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Apr 18 2014

Secularism is not PC. Britain’s government should know

Gordon Brown never managed to live down his tongue-tied boast he’d saved the world. If that came to be his defining gaffe, David Cameron’s claim last week to be continuing God’s work surely has similar potential. ‘Jesus invented the Big Society’, he told Christian authorities at Downing Street a week ago. ‘I just want to see more of it.’

Mockery, lasting several days, broke out on social media. Brown at least had the excuse of a verbal slip-up; his successor’s remarks, in a speech shared on the government’s website, were surely drafted by advisers who thought them a good idea.

More followed. ‘I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country,’ Cameron writes in this week’s Church Times, ‘more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical’. In a YouTube video, he says much of the same.

One can’t fault the PM for being on-message. Easter provides an annual basketful of reactionary religious soundbites: in 2011, as Cardinal Keith O’Brien attacked ‘aggressive secularism’, Cameron lauded ‘the enormous contribution Christianity has made to our country’; the next year, after Sayeeda Warsi’s ‘militant secularisation’ speech, his Easter message praised an alleged ‘Christian fightback’. ‘This government does care about faith’, he told church leaders in 2013, ‘and it does want to stand up and oppose aggressive secularisation’. (George Carey, ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, accused him of just such aggression the same week, calling Christians a persecuted minority.)

Ministers show no sign of changing the hymn sheet. Eric Pickles, secretary in all but name for tabloid-baiting, attacked yet more ‘militant atheists’ at this month’s Conservative Spring Forum, insisting ‘We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it, and don’t impose your politically correct intolerant on others.’ This was the same man who in 2010, during the annual war-on-Christmas panic, complained about ‘politically correct Grinches.

The question lurks: if separating church and state is PC orthodoxy, why haven’t we done it?

It’s hard to be a pariah when national leaders heap praise on you. The test of political correctness is establishment support, which means at least the government’s. You’d think the cabinet could only fawn so much before calling Christianity marginalised became untenable. Seemingly, you’d be wrong. The Cameron government, besotted with the church, claims both to be a rebel force besieged by secularist powers-that-be and to run Britain as it’s always been run. Both can’t be true. Its ministers are the powers-that-be, their view the prevailing one by definition.

Not that they will admit it. Pickles, according to the Guardian, ‘accused the last Labour government of “diminishing Christianity” by suggesting that religion and politics could not mix’. To those of us who regularly say the same, this comes as a surprise. Likely, he has in mind Alistair Campbell’s interjection, ‘We don’t do God’, when a journalist sought details of Tony Blair’s beliefs; the sentence was a guideline in an interview and means of ending it, not a policy statement, but is trotted out ad nauseam by Tories keen to prove themselves more faith-obsessed than Labour was.

Their thirst to do so is an achievement of Blair’s governments, whose ministers fell over themselves as Cameron’s do today to say nice-sounding things involving ‘faith’. Religion, a much plainer-sounding thing, is rarely mentioned. Its followers are now ‘people of faith’, as in ‘of colour’; its hierarchs, especially the established church’s which Pickles admires, have been rebranded ‘faith leaders’. With seats in parliament, legal exemptions and a stranglehold on British education, but barely one percent of the populace in its pews, the C of E is a sick dog spoilt by owners all too aware its time is short.

If saying so is politically correct, it doesn’t feel it. Indeed, ‘faith schools’, the media-friendly name for where governments have herded record numbers of children according to parents’ beliefs, is a very PC term for segregation.

A year from now, we’ll no doubt hear again of an intolerant, aggressive secularism with a grip on Britain. Once they’ve warned us, organised religion’s friends will stretch in their seats of power, pour millions more in public funds toward it and go back to work. Secularists like me will ask ourselves, meanwhile: if we never had it so good, why didn’t we notice?

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  1. 1
    Menyambal

    Wow. I followed the “seats in parliament” link. That is so wrong that I cannot understand why it has not been changed.

  2. 2
    cityzenjane

    It’s probably wrong that this whole thing pleases me in a rather perverse way…which has to do with the way my UK based secular friends are so smug with their pity about how bad we in the US have it with regard to political spaces being filled with candidates posing as exemplars of Faith…and their need to pander to religious sentiments right and left…

    Not so glad it seems to be spreading faster than chlamydia at a college dorm.

  3. 3
    mjwemdee .

    You are so right about the ‘religion’/’faith’ weasel words’ thing; the constant shift in vocabulary used by believers when the connotations of perfectly good English words become uncomfortable for them. The word ‘religion’ is being quietly discarded in favour of ‘faith’, presumably because ‘faith’ sounds warmer and fluffier, more akin to ‘trust’ or ‘loyalty’. My born-again sister in an e-mail even put it like this:

    I think I should explain to you that I do not have a religion, my love, – I have a ‘relationship’

    And so the old unforgiving aspect of ‘religion’, with its blood-spattered history and its implacable irrationality, is being artfully airbrushed out of sight. Something similar happened in Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’; conflicts which were essentially along the religious divide were described as ‘sectarian’. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who believes in a metaphysical, transcendental Being, in my book (and that of most ordinary English speakers) does have a religion, and will presumably fill in ‘Christian’ or ‘born-again’ in the ‘religion’ box on the next census form!

    Evangelicals also seem very hung up on the idea that subjective opinions and feelings are ‘truths’. I think the word ‘truth’ should be reserved for things that are factually true and we must not allow others to get away with declaring alternative ‘truths’: spiritual, metaphorical, symbolic, emotional, whatever. I’ve never understood why religites should get to re-invent the language to suit their own purposes. Further debate becomes completely impossible if we all did that.

    ‘There’s glory for you!’ exclaimed Humpty Dumpty.
    ‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”’ Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’
    ‘But “glory’ doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”’ Alice objected.
    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’
    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything.

  4. 4
    jonathangray

    PC isn’t about secularism, it’s about liberalism. Redefinitions of religious faith as varieties of flatulent emoting aren’t a reactionary plot to airbrush out the unpalatable stuff; they’re an indicator of the only sort of religion permitted by the reigning liberal orthodoxy.

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