censorious of religious belief
But I’m also aware that being ‘culturally Christian’ is shorthand for just being a bit nice to people. Or, worse, a quasi-nationalist box to tick alongside being English, liking cricket and Conservative clubs. Do I want to be drawn into the cockfighting ring, where I’m required to claim I’m being cancelled, censored, or discriminated against, or am doing one or all of these things to other people?
A doctrine of prejudice
These thoughts arise primarily, but not only, from the case of Kate Forbes MSP, candidate for First Minister of Scotland in the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s retirement, and who is widely held to have disqualified herself from office by letting it be known that she would not have voted for same-sex marriage in 2014, based on her evangelical faith.
At first sight, this might be nailed as a straight piece of religious discrimination. Why should Forbes be shouted down because she has devout religious beliefs? Isn’t it the case that the democratic process always trumps those beliefs anyway? But I think it’s more interesting – and more threatening – than that.
I’m struck by something that David Aaronovitch wrote in The Times this week. He doubtfully addresses the claim that Christians are being “hounded out” of politics for their religious beliefs and raises the question of why someone’s conscience over “gay equality” is to be more respected if it arises from religious doctrine than from personal prejudice.
Or, as his daughter put it: “Why is Christian homophobia somehow better than atheist homophobia?” That is, admittedly, to accept that it is homophobia at all. I don’t know Forbes, but I’m guessing she might argue the issue of gender is as important in marriage as it is in deciding whether biological males should be allowed in women’s lavatories because they are trans women.
Phobia of the secular
I also wonder if Ms Aaronovitch considers Forbes and JK Rowling, a leading trans-sceptic in this context, to be two peas from the same bigoted pod. Perhaps she does. But if she doesn’t, then why is phobia of religion somehow better than phobia of the secular?
This is important not because of whether Forbes may be barred from Scotland’s premiership based on her Christian faith, but because of what it tells us about those who may want to sweep that faith (and other faiths) from the public square. We may be being cancelled.
I was also struck this week by a BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day from Dr Giles Fraser. He quoted former US president Jimmy Carter as saying that Christians are called to “plunge into the life of the world” and argued that it’s anti-democratic – or perhaps demo-phobic, if you like – to disbar religious conviction from public life. I particularly liked his observation that private religious observance makes “about as much sense as private cricket or private language.”
A community of communities
There is a secular puritanism that has grown in recent decades that is censorious of religious belief. And part of the problem is that its adherents present as perfectly pleasant, reasonable and progressive people. I’ve worked with the leaders of Humanists UK, for instance, and sat somewhat awkwardly next to atheist icon Richard Dawkins at a BBC dinner. These are people who are fun to be with.
Why is phobia of religion somehow better than phobia of the secular?
The trouble is, I don’t think they hold the same view of me. Or, should I say, people of faith, who they really don’t want to encounter in the public square. Dr Rowan Williams has written that “a state that is consistently working with diverse religious groups is a state [that] … thinks of itself as a ‘community of communities’ rather than a monopolistic sovereign power.”
Which of those kinds of state do those who decry Forbes want Scotland to be? A community at peace with itself is always going to be better than a culture at war.