Is Christianity being marginalised?

While stories of marginalised Christians continue to make headlines, Jonathan Bartley suggests the m

Hardly a month seems to go by these days without a high profile story in the newspapers concerning another Christian who is feeling discriminated against or claims by church leaders that Christianity is being ‘marginalised.'

In December it was local authorities re-branding the Christmas season ‘Winterval,' schools failing to stage traditional nativity plays, as well as conspiratorial tales about the Post Office issuing a secret memo (of which no one yet seems to have found a copy) telling its workers not to sell religiously themed stamps. One MP even raised the spectre of ‘Christianophobia’ in a debate in the House of Commons.

I was asked to come on Radio 4’s Sunday Programme to discuss the idea with Mark Pritchard, the Tory in question, and dispute his claims. However I was subsequently called by the producer to say that the MP had refused to debate with me. Apparently Pritchard doesn’t believe that Christians should be seen to disagree publicly. (Treating me less favourably because of my faith, I suggested mischievously!)

But the MP was quite prepared to publicly criticise the Archbishop of Canterbury over his recent Sharia comments - so it seems there must have been another reason. One possibility is that the claims being made simply don’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

It is not well known, but it is often the same group of people who fuel the scare stories of Christian marginalisation that appear in the papers. These usual suspects - a small collection of lobby groups -- are actively seeking out potential cases of discrimination which they can then publicise, make a political campaign of, or pursue in the courts. They are also drawing advice and training from the US, where similar strategies have been pursued.

What is behind their zeal? Their agenda is a desperate attempt to win back, or at least try to maintain, many of the special privileges and exemptions that Christianity has previously enjoyed, but which society is no longer willing to grant. Their argument is that since Britain is a Christian country, their faith, and its adherents, should have special recognition and dispensation.

But they are faced with an internal contradiction which virtually guarantees their failure - and helps to explain why their have had so little success. On the one hand they advance their arguments by citing the 70% of the country which identified with Christianity at the last census. This majority position, they argue, means that Christianity should still be given pride of place. However in the next breath, they plead Christians as a vulnerable and persecuted minority in need of special protections - which entirely undermines their case.

Their dilemma will not be resolved anytime soon. But this won’t end the religious conviction that drives them. Indeed, every failure only serves to reinforce their conviction that Christians are being marginalised and sidelined, and that they must fight even harder.

So prepare for a lot more of the same in the months to come – but don’t be afraid to treat the headlines with the scepticism they deserve.

Jonathan Bartley is co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia. He lives in Streatham in South London, and when he not discussing religion and politics, he plays in the blues band the mustangs www.themustangs.co.uk
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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.