Pluralism and Persecution in the UK

Despite the Telegraph’s deliberately provocative title (“Christians are more militant than Muslims, says Government’s equalities boss”), which doesn’t accurately reflect the content of the article, the Chairman of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission recently raised some interesting points and makes some insightful observations about integration, pluralism and claims of religious persecution in modern society (ht:M*).

Trevor Phillips explained that although the Commission did not have a reputation of standing up for people of faith in the past, he is committed to do so in the role. But the Telegraph also reported that Phillips observed that Evangelical Christians in the UK are more “militant” in complaining about discrimination — by which he appears to be referring to bringing administrative or civil actions under equality or employment legislation — than Muslims in the UK.

From his vantage point, according to the Telegraph, this is because

Muslim communities in this country are doing their damnedest to try to come to terms with their neighbours to try to integrate and they’re doing their best to try to develop an idea of Islam that is compatible with living in a modern liberal democracy.

The most likely victim of actual religious discrimination in British society is a Muslim but the person who is most likely to feel slighted because of their religion is an evangelical Christian.

I think this is a fascinating and insightful observation. Evangelical Christians, in Phillips’ view, are cynically claiming discrimination, primarily in cases relating to homosexuality, possibly as a vehicle to make headlines and gain political influence. I am not sure what data informs this particular observation by Phillips but the point about Muslims in the UK, by and large, making a real effort to integrate or at least find a way to come to terms with “a modern, multi-ethnic, multicultural society” seems valid, in my own admittedly limited observation.

Similarly, I share Phillips’ skepticism in the face of Evangelical Christian claims of being persecuted. Phillips acknowledges the mean-spiritedness of the new atheist pundits such as Richard Dawkins, whom he names specifically, which he says he regrets. But he also notes that “there are a lot of Christian activist voices who appear bent on stressing the kind of persecution that I don’t think really exists in this country.” I also think that such claims by a majority religion in a country that does not even have an institutional separation of church and state and where the state religion is Christianity are extremely dubious. Whether the source of such claims of persecution really is a veiled attempt to gain political weight and influence is more difficult to affirm and I don’t think it’s particularly necessary to do so in order to agree with the deeper point about pluralism.

If Phillips is correct in his observations, it raises the inference that Muslims are more committed to religious pluralism in the UK than Evangelical Christians. This might seem ironic at first blush but is less so considering that adherents of minority religions are the most immediate primary beneficiaries of a society’s commitment to religious pluralism (the “modern, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society” to which Phillips refers also, in my view, would necessarily encompass a robust notion of religious pluralism over and above mere toleration). Majority religions, by the way, also benefit in the long run from true religious pluralism because it is in everyone’s best interest for peace and prosperity (in my opinion) for such pluralism to exist, even if it means that a majority religion doesn’t get to proscribe the adherents of minority religions in their spiritual privileges or deny them of their individual rights as citizens. Depending on their perspective, adherents of the majority religion might view this as more of a bug than a feature (Warren Smith?) but in the bigger picture, where true religious pluralism exists, my belief is that adherents of the majority religion will not desire to leverage this position in this way.

Perhaps the most controversial opinion to surface in Phillips’ observations is that the Christians who are responsible for all the noise are people whose manner of belief is “incompatible with living in a modern liberal democracy”. More provocatively, according to the Telegraph, Phillips identified such people as African and Caribbean immigrants who are gaining influence in traditional Christian churches in the UK. Whatever truth there might be to this observation, it is far from the politically correct thing to say both on religious and racial grounds (though Phillips is himself a black Christian).

I can see this latter observation about this type of Chritianity raising warning flags among advocates for religious freedom and freedom of conscience. As someone who considers himself in that category, I cringe to think of a government agency tasked with enforcing equality legislation making the observation that certain people’s religious beliefs are “incompatible with living in a modern liberal democracy”.

But in the same breath, Phillips asserts the Commission’s and his own personal commitment to the principle of religious autonomy:

The law doesn’t dictate their organisation internally, in the way they appoint their ministers and bishops for example.

It’s perfectly fair that you can’t be a Roman Catholic priest unless you’re a man. It seems right that the reach of anti-discriminatory law should stop at the door of the church or mosque.

I’m not keen on the idea of a church run by the state.

I don’t think the law should run to telling churches how they should conduct their own affairs.

Based on his observation that the Evangelical Christians making all the noise about persecution and discrimination hold beliefs incompatible with living in a modern liberal democracy, it could seem like he was making a threat of some kind and planning to somehow restrict those beliefs or the possibilities of those who hold the beliefs through his role in the Commission. But in stating clearly that the Commission “is committed to protecting people of faith against discrimination and also defending the right of religious institutions to be free from Government interference” and that he personally doesn’t think “the law should run to telling churches how they should conduct their own affairs”, even with regard to women or gay clergy, it does not seem like this is the case.

I have wondered whether there is really anything to Christian claims at being the most persecuted people/religion in the world, which surface from time to time in the United States and the United Kingdom. These claims have never rung particularly true for me. Life in a pluralistic society founded on the rule of law entails some give and take. Some of the “give” in the equation might feel a little uncomfortable. To what extent should our commitment to pluralism and liberal democracy bridge the gap between this discomfort and actually claiming that we are being persecuted? In my view, Mormons have a much more valid claim to persecution in modern society than Evangelical Christians but I still fear that we far too easily raise concerns about being persecuted where that is perhaps not the case and perhaps if we ourselves were only a little more dedicated to contributing to real religious pluralism in society, we would not come to a conclusion that we are being persecuted but rather that we are “giving” (consecrating?) something in return for the privilege of building such a society.

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