Does religious freedom require a secular public sphere?

religious-freedomWill Jones writes: Findings from the 2015 annual British Social Attitudes survey published this month sent secularists into a mild panic. Showing an increase in those identifying as Christian, from 42% to 43%, and a corresponding decrease in those of ’no religion’, from 49% to 48%, they seemed to confirm that the steady decline in Christian affiliation had plateaued, at least for now. A number of academics were quick to point out that the wide difference in religiosity between older and younger generations meant that this is likely to be only a pause before the plummet, as the older, more devout cohort dies out. But perhaps just in case it isn’t, the Economist was quick to seize the initiative and call on the UK to lead the way as a post-religious society.

Whatever turns out to be the true future of religion in this country, the Economist’s response is perhaps a timely reminder that there are always those ready to press for a hard-line secularist agenda and seek to drive religion further to the margins of society. The decline of religion can in this way become a self-fulfilling prediction, as dwindling affiliation is used to justify the dismantling of its public presence, which only further accelerates its decline and ensures any visibility of its revival is stifled.

This is a crucial moment to stand up for freedom of religion in this country. But do we know what that looks like? In particular, do we know whether religious freedom includes freedom to be religious in the public realm? Certainly there are many people who would argue that it doesn’t – that religious freedom mandates a purely secular public sphere to safeguard the individual’s freedom from unwanted religious interference. I believe they are wrong, very wrong in fact, and that religious freedom, so far from excluding public religion, requires it. But it is a debate which Christians must engage, if we are not to see our ability to express our faith in the public sphere continue to be eroded before our eyes.

This debate is not new, of course. We can see it, for instance, in the contrasting attitudes taken to public religion by two of the first Presidents of the United States, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Jefferson, a Deist, argued that the ‘no establishment’ clause of the First Constitutional Amendment was intended to build “a wall of separation between Church & State”. This metaphor was subsequently taken as authoritative by the US Supreme Court as it began to rule on public religion matters during the 19th century, eventually culminating, in 1962 and 1963, in the banning of prayer and Bible reading in state schools (and this despite education being historically considered not state but church business).

George Washington, an Anglican, clearly was not reading from the same script as Jefferson, when, in 1789, he proclaimed the first National Day of Thanksgiving in the following terms:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favour – and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be – That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks … for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

This was presumably not quite the wall of separation Jefferson had in mind. Yet even as late as 1892 the Supreme Court saw fit to opine:

We are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity… This is a Christian nation… While because of a general recognition of this truth the question has seldom been presented to the courts, yet we find that in [an earlier judgement], it was decided that, ‘Christianity, general Christianity, is, and always has been, a part of the common law of Pennsylvania.’

So who was right? Does religious freedom, as per Jefferson, require a ‘wall of separation’ between church and state, and what does that mean? Or, to the contrary, are Washington and the 1892 Court right to insist on seeing religion, and indeed God, honoured at the heart of the public life of a free nation? Is religious freedom about allowing people, government, and every association in between, to express religion freely, or is it about keeping the public realm religion free?

One big problem that arises for the idea of permitting the free public expression of religion is that many people today fear religion, they see it as dangerous, or at least offensive. You don’t have to look too closely to see that many of our laws and regulations are plainly designed to protect people from religion, from having to encounter it and contend with it in the course of everyday life. Just consider how in the UK all religious advertising is banned on (non-religious) television stations, or how the major cinema chains refuse by policy to show any religious advertising – even, infamously, when it’s the Church of England simply encouraging people to say the Lord’s Prayer.

Then there are the numerous restrictions on expressions of faith in the workplace, on praying and ‘proselytising’ (as though encouraging someone to consider exploring your philosophy of life, however gently, is intrinsically threatening). Religion is one of the ‘protected characteristics’ under UK equalities legislation, meaning that, since 2010, it has been unlawful in most circumstances to base professional judgements on a person’s religious affiliation – a restriction which serves, naturally, to limit considerably the ability of religious organisations to sustain a faith-based workforce and culture.

Does all this, we must ask, promote religious freedom or impede it? Is religious freedom better served by, for example, individuals not being disadvantaged in applying for a job because they do not share the organisation’s religion, or by organisations not being impeded in defining and expressing their values along religious lines? Here we might note that political parties are still at liberty to discriminate as much as they wish on the basis of political affiliation, and indeed, anyone can discriminate on any philosophical basis they like – ‘Do you share our values?’ – provided that basis is not deemed to be religious i.e. mentions God or is in some sense ‘ultimate’. So again, a special restriction on religion – is this really for the sake of religious freedom, or is it not rather because religion is being treated as peculiarly dangerous and in need of keeping in check? One rather begins to suspect it is more from fear (if not outright prejudice) than freedom that such policies and regulations derive.

But why, it will be asked, should we tolerate public religion at all? What is it about religion that warrants its presence in the public realm and not, instead, being kept politely behind closed doors? Politics we permit in the public sphere because it is about the common good and our arrangements for living together. But religion, it will be said, is about private belief, private devotion and personal salvation. Why does that have a claim on the public space?

It has an important claim because religion is in fact the source of some key public goods and benefits. Religion has a private dimension, certainly, but it also has a public dimension, a dimension which forms the basis of the religious dimension of public culture, which is a crucial part of human culture more generally. What are those public benefits? They include:

  • A solid grounding for an objective moral order and for positive human law – this is not something that the natural evolutionary process can provide, yet is essential if we are to understand how human life and society are supposed to work;
  • A court of ultimate accountability for human conduct, a final judgement and the hope of the final victory of justice – this contributes to lawful behaviour and public order, and is why public oaths are often sworn on the Bible and taken before Almighty God;
  • A place of transcendent affirmation for human identity and endeavour – without the sense of relation to its divine Creator human life can easily become meaningless, closed in on itself, shallow, hedonistic and directionless;
  • An answer to the primal human needs of forgiveness, gratitude and worship, and a rational basis for comfort, hope and consolation in the face of the human condition – as a key part of spiritual and emotional well-being these have proper claims on the public space, as illustrated by Washington’s National Day of Thanksgiving.

Seen in this light, it is absurd to suggest that religious freedom mandates the wholesale jettisoning of public religion, since that both places suffocating restrictions on ordinary religious expression (which is not freedom) while at the same time deprives society of the manifold benefits of public religion.

But how would this work? There couldn’t be a free for all, after all – it would be chaos. Certainly the canons of decorum must be observed, and in particular we need a conception of the public good, which draws limits around freedom of all kinds including religious, not least because the state is the secular power, not being itself a church.

We need also to take into account the relative prevalence of religions in the society or culture, which makes different kinds of religious expression more or less appropriate. This is why an Established Church is compatible with, or rather can be part of, religious freedom, as the European Court of Human Rights has consistently recognised (under the doctrine of the ‘margin of appreciation’ of states in their relationship to religion). Religious freedom requires public religious expression, and that necessarily favours the more prevalent religions in society, and it is quite proper for it to do so. It would be impossible for freedom to benefit all religions equally, irrespective of how mainstream or marginal they are, and neither would it be appropriate – just as it would be neither possible nor right for political freedom to benefit all political parties equally, as though minor parties should enjoy the same political clout as major parties. Freedom requires public expression, and public expression properly varies with social and cultural prevalence.

What does this mean in practice? It means, for one thing, a resistance to further moves to make God and faith in effect unwelcome in large arenas of human activity, such as schools and workplaces, and law and public policy, and an effort to reverse those which have already been implemented. It means standing up against a culture which regards prayer as a suspect activity and proscribes it wherever possible; which treats the promotion of the Gospel and the Christian faith as a grubby proposition unsuitable for public arenas (and ineligible for public funds); which treats the exclusion of religion from an area as a neutral and even-handed approach, when of course it is no such thing, but straightforwardly hostile to religion.

As we continue at this time to think about the future of religion in our less religious, certainly, but not quite yet post-religious society, it is, I believe, time to dust down our concept of religious freedom and make it fit for the 21st century. We need to remember our proud history of religious freedom, and how such freedom was not until recently one which sought to exclude religion from the public sphere, but which respected competing claims on the public space for the sake of the public good.

Image 1Most of all, we need to recall from somewhere in our collective consciousness that religion is not our enemy but a treasured part of our national life and culture, one which is under threat and is in urgent need of some friendly attention if it is to continue to provide us with its benefits for many years to come.

Dr Will Jones is a Birmingham-based writer, a mathematics graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and a diploma in biblical and theological studies. He has a keen interest in all things to do with public religion and social theology.

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23 thoughts on “Does religious freedom require a secular public sphere?”

  1. I think it’s helpful to distinguish between secular and secularist. Secular, as I understand it, is a sort of level playing field where no belief system is privileged. This does not exclude religious beliefs – it welcomes them. Secularist, on the other hand, is an attempt to systematically eradicate religion from public life.

    There was a good article a few years ago over at Theos from a Christian lawyer exploring whether secular law is possible.

    What this means is that neutral secular law, law as doing nothing more than providing a neutral playing field, is an impossibility. There is no neutral playing field. A public square from which religious influences are excluded is not a neutral public square. It is a public square in which all influences bar the secularist ones have been censored. That is not a public square in which everyone’s voice is heard and everyone’s views are respected, it is a public square in which religious voices are silenced and anti-religious views are imposed. This is not a tolerant society, it is a tyrannous society.

    • Thanks Phill. I completely agree with the quote from Theos.

      The term secular is a slippery one. It always means non-religious in some sense, since it derives from the Latin for worldly or temporal. But it doesn’t necessarily mean non-religious in every sense. In the middle ages, for example, a parish priest was called a secular priest because he wasn’t in a religious order, he was in the world. The state was also the secular power, as opposed to the church which was the ecclesiastical or spiritual power. But it was still a Christian state which supported the church, with a duty to maintain ‘true religion’.

      I think the state should be secular in the traditional sense that it should not try to be a church, and also in a modern sense that it should support religious freedom. But I don’t think it should try to be religion free in every way, which is what a lot of people now mean by secular.

      Where I can’t agree is I don’t think this secularity or religious freedom means that no belief system can be privileged. I just don’t think that’s possible – all societies and cultures operate according to a belief system, hence the ‘British values’ we hear so much about these days. That belief system could be more or less accommodating to other belief systems, but ultimately it must consist of some basic principles of its own, and explain how it will accommodate other beliefs in a coherent (and ideally sustainable) way.

      What I think we need is ordered liberty. That means recognising that there is no such thing as being neutral or not privileging beliefs, and instead seeking to allow freedom within an order given by the characteristics of the society and culture, including its religious character. This is what allows us to say that Britain is a Christian country, while at the same time (and without contradiction) that it is a religiously diverse country and a secular country. That, I think, is the best way of understanding how to be secular without excluding religion.

      • “The term secular is a slippery one. It always means non-religious in some sense, since it derives from the Latin for worldly or temporal. ”

        Surely the great mystery of the Incarnation as St John unfolds it is that sacred and secular are no longer to be kept apart. The word took worldly flesh for a time and transformed it.

  2. Good article, posted on a day when the press report that the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia (an alleged British ally) has for the second time called for all Christian churches there to be destroyed. The Grand Mufti is appointed with the consent of the Saudi government.

    So we have attack from secularism it is attack from Islam (as well)

  3. “One of the things you learn early in science is that nature abhors a vacuum. You can create a vacuum, and you can sustain it given the right technology, but atmospheric pressure always threatens to break back in, sometimes causing an explosion.

    Well, something similar is true in philosophies and worldviews. They abhor a vacuum. You can push God, or the gods, upstairs and out of sight, like an elderly embarrassing relative. But history shows again and again that other gods quietly sneak in to take their place.

    These other Gods are not strangers. The ancient world knew them well:

    Mars: the god of war
    Mammon: the god of money
    Aphrodite: the goddess of erotic love”


    The point is that shoving ‘religion’ out of the public space is actually a category error; you’re not becoming less religious, you’re just replacing one type of religion with another type under a different name. I don’t know which scholar/historian it is, but someone made the point that if you transplanted a 1st century Greek or Roman into a supposedly secular state, they would think us as a society as religious, if not more-so, than their own ancient one.

    Ultimately the problem is not that we are doing away with God, but that we are replacing him with one made in our own image, as per the epistle to the Romans…

    Come, let us build a tower..

    • Mat Sheffield’s quote from NT Wright is the bigger picture that will hold whatever people choose to believe. I would add that the desired vacuum of religion does not convince Muslims and actually weakens any full orbed resistance to militant Islam.

      • As Will implicitly says above, the biggest challenge is combating the widespread view that ‘religion’ is A: innately private and B: innately personal; and we say that as something true for most major religions, not just Christianity.

        Our Christian faith is of course both of these things, but it also neither. True Christian faith must find it’s expression in the twin areas of action and relationship as well! These are neither merely private nor merely personal and they cannot really be separated from each other, just as you cannot separate the person of Jesus from the teachings of Jesus; much as some may try to. Christianity has a political agenda, an environmental one, an ethical one and we should not quietly leave our religion at the door as we leave for work, something Muslims tend to be better at.

        To my mind the debate will not move forwards unless the church is prepared to fight that implicit assumption and put the lie to it. So long as ‘religion’ remains the caricature it is painted as, we cannot move beyond defining religion in terms of actions, buildings, places of worship or clothing, all things that can be limited or controlled by the state. Maybe if we spent our time talking about our religion in terms of practice or character (what we do and how we do it) we’d be providing less evidence for that caricature?

        So, to go back to the quote, one of the ways to set about achieving this might be to point out, repeatedly and with conviction, that ‘religion’ has never historically meant either of the things that modern secularism says it has, and in a great many ways the state itself is supplanting rather than removing the role of the church.

        • My sense, Matt, was that the bigger problem was the negative reaction to religion, that it is seen as dangerous or at least offensive.
          My nephews and nieces born and raised in the Church have recently made a concerted effor with their parents to leave the faith b cause it is “demonstrably an evil force”.

  4. As an ecumenically-minded Anglican who has now moved into a free church in the English Baptist Union, this is an issue I have pondered for some time.

    Three things I think are often overlooked are:

    – We often talk as if there must be one perspective on what religious freedom ‘is’ or ‘means’ and overlook the possibility that there might be a variety of interacting, overlapping models, which might be of relative equality in terms of their ethical validity / social viability.

    – Those from what are (historically speaking) socially and politically dominant churches – in the main Anglicans and Catholics, but not exclusively so – do not always clearly recognise that their forebears fought giving religious and social freedoms to other Christians, and can assume their co-religionists are ‘over that now’ and it doesn’t need to be addressed. This can turn out to not be the case! Many Baptists for eg, have a vestigial ‘folk memory’ of persecution in the 17th and 18th centuries that still shapes their behaviour.

    – Being myself (I am 37) of a generation in the UK where there is a deep desire for personal freedom and a deep cultural suspicion of most forms of overt social control by human authorities of whatever form (although there is often little awareness of ‘soft control’, particularly by commercial bodies) the churches (all of them) may need to actively, publically and repeatedly repent of the desire for social control to be heard. Attempts to assume the pulpit of public opinion in the name of religious freedom will be (mis?)heard too often as attmepts to impose control unless this is overcome. Choosing forms of worship that for eg do not overtly remind people of their school assemblies (but, of course, these took multiple forms, so how would you know?) may help.

    – This is exacerbated by the exaggerated age demographics of some churches in the UK where ‘the church’ is represented by people whose inherited / inculcated understandings of power and authority may not match-up with those they are trying to speak / preach to.

    • Thanks Matt.

      I’m not sure that social control is a helpful concept here. Are Christians not called to shape society? The difference between social control and shaping society seems to me somewhat subjective: if it’s bad it’s social control, if it’s good it’s social transformation.

      Take an example. Should the church advocate good safeguarding practices in society? Presumably. But why are good safeguarding practices not a form of social ‘control’? I wouldn’t call them that, but I can’t see how they are not if that’s how someone wants to label them. Or similarly, trying to shape behaviour around caring for the environment.

      Personally, I think we just need to talk about our social goals and social transformation and steer clear of negative terms like social control.

  5. Nice article on an important subject. I don’t think there is much secularism (in the sense defined by Phill above) in evidence, because as Will points out, far from being welcomed, religion is as actively excluded from the public sphere as much as the secularists can manage. Secularism in the manner in which it is actually practised in British society at present is merely a player in the game who has arrogated to themselves the role of referee and rule-maker. It is secularists who are ‘ramming their views down peoples’ throats’ if anyone is. Seculrism’s truth claims relativise all other truth claims in the name of even-handedness……

    That secularism is the cultural water in which we modern and postmodern (or whatever) fish swim and therefore that we find it virtually impossible to envisage any other way of looking at things does not alter that basic fact, as Mat points out, but does make it very difficult to challenge or change because any other point of view is viewed as inherently implausible and therefore not worth considering (thank you James Hunter Davidson for that analysis). I have heard John Lennox say that he once asked Richard Dawkins if, in view of his desire for evidence, he had considered the evidence for the resurrection, to which Dawkins replied not that he had done so and rejected it, but that he couldn’t think why any intelligent person would want to do so.

    My own opinion is that Will’s artice reflects correctly that the phrase ‘freedom of religion’ is in reality generally interpreted as ‘freedom of worship’ (and possibly limited freedom to proselytise), not that secularism should in theory allow religion into the public sphere on the same terms as any other influence on it. The secular public sphere was ‘created’ as I understand it to avoid the violence and conflict that accompanied the religious disputes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. With the exception of Islamic extremism I think it is quite hard to argue that allowing religion a place in the public sphere will these days lead to violence or conflict to any greater degree than is generally evident in the secular public sphere anyway (think the allegations of bullying, intimidation and anti-semitism flying around the Labour party at present at one end of the scale and the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions at the other).

    As to what to do about it, I am back to a comment made on another of Ian’s blogs that the church has to demonstrate through its life a better way of flourishing that challenges the cultural assumptions (philosophical, cultural and economic) of our society. That was why in my MA dissertation I tried to explore a theology of mission for inner city C of E schools in the hope of finding a basis for them to be better places of multi-faith and multi-ethnic education than secular schools. A church that claims to live the love of God for all humanity must be able to achieve that!

    • Thanks Greg. I agree with your prescription, in part – the most important thing is being the church that God has called us to be – but I also think we need to continue to speak out in the public sphere and defend freedom of religion. I think it’s both-and rather than either-or. Though perhaps you wouldn’t disagree with this.

      The idea of a secular public sphere did, as you say, arise largely as a response to violent religious disputes. But it’s helpful to remember that in Britain the idea only ever manifested in concessions to Dissenters rather than any wholesale acceptance of its premises. Religion always retained its public presence.

      France went the furthest in terms of removing religion from the state (though it is interesting how many of the protagonists of the French Revolution (Rousseau, Robespierre) were deists and advocated a civil religion rather than no religion (basically stripped down Christianity)). America came up with a strange theory that kept evolving over time and still today is a source of confusion of how exactly the state is meant to relate to religion. Other countries took inspiration from these examples (and others), but I don’t think there is a definitive modern model of state-religion relations. Perhaps I’m biased, but I think the UK has generally done it best.

  6. Thanks for exploring this, Dr. Jones.

    As a committed secularist, I frequently have to point out that secularism isn’t anti-religious, it began among religious dissenters seeking freedom of worship; nor does it necessarily seek to drive religion out the public square. It is simply the rejection of the state endorsing any particular creed.

    Proselytize? Go for it. Advertise? Hey, it’s a free marketplace. Have the state take sides in theological debates? No thanks, not its area of expertise.

    • Thanks James. You’re right about the origins of secularism, and that is significant. It’s also helpful to remember that Christianity has always held to a concept of ‘two powers’, spiritual and temporal, ecclesiastical and secular, of which Enlightenment (dissenting) secularism was a development post-Reformation.

      I’m glad you allow proselytising and advertising – that’s more than many are prepared to admit these days.

      You raise the expertise argument against the state ‘taking sides’. The problem with this argument is that the state is not an expert in many things – science, for example, or business, or the arts, or industry. But it still has to have a policy on them, and be informed by them, and have some sense of how it is going to relate to them. It does this by enlisting the service of recognised experts, and also (as a democratic state) by being responsive to its people and culture. I don’t see why religion should be any different in this regard. Moreover, it clearly must takes sides on, say, whether God wants it to implement Sharia law. So while I agree that there are limits to the state’s expertise in religion and in the extent to which it should form a view on theological debates, I don’t agree that it should, or can, separate itself from religion entirely.

      • Religion is different: it touches on the deepest parts of us, provokes furious passions, and the toxic mix of state and religious power has proven devastating time after time. People don’t tend to launch wars over art. As you rightly say, the church has long recognized two powers, and temporal power corrupts anything it touches.

        Many secularists take the free exercise as seriously as they do the wall of separation. Separation is there precisely to ensure that religion is exercised freely. If the CoE wasn’t a state church, for example, it wouldn’t come under anything like the pressure it does to conform with social mores.

        • Religion is different, in that it is a distinct category (dealing with the divine), but I don’t think it is different in a way which warrants such different and unfavourable treatment (being uniquely barred from having a normal constructive relationship with the state).

          I don’t think we could describe the Church of England as a devastating and toxic mix of state and religious power.

          The Church of England has been more resilient than many churches to the pressure to conform on the same-sex marriage issue (for example) – a number of non-established churches have changed their teaching while it has not (yet). So I don’t think the pressure can be tied to establishment.

          • The CoE was toxic when it was really infused with state power (William Laud and his 17th century reign of terror). After the Toleration Act, its power waned, until it was disestablished in all but name, able to make its own rules with a legislative rubber-stamp. Since only a handful of dominionist zealots have the stomach for full-blooded Christendom, why not ensure the church is independent of the state?

            Church and state can have a fruitful relationship without the state endorsing any particular creed. (See all the “faith based initiatives” in America.)

            Secularism can improve relations between believers and nonbelievers. In removing religion from, say, public schools (in the state-run sense), resentment felt by nonbelieving parents is ended. That’s an example of corruption, with parents lying to get their children into religious schools, and churches going along with it to get the numbers up.

  7. I am slightly depressed by the assumptions of the article, and also by its view of “religious freedom” as solely about freedom for Christians. Religious organisations are not supposed to discriminate in employment unless it’s a “genuine occupational requirement” – this seems to me to be a fair way of making sure atheists and Muslims aren’t automatically debarred from jobs as church school cleaners. The right to freedom of religion according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to change religion and to manifest it in public. Is anyone trying to change this in Britain? Gospels are given out freely in the streets. The way religion manifested in the public space in the US two hundred years ago is not hugely relevant to today. We are not France, with its history of deliberate secularism. When your article says religion has a place in the public sphere, you appear to mean Christianity has a place. So a Christian PM should be allowed to pray on TV. I have no objection, but would you be equally happy with a Hindu PM praying on TV? Is the reason so many people are suspicious of Christianity in public life that the church has not sufficiently disassociated itself from its history of oppression and domination? (Sorry the above is a bit rushed and incoherent.)

    • Thanks Penelope.

      I’m not advocating freedom just for Christians, it’s religious freedom in general. But it is ordered rather than chaotic, so it does take into account the public good and the relationship between the religion and the society. Obviously in a society like ours where Christianity is the major historic religion we would expect public religion to be mainly Christian, and freedom of religion to benefit Christianity more than other religions. Anything else wouldn’t make sense. I don’t think this is domination – we’re not talking about forcing people to confess faith or go to church. Public religion isn’t inherently oppressive.

      The ability to manifest religion in the public sphere and the workplace has been eroded to a considerable extent in recent decades, and there are moves to do so further. It is not just about handing out Gospels in the streets. Genuine occupational requirements, for example, are exceptions in Christian organisations, yet it would not seem unreasonable for a Christian organisation to want to operate according to a Christian ethos and be staffed largely (though, I agree, not necessarily the cleaners) by Christians. This is a freedom (basically a part of freedom of association) that most countries in the world enjoy, and is beneficial for ensuring that organisations can operate according to a distinctive ethos and maintain it over time.

  8. PS. The Penelope above is me, Penelope Wallace. I thought I’d added the “Wallace” to my name on the post? There was certainly a comment on an earlier thread by someone called Penelope who wasn’t me…

  9. Hi Will, well done with this 🙂

    I have a couple of thoughts. One is, we, in the church, don’t use the term ‘proselytise’, we say ‘evangelism, or to be broader ‘mission’. I think the fact that ‘proselytise’ has come to be used as a term for the kind of bullying about faith which people of no faith can feel intimidated by can be read as a good thing. I found this to be the case when working in a secular sector in Christian ministry, it has become a way of expressing something, which we must be honest that Christians in the past have done and we, as Christians should repent of. Part of that repentance is that we find ways of expressing the promise that we will be gentle and respectful in our faith sharing. Gentle proselytising has become an oxymoron. If we do not allow for this change in language we do not have a short hand which those outside the church can easily understand.

    I was also really taken aback by your feeling that the single equality act is loss rather than gain. It has become a little more complicated for us in the church to recruit. But most people, including most Christians don’t work for the church, they work in the rest of society. I’ve experienced the kind of cruelty and discrimination that come from people hating you for your faith, legal protections are a powerful affirmation as well as recourse for those who experience this. Additionally when working as a Chaplain in a secular institution when the act came in there was a noticeable difference, it became easier to bring faith into all aspects of the life of the institution.

    I think all of this is about developing a shared language for an age where at least half of society does not share our faith. We assume the old shared language is in place at our peril, for then we cannot communicate. Work on this shared language must not be seen as eroding our faith – the institutional models of the past are not the church (I know you would never say that they are) we need language and mechanisms which will flex into the future so that the name of Jesus can be spoken freely.

    • Thanks Naomi. Helpful thoughts. Yes, proselytise is now a negative word, and of course is not one we ever use in the church – no Christian goes out proselytising! I’m a bit nervous about conceding the principle though, because I think it will be (indeed is) used to clamp down on all faith sharing and faith promotion and intentional evangelistic outreach, rather than just the bad forms that none of us want to see used.

      It is good to hear of the positive effects of the Equality Act on mission in some secular arenas. I do, it is true, only portray it negatively, but there are as you say some gains for religion being a protected characteristic, especially in terms of respect (and opportunity) in some contexts. To me, though, the losses to freedom of religion (and association) greatly outweigh the gains in this respect. But I can see why in your experience it was a benefit and not a hindrance.


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