Friday, March 18, 2011


So: why does singing hymns in registry offices, particularly, represent an attack on Christian civilisation? We need to wind back ten months, to May 2010 when an amateur Christian evangelist named Dale McAlipine was arrested and charged (but not prosecuted) "simply" for preaching Christian principles in public. 

Naturally Melanie Phillips leapt to his defence :

"Terrifying as this may seem, the attempt to stamp out Christianity in Britain appears to be gathering pace....a gentle, unaggressive Christian is arrested and charged simply for preaching Christian principles....It would appear that Christianity, the normative faith of this country on which its morality, values and civilisation are based, is effectively being turned into a crime. "

Well, yes.

Or rather "no". The preacher was not arrested for  simply preaching Christian principles. He was not arrested for simply saying that Jesus died for our sins according to the scriptures, or for simply saying that He rose again on the Third Day. He was not arrested for simply saying that the First and Second persons of the Holy Trinity shared a single essence. (He'd probably, to be fair, have had to have said that in a fairly complicated way.) He was arrested for saying, in what the police judged to be incendiary language, that homosexuality was a sin.

You could only say that he was "simply" arrested for preaching Christian principals if you already believed that "Christianity" and "the sinfulness of homosexuality" were synonymous or interchangable terms. Which would, obviously, be completely mad. Some Christians think being gay is a sin. Some don't. Rowan Williams' whole problem is that his church is split on the issue. Even the more traditional Christians, who think that gay sex (and playing with your thing, and having sex of any kind before you are married) is Very Naughty don't generally think that it is the most important part of the Christian faith. Mr C.S Lewis was quite careful to preface his (extremely conservative) chapter on Christian Marriage by saying that some muddle-headed Christians talked as if this was the heart of Christian morality, but that it wasn't. (Pride, since you asked.) 

There seems to be a general agreement that the police action  in arresting the soap-box preacher was over-the-top. Peter Tatchell himself thought that it went well beyond what the incitement to hatred laws ought to cover. (He thought there should be a certain quid pro quo: if he had the right to stand up in public and say that the Pope was a child abuser and a bigot then other people should have the right to stand up in public and say that Peter Tatchell was a hell-bound sodomite. This is what used to be called "secular liberalism", I believe.)

In any case, the soap-box man was never prosecuted. The Gay Lobby aren't trying nearly as hard to stamp out Christianity as the State Lobby is to stamp out Student Protests.

I did a bit of street preaching myself in my reckless youth. If the police think you are obstructing the highway or making a nuisance of yourself, they "move you on". Only if you positively refuse to move do they arrest you. Some of the keener brothers rather wanted this to happen since it would give them the opportunity to tell the local beak that unless he repented, he too would perish, in the manner of Saint Paul on Mars Hill. The bobbies never, in my experience, obliged.
One police officer arrested one street preacher on one occasion. That doesn't amount to a blanket ban on street preaching. One police officer moved on one group of children on one occasion: that does not mean that sinister forces in the government are pursuing an ideologically driven anti-hopscotch agenda. 

Only a complete lunatic would think that it did.

Mel takes two rather incompatible lines over this kind of thing. The first is a simple free speech position: if we are truly a tolerant society then intolerance is one of the things we should tolerate.

"Surreally, this intolerant denial of freedom is being perpetrated under the rubric of promoting tolerance and equality - but only towards approved groups. Never has George Orwell's famous satirical observation, that some people are more equal than others, appeared more true."

It doesn't matter what we think about Sodomy: what matters is that the Hotel Martyrs sincerely believed it to be a sin, and sincerely didn't want any sin going on in their double beds. A tolerant society must allow then to act on these sincere beliefs. 
This doesn't hold water for five minutes. I may very well have a sincere belief that God has instructed me to go around shouting "fire!" in crowded theatres, but that doesn't mean that my right to do so is protected under "freedom of worship" laws. I can believe that God disproves of miscegenation as strongly as want: I just can't turn mixed race couples away from my hotel. The "NO DOGS OR JEWS" sign hanging outside my shop may be a perfectly honest and sincere reflection of my belief that the Jews killed Jesus, drink the blood of infants, and, moreover, smell of wee. It's still against the law. 

Everyone has the right to practice, or not practice whichever religion they like and society must, indeed, be very careful indeed of making laws which impact disproportionately on particular communities. I have no particular human right to stick vegetables in my clothes, but a law prohibiting anyone from putting leaks in their headwear during March would be judged to be a bad law, because it would have fairly obviously been invented with the specific aim of annoying Welsh people. It seems unfair that there is a special law against hunting foxes, with dogs, on horses, while wearing natty red jackets, because that law seems to single out a particular social class (rich country people) while leaving the fascist R.S.P.B quite free to gas hedgehogs if that's what they get off on. Laws preventing people from covering their faces in public, or changing the regulations about the humane slaughter of animals are open to the accusation of unfairly singling out particular minority religions. 

But that doesn't mean that all laws become optional if you can plausibly claim that breaking them is part of your religious identity. Every military officer and every schoolteacher knows this: it's one thing to say "Can I be excused chapel because I'm a Muslim" or "Can I take my day off on Saturday, rather than Sunday, because I'm Jewish" but quite another to say "I have just invented, off the top of my head, a religion called Jedi, and, as you know, it is against the Jedist faith to peel potatoes or go on cross-country runs." Satanists are perfectly free to be Satanists, Rastafarians are perfectly free to be Rastafarians and creepy evangelicals are perfectly free to be creepy evangelicals but the laws against performing human sacrifice, smoking weed and spanking schoolboys apply to them just the same as they apply to everybody else, however sincerely they believe that Satan / Jah / Dr Dobson told them otherwise.

So: since the argument that street preachers should be allowed to preach homophobia simply because that is what they sincerely believe is unsustainable, Mel has to resort to a deeper, more sophisticated, stupider argument. Preachers and hoteliers have a special right to discriminate against homosexuals because homosexuality is a special case.


Most Christians are Christians because they believe that Christianity is true or at any rate, wish that it were. They believe in God and think that Jesus, or the Church of England, or Cliff Richard provided a good path, or the best path, or the only path for getting in touch with Her. Some of them -- some Quakers, maybe, Catholic Modernists, Sea of Faith Anglicans, the Archbishop of Canterbury -- may not even go this far. "I don't know if there's a God" they say "But I do know that everyone would be much nicer and much happier if they just pretended." Nearly all of them have some feeling that Jesus is, or was, or would have been, or am, a really cool dude. They think that God and Jesus and Christianity are good things in themselves. 

Melanie Philips never mentions Jesus. (She's Jewish.) She doesn't regard Christianity as a good thing in itself. She takes a purely instrumental view of religion. It is a means to an end. The end is a mysterious entity variously described as "this country" or "society" or "civilisation". Christianity is "the normative faith of this country on which its morality, values and civilisation are based". Christian opinions represent "the bedrock values of this society". Biblical morals are "the bedrock values of Western civilisation" and "society's core values." If a preacher is arrested (but not prosecuted) for using incendiary homophobic language in public, it follows that "the faith Britain was built on" is becoming a crime. We need to be Christian, or to pretend to be Christian, or to have Christian morals, because that's the only thing which will keep "this country" or "society" or "western civilisation" ticking over.

Well, now. 

If by "culture" you mean "the stuff we've all got in common" then anyone might say that Christianity is a big part of British culture. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Henry VIII, Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Cliff Richard were, or claimed to be, Christians. Parliament, the Church of England, Oxford and Cambridge University, Eton College, the BBC and the Beano were all founded by people who thought of themselves as Christians  (John Stewart Mill, Charles Darwin, Aleister Crowley, David Attenborough, John Lennon and Ricky Gervais were of course, atheists, but they were Church of England atheists. It was an Anglican God they didn't believe in.) And we could probably all agree that it would be a Bad Thing if Christianity, in this sense, were to be "stamped out" by an Orwellian boot. It would involve falsifying our history and our "culture". It would be quite odd if Kenyan children grew up knowing all about the Eskimos and the Highland Clearances, but little about the history of their corner of Africa. It would be equally odd if we decided to raise a generation who did not know who Friar Tuck, Solomon, Falstaff, Doubting Thomas, Sir Francis Drake, Daniel, Mr Micawber and Polycarp of Smyrna were. 

If that is really happening, which it isn't, then the stamping is being done, not by the Political Correctness Brigade but by gradgrindian Tories -- Daily Mail readers to a man -- who don't see how Shakespeare and Dickens and the Bible are going to help kids get out and compete in the global marketplace, or at any rate work in McDonalds. (Education for its own sake is a bit of a dodgy idea, as one of Blair's simians once remarked.) Even Richard Dawkins and Phillip Pullman agree about this: you may not believe in the Bible but you ought to know what it says. It's only the halfwits who contribute to the Guardian's religion blog who can't hear the word "Bible" or "Church" without blubbering "why even mention ancient savage bronze age stupid fairy tale primitive grapefruit segments har har Christians are silly".


Even if it is true that some or all British institutions were originally Christian, or Christian in inspiration, it could not possibly follow that the "stamping out" of Christianity would cause those institutions, and therefore the nation as a whole, to collapse.  I suspect that this part of Mel's argument is based on a rather silly piece of metaphor abuse. If my school was founded by a Christian teacher, using money donated by Christians, and if for 600 years a prayer has been said in the chapel each morning, then I might very well say "this school is built upon Christian foundations". It doesn't follow that if you stop singing hymns or appoint a Muslim headmaster, the building will fall down. It might be quite silly and quite petty to decide that prayers would no longer be said in the House of Commons, but the business of law-making could carry on quite happily without them. 

But there is not the remotest suggestion that this is going to happen. Mel's case for Christianity being turned into a crime depends on four examples. 

1: The aforementioned preacher, who was arrested, but not prosecuted, for what an individual police officer judged, wrongly, to be hate speech.

2: The aforementioned hotel owners, who were successfully prosecuted for refusing to allow gay couples to share a bed under their roof.

3: A local government official who was fired for refusing to perform civil partnership ceremonies. (She was offered a transfer to a different department, but refused to accept the offer.)[*]

4: Nothing else. 

That is: when Mel says that "Christianity" is being criminalized, what is being criminalized is prejudice against homosexuals. But that's okay, because prejudice against homosexuals is at the heart of the Christian message. It practically is the Christian message.  

What follows is a direct quote from her column: it is not a piece of satirical exaggeration on my part:

"Many of these cases involve the issue of homosexuality since this is the principal area where orthodox [**] Christian beliefs cannot co-exist with the law. This is in contrast to other contentious issues such as abortion, where the law specifically provides exemptions for conscience. This is because unlike the specific and limited issue of abortion, the militant gay rights agenda represents an attack on the entire value system of our society by destroying the very idea that any sexual behaviour is normal. "

Now abortion is the kind of issue which makes liberal believers -- liberals in general, I think -- uncomfortable. How can a horse, a dog, a rat have rights, and an unborn human no rights at all? Why are so many of us so absolutely certain that killing Nazi soldiers is wrong, killing murderers and paedophiles is wrong but killing unborn people is sometimes perfectly OK? Even if its a matter of life and death, why do we choose to kill the innocent who had no choice with the less innocent who, might have done? 

Don't bother to write in and tell me the the answer to these questions. I've already placed my bet firmly on the "pro-choice" side of the coin. I'm only saying that it's a difficult question. A question about morals. And that if you think -- as Mel I believe Mel does, and as I imagine the soap-box preacher does -- that abortion is wrong, you believe that it is wrong on simple, straightforward grounds that anyone, of any religious or philosophical persuasion, could easily understand. Killing babies is wrong. 

In the Melverse, it passes in a second. It is unimportant. "Saying that you can't preach inflammatory anti-gay sermons in public places" and "Saying that if you want to work in a Registry Office you have to perform civil partnership ceremonies" represents and attack on the entire -- the ENTIRE -- value system of our society whereas killing babies does not.

I am going to say that again.

Saying that two men or two women can form a legally binding civil partnership is an attack on the entire value system of our society.

Saying that it's sometimes okay to kill babies is NOT an attack on the entire value system of our society.

Why is the right of someone to preach homophobic sermons, or the right of someone else to turn gay men away from their hotel such an inalienable right? 

Because the idea of gay equality represents an attack on society because it would "destroy the very idea that any sexual behaviour is normal". It is "the very idea that any sexual behaviour is normal" which is the " core" or "bedrock" which she has been talking about. The distinction between normal and abnormal sexual behaviour is the thing which our society is based on.

To summarize:

The Entire Value System of Our Society (V) is based on the idea that heterosexuality is normal and homosexuality is not normal (H)

The Entire Value System of Our Society (V) is based on Christianity (X).

If V = H and V = X than H = X

Christianity can therefore be defined as "the belief that heterosexuality is normal and homosexuality is not normal." 

In the Mel lexicon, Christianity means homophobia.

Having dealt with the more sensible part of her argument, I now wish to turn to the part where she goes a little bit crazy:

[*] That really is a bit like a Muslim working in a hotel, who refuses a offer to be transferred to the kitchen, the waiting staff, or the coffee bar. "No" he says "I demand to be allowed to serve in the bar, but to have my conscientious objection to serving beer respected." He would not have been fired for "refusing to serve alcohol" so much as for "being a dick."

[**] She talked about Christianity as a "normative" faith; she's now talking about "orthodox" Christian belief. I am not sure what either of these two qualifying words mean. I know what an Orthodox Christian is; I think I know what an Orthodox Jews is: they aren't "orthodox" in the same sense. I think I know what a Normative Jew is. I have no idea what a Normative Christian is. (Does it mean "one who follows Christian norms, whether or not he believes in Christian theology". Or does it mean "The consensus among ordinary people as to what Christianity means, regardless of the what the clergy teaches.) I hope she is not using these big words just to throw sand in our eyes.


I. Dall said...

Er, thanks for the good work? Theocrats are milking homophobia, & getting away with it.

SK said...

Someone once wrote an essay on how though traditions might only be symbols, nevertheless they are symbols; and that while you might be able to change the symbols, you would have to replace them with something else, and the very nature of the thing would be (subtly or not so subtly) altered. I remember the example of how no longer dressing up in gowns to be presented with degrees would change the very nature of what we meant by 'learning' (presumably because, say, having the end goal of one's education a ceremony where one wears a business suit would reinforce the idea that education is there only to prepare you for the world of work).

Might you have read it? Might you remember the author?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Do let me know if you have a point, at all.

SK said...

Oh, I thought this was the internet. Sorry.

Andrew Rilstone said...

SK - You will find that a lot more attention is paid to you around here if you say what you actually think (I can't tell if think that being The Gay is badwrong or if you are just playing Mail's advocate) and if you actually say what you think is wrong with my argument, rather than just trying to score debating points and being sarcastic.

SK said...

But -- as I'm sure you've discovered -- to say what you think, in a way that's clear and witty, takes a lot of time and effort. And even then people will misunderstand you, whether innocently or vexatiously. I simply don't have the time (and even if I did I might be too lazy -- but I won't find out as I don't have the time).

In this case, what I was taking issue with was the idea that things like prayers in schools or the House of commons are simply 'window dressing'. I know you're countering hyperbole with hyperbole -- arguing against the idea that simply ceasing to pray will make Faction Paradox swallow us all or something -- but I thought it worthwhile to point out that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: that though stopping prayer in the hypothetical school won't cause the physical foundations to crumble, it will mean that it is no longer quite the same school.

Some people might see it as a change for the better, of course, arguing that religion has no place in education (except as a safely killed and dissected thing, mounted for study in Religious Studies lessons but kept behind glass so as to avoid any risk of it infecting the pupils) or that to have prayers for one specific religion will make those of other religious feel uncomfortable.

Others might see it as the first step down a slippery slope that leads to shirt-tails hanging out, smoking behind the bike-sheds and severed boars' heads mounted on poles in the middle of the rugby field.

But it would be a change; and similarly, removing the religious paraphernalia from government would change the nature of the country. Having bishops in the House of Lords -- having the monarch, who is nominally in charge of Parliament itself (provided they don't actually try to influence it), crowned by the Archbishop -- all symbolise the point that 'right' and 'wrong' transcend the political process; that the aim of our laws is to come close to approximating some real moral order to the universe.

Lose those symbols and the country shifts a little more towards the secular idea of laws being entirely things that we make up for the smooth running of society: so restricting the right to murder, for example, is no longer a different type of law than the one which prevents me from driving on the right-hand-side of the road.

Now, that may be a good thing -- people might feel more invested in laws they feel proceed from their will as the governed. Or it may be another small step towards anarchy -- people might think that as the laws are merely expressions of human opinion, they can ignore ones where their opinion doesn't agree with the law.

But it would be a significant thing, and therefore your counter-hyperbole of 'these things could be changed, and all would proceed as before' is just as inaccurate as 'if these things are changed, all will collapse.' The truth is in the middle. I quote: 'the business of law-making could carry on quite happily without them.' Well, yes, it could carry on and it might be happy; but it would no longer be quite the same process, seen in quite the same way, as before.

I certainly wouldn't consider myself the Mail's advocate, for the reason that I find it incredibly distasteful when those who are not themselves Christians attempt to hijack some Christian symbol as cover for their own arguments while at the same time stripping it of its actual meaning (I agreed completely with your article on the 'Is this the most offensive issue in Britain?' headline, for example).

SK said...

Sorry, the headline was 'most offensive image.'