The former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, was at the centre of a controversy today after making comments to the effect that the UK should give priority to Christian immigrants.
He gave an interview to BBC Radio (you can listen to it here) after putting his name to a call by a cross-party group of MPs and peers for a cap on immigration to prevent the population from swelling to 70 million by 2029.
Here's the relevant excerpt from the interview:
Lord Carey: What I'm concerned about is that we should give priority to all those who are committed to our democratic values; a commitment to parliamentary democracy and understanding of our history, and certainly anyone who comes into our country must be committed to learning the English language.
Now it may be that as a result of that that those who really come from Christian nations or formerly Christian may be regarded as priorities, but I wouldn't want to put that -- I'm saying that it's the values that matter, not the beliefs.
Nicky Campbell: So because we want people with certain values, it's more likely that they will come from Christian countries?
Lord Carey: Exactly.
Now, I don't want to play the "racist" card here -- it's unproductive and precludes rational debate on the subject of immigration, which, as Michael White points out, we need to have.
But there is something profoundly uncomfortable about taking one faith and stating that its members are by nature more democratic, particularly given that Christianity is by no means monolithic -- a point that Dave Semple makes in an interesting discussion of the comments. Let's not pretend that Christians always, by default, do democracy. What about Nazi Germany, or Mussolini's Italy? Christianity is the dominant religion in Belarus, the last remaining dictatorship in Europe. So, too, in Zimbabwe.
The point I'm making is that generalisation along the lines of faith is completely unhelpful -- especially given that all indicators show that Britain is steadily secularising. Research has shown that 66 per cent of the population have no actual connection to any religion or church, despite what they write down on official forms, and that between 1979 and 2005, half of all Christians stopped going to church on a Sunday. In the light of this, Carey's comments start to look like they're stirring up pointless divisions.
Asked about "Islamification", the former archbishop said:
I wouldn't want to focus simply upon Muslim communities -- our country has always had a very strong commitment to inclusion and welcoming the stranger in our midst.
I'll ignore the "stranger in our midst" comment, although as my mother's family is from Pakistan it irks me (is it only the Christian former colonies that count?). But he goes on to praise Jews, Hindus and Sikhs for their integration, saying: "The Muslim community, less so."
I am not accusing Lord Carey of racism or Islamophobia, but comments like this -- particularly taken out of context -- can sound frighteningly reminiscent of those made by the far right. Blogging on the Telegraph's website, Damian Thompson, in a piece of classic generalisation and scaremongering, makes the throwaway remark that Carey must have "opened his eyes to the shared anti-Christian agenda of multiculturalists and Muslims".
The call for a cap on immigration is said to be motivated in part by a desire not to play into the hands of the far right. But stirring up divisions along religious lines risks doing just that.