Concerns are growing that Christian organisations could be blacklisted by the government’s new definition of extremism, says James Mildred


Source: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stood outside No. 10 Downing Street and gave a speech about extremism.

In it, he extolled British values which he defined chiefly as our “commitment to a liberal, parliamentary democracy”. He said, “Islamist extremists and far right groups are spreading a poison, that poison is extremism.”

He also praised the “tolerance” of the “established Christian church”, saying it helped underpin the values of a plural society

The main point of the speech was to announce the government would bring forward a new definition of extremism. This would then be followed by a new strategy to tackle extremism. These were published yesterday. Here’s the new definition:

“Extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).”

It is important to stress that I applaud and support the intent behind what the government is doing. Extremism is real and it is a threat to our society. The values of Militant Islamists and far right groups are completely contrary to our democratic system and to our Christian worldview.

What we have seen on the streets of London in recent weeks is deeply concerning. I do not think people should have the right to chant things that are considered antisemitic and racist, let alone project them onto Big Ben while MPs are debating the tragic events in Gaza. We need a much tougher police response to this, to help show citizens that such actions have consequences. The spreading of lies, and racial or religious hatred should face the full force of the law.

Is being pro-life now considered extreme? What about defending the historic Christian position on marriage?

But the new extremism definition must be very carefully considered. Policies that seek to curb free expression are notoriously problematic. There is always a danger that in trying to catch genuinely dangerous and harmful behaviour, free speech is disproportionately undermined.

The bottom line is that people should not be punished for saying things that are merely offensive. 

Some media reports have suggested that cabinet ministers are deeply concerned that Christian organisations such as CARE risk being blacklisted by this new definition. Is being pro-life now considered extreme? What about defending the historic Christian position on marriage? Or believing that human beings cannot change sex?

The new definition says extremism is an ideology based on “hatred” - understood very differently, depending on who you speak to. It talks about “overriding the freedoms of others”. What does this mean? Would it be extremist to try and persuade a pregnant woman not to have an abortion? 

Sometimes, the government likes to position itself as the referee in our pluralist public square. But the government is not a referee, it is a player. It has its own worldview and subjective approach to this issue.

So what can be done? Do we just wring our hands and carry on allowing blatant acts of antisemitism, racism, and violence to happen on our streets?

Not at all. As Christians, we ought to abhor such things. We should also recognise that it is the God given duty of governments to restrain evil (Romans 13). Thankfully, the UK already has existing laws. We have the Terrorism Act which can be used to prosecute people who create a serious risk to public safety during protests. We have the Public Order Act, which outlaws other harmful behaviour.

I think these existing laws are enough. And I’d like to see the government focus on applying these laws to the unacceptable scenes of violence and intimidation we’ve seen in recent months. 

In the Christian worldview, freedom matters. The right to speak out matters. Public safety matters. The common good and social cohesion matter. I applaud the government’s intent. I just wish I had more confidence that it is posing the right solutions.