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-leader of the Green party. He was formerly the co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia. 

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.