Why Eric Pickles is in a pickle over religion

The narrative of Christian marginalisation is implausible while the religion's representatives sit by right in the nation's legislature.

We have a government that likes to "do God". To be more accurate, we have a government including some members who like to talk publicly about the importance of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular. Few are keener to talk about it than Eric Pickles. Writing in the Telegraph last week the larger-than-life Communities Secretary was characteristically effusive about the contribution that Christianity made to British public life.

It "has shaped the heritage, morality and public life of Britain; and... continues to influence our society for the better," he wrote. He further contrasted the positive story of the country's "Christian ethos" (including the Reformation, which was "entwined with British political liberty and freedoms" - a message unlikely to go down well with Roman Catholics) with the danger posed by secularism, as represented by "the intolerant National Secular Society".

This intervention is just the latest in a long line of ministerial (and prime ministerial) pronouncements since this government came to power. To take a few examples, David Cameron said in a speech last year celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible that "we are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so." Baroness Sayeeda Warsi - whose new title, since the reshuffle, is "senior minister of state and minister for faith and communities" - wrote in the Telegraph earlier this year warning that "a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies", a "deeply intolerant" creed that "demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes."  Michael Gove arranged for copies of the King James Bible to be distributed to schools.

Such statements and gestures may reflect an actual policy agenda, such as the government's continued encouragement of faith schools. Making pro-faith noises is also a way of appealing to a group of core supporters (Britain's small but politically active "religious right") and of differentiating the Conservatives from the Liberal Democrats, who are led by a self-proclaimed atheist. It may just be empty rhetoric. Pickles was especially keen to reassure Christian activists that the government is on their side despite such things as same-sex marriage or the spectacle last week of British government lawyers at the European Court of Human Rights arguing that a Christian woman had no right to wear a cross at work.

That one poses a particular problem for Pickles, given that both he and David Cameron have previously denounced such restrictions and even promised to enshrine the right to wear crosses in new legislation. In his latest article, Pickles proclaimed that "banning discreet religious symbols for reasons of political correctness is not acceptable" before going on to justify the government's legal position, bizarrely, as "resisting Brussels interference and gold-plating of what should be a matter for common sense."  

It's interesting that cross-wearing has recently become a touchstone issue. Whatever the legal arguments, the cases reflect a sense among some that Christianity is ceasing to be taken for granted in British society but has become a particular identity that needs to be asserted. Many Christians certainly feel themselves to have been "marginalised". A survey carried out for Premier Christian Radio a few years ago found that almost three quarters believed this to be the case. The marginalisation "narrative", in which the high-profile court cases play an important part, has been pushed by campaign groups such as Christian Concern (with support from parts of the media, especially the Mail and the Telegraph). Prominent Christian leaders reinforce it, too: most notably Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu and two retired Anglican prelates, Michael Nazir-Ali and George Carey.

According to this narrative, a small cadre of secularists, acting in the name of multiculturalism and/or equality, are aggressively relegating Christianity from the centre of public life, where it has been for centuries, to the periphery. Conversely, secularists and some liberal Christians argue that what the campaigners are actually lamenting is the loss of the power and privilege that the churches used to enjoy. I find both claims implausible. There is clearly nothing marginal about a religion whose representatives sit by right in the nation's legislature, which runs a third of the country's state schools and to which half the population, on the most recent figures, still claims to belong. But at the same time Christianity is clearly not as strong as it was. By any standards, decline in religious observance has been one of the most striking features of the past fifty years.

While the decline in actual attendance at church services now seems to be slowing, the proportion of the population that claims a religious affiliation has fallen dramatically in the past two decades, especially among younger people. The result is a sharpening of the boundary between believers and the rest of society - especially since a higher proportion of church members now identify themselves as evangelical or otherwise theologically conservative.

In the past, the fact that the majority of the population paid lip-service to the idea of a Christian nation meant that the true believers, always a fairly small proportion of the whole, felt themeselves to represent the moral core of society. Traditional "Christian" attitudes were widely shared even by people who rarely if ever went to church. Today, they are far from universally adhered to even by Christians.

It's no coincidence that the one issue above all that excites many believers in the marginalisation narrative is the government's stated intention to open marriage to same sex couples. It's not simply a question of prejudice or bigotry, as some (including apparently Nick Clegg's speechwriters) appear to believe. It's more that the issue reveals the gulf that separates some traditionalists from what has become the moral centre of gravity in wider society. The battle today is within the churches, not between Christians and secularists. Opponents of the change thus feel in danger of being doubly marginalised, fighting liberals in their own ranks. "Aggressive secularists" make a convenient scapegoat.

In his latest contribution, Eric Pickles promised to take note of opponents' "legitimate fears" that churches might be forced by the European Court of Human Rights to marry gay couples. Whether or not such fears are actually legitimate (it seems unlikely) his reassurance is unlikely to cut much ice. The real issue is the government's proposal to allow any same sex couple, religious or otherwise, to get married. Ironically, special exemptions and opt-outs written into law would only underline the new status of Christians as a "marginalised" minority interest group instead of one that has, in Pickles' words, "a unique position in British society and a particularly strong claim to be heard."

 

Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Getty
Show Hide image

At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories