Clearing the Ground a review – part 1: Religious illiteracy is strangling freedom of belief

Section 1. Is there a problem?

‘Religious freedom is in the news. The statutory framework affecting the manifestation of religious belief has changed extensively over the past decade in the UK – and recent high profile cases have demonstrated how Christian believers have increasingly found themselves in conflict with some elements of the UK’s new legal landscape…

‘In this context, it has become easier for accusations of persecution to develop, and there is now a growing perception that it is becoming harder to live as a Christian in the UK. To clarify the context, Christians in Parliament, an official All- Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), launched the Clearing the Ground committee of inquiry.’

So begins the introduction of this preliminary report into the findings. The Clearing the Ground inquiry began in November 2011 and has taken evidence from a wide range of Christian denominations, organisations, and individuals with an interest in this area.

The introduction to the report begins by asking the question: Are Christians marginalised in the UK? According to research carried out, 38 per cent of the general public thought that marginalisation of Christianity was increasing in public life, but when Christians were surveyed this jumped to 77 per cent.

This is not surprising. With the likes of Richard Dawkins and proactive secularists making headlines and driving the debate in the media, it’s easy to get this impression. Coupled with reports of Christians in court defending what many would see as basic expressions of their faith, it’s easy to believe that Christianity, despite being the bedrock of our society for many centuries is facing a hopeless struggle to survive in the public realm.

The report finds that the biggest factor facing Christianity in this country at present is religious illiteracy. If we go back just a couple of generations, you would find that most people had at least a basic understanding of the Christian faith and the Bible. However as church attendance has dramatically dropped over the last few decades and children have grown up in households where their parents have very little experience and knowledge of the Christian faith, we have been left with vast swathes of the population for whom the Christian faith is a mystery.

‘With many people largely ignorant of faith or indifferent to it, our national life has been coasting along on the assumptions of cultural Christianity – enjoying the fruits, but neglecting the roots. If freedom of religion is to be valued as foundational for the many other freedoms that we enjoy, it is clear that Christians have an important and urgent task to help society understand.’

One of the consequences of this ignorance is that if our society does not adequately understand the nature of Christian belief, legal difficulties will inevitably arise because of the nonmandatory nature of Christian activity.

Compared to aspects of other religions where adherents are expected to dress in a set way and follow a fixed set of rules, the outworking of most Christians’ faith is driven by individual conscience and convictions.  One Christian will refuse to take a job if it requires them to work on a Sunday; whereas another will be happy to take the same job without feeling they are compromising their beliefs.

‘In the Christian faith, where different people will manifest their belief in different ways, there is a challenge for a secularly-shaped state and legal system that seeks to define religious belief through a series of ‘tick boxes’. Our liberal political culture prefers to engage religions as a homogeneous ‘faith sector’.’

The report goes on to give examples of the ways in which religious illiteracy has been demonstrated in different ways and in different spheres of public life.  It also identifies evidence of religious illiteracy in the drafting of laws.

Churches and Christian charities do a huge amount of beneficial work in their local communities around the country and yet often unrealistic demands are placed on them as a condition of their partnership with local authorities or public bodies.  This usually manifests itself in two forms: either through concerns about the group’s equality and diversity policies; or because of suspicions that the group may be using public money to proselytise.  Public funding sometimes comes with so many criteria that it neuters the effectiveness of the work, or places such a burden that organisations decide they have no choice but to make do without it.

“Faith ignorance in this country is enormous…  There is more confusion now than there has ever been.” (Dennis Wrigley, Maranatha Community)

The report then turns its attention to freedom of expression and cases where Christians, because they have chosen to express their faith in simple ways, have lost their jobs. Examples include wearing of religious symbols, attaching a palm cross to the dashboard of a van, posting personal views on Facebook, offering to pray for others in the workplace and requesting not to conduct civil unions.

These cases have caused great concern that Christians have been discriminated against because they have chosen to publicly live out basic Christian beliefs.

“In the space of less than 10 years we have moved to a place where Christians have been increasingly given the choice ‘act in violation of your faith or cease service provision, or lose your job’…  This has all been made possible because of a distortion of what is meant by religious liberty via a flawed reinterpretation of Article 9 of ECHR [European Court of Human Rights].”  (Dr Dan Boucher, Care)

The next area covered is the role of the media and its portrayal of religious belief in society.  Its coverage was not generally considered to be balanced or fair by most people giving evidence to the inquiry.  As well as the identification of a large degree of religious illiteracy in modern journalism, it was also suggested that there is often a strong secular bias.

“Christians are often portrayed negatively by some parts of the mainstream media compared to other groups. The BBC’s general director, Mark Thompson, admitted that Christianity gets rougher treatment than Islam and that a liberal bias against Christianity exists… The media needs to be more responsible and fair in its representation of Christianity. Christian characters are often ridiculed in fictional TV programming, whereas other religious groups, such as Muslims, are treated sensitively and homosexuals portrayed positively.”  (Kemi Caroline Bamgbose, Premier Christian Media Trust)

“The difficulty is that whilst the public are in favour of much of what Christians see as being positive for society very often the way in which their views are reported – especially in the media is misunderstood or misleading. Sadly the media is prone to promoting a particular secular agenda and then sensationalising certain aspects of Christian beliefs and values without placing them within the right context of the debate”. (Mark Barrell Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship)

The final issue raised in this section of the report looks at the role of Christian campaign groups.  It was recognised that Christian campaigning and protesting are biblically mandated and have had an overwhelmingly positive impact transforming society, extending liberty and securing justice.  However it was also noted that Christian campaigning can potentially be counterproductive.

‘Often the actions of some campaign groups can discredit the Church in the UK and result in perceptions that Christians are seeking unfair exemptions. By bringing highly emotive cases to the fore, they also can add to the feeling among Christians that they are more marginalised than they actually are.’

So to conclude, going back to the question of whether Christians are being marginalised in the UK, the Clearing the Ground report answers with a definite, “Yes”:

‘In conclusion, we are convinced that there is a problem facing Christians in Britain today.  We recognise that many of the cases that have been outlined to the inquiry involve individuals and organisations that are compelled by recent changes in the law to provide services that they had never previously offered, and were contrary to their beliefs. We consider that this problem arises through high levels of religious illiteracy and through legal and cultural restrictions on actions and words that are normal in Christian belief.

It is evident that although in some cases considerable effort is made to accommodate religious belief, in many cases there is a failure to achieve or even attempt this. We also consider that there are serious problems with the media’s coverage of these issues, and also in the manner in which the issues are brought to the church’s attention. We also acknowledge that through poor campaigning strategies, some Christians may be inadvertently generating and sustaining the very problems they are trying to highlight and resist.’

It is hard to disagree with any of these findings in this section of the report.  Although most Christians I know would not say that they have suffered because of their faith in a tangible way, there is an undercurrent of misgiving about the way in which society is heading and a belief that things are going to get tougher for Christians.  I don’t believe this is inevitable but it’s hard to deny that the traffic is mostly flowing in one direction and that Christians are going against the flow.

We need to remember that the Church throughout history has faced challenges such as these, but has always come through them.  When things appear to be against the Christian faith it’s important to remember that God is greater than any earthly powers and that He has the strength and power to ensure His church does not die out.

The worst thing Christians can do is admit defeat and act as though the battle is lost.  If there is a battle at all then there can only be one outcome that will benefit our society.  We need pray for a healing of our nation rather than give up on it.  I don’t believe God has.

You can read the full report, executive summary and the contributions HERE.

To come:
Section 2. Have recent changes to the law affected Christian freedoms?
Section 3. What can be done?
Section 4. What should Christians do?



Categories: Faith in society, Parliament, Persecution

Tags: , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Another excellent blog – thanks for summarising a complex area so well. A key point seems to be that the Christian faith is actually about freedom from strict rules, and this is counter to the principles of central government which relies on rules. Of course, freedom from rules does not imply a free-for-all – it just means we need to think more carefully about our actions and their consequences as we work out our faith. The impact on others of our own actions is a key test.

  2. Yes, excellent summary.

  3. I’m grateful to you for this excellent summary of an interesting report. You say that ‘the worst things Christians can do is to admit defeat and act as thought the battle is lost’. I agree – after all, if ‘Jesus is Lord’ then ultimately the victory is his. But I think there is an important question about which battles Christians should be fighting and how. If someone’s job requires them to wear a uniform, it seems silly to fight for a right to wear a cross or other Christian badge with it. Isn’t a better Christian witness how you do your job? Aren’t there bigger battles to be fought? Justice for the poor for example?

    • this is a very valid question. Clearing the Ground talks about this in detail later on towards the end and hopefully I’ll cover it in a future post. As Christians we need to pick our battles carefully and be wise about when to let things lie and when to fight. I agree that maybe going to employment trtibunal over wearing a cross is not necessarily a good witness. Christians are going to have a bigger impact when they demonstrate GOd’s love to the world – and the world desperately needs to see God’s love in action.

  4. Religious illiteracy is an excellent term to describe a very major part of the problem and no doubt has contributed to prejudice and negative stereotyping, sometimes this is also because we present ourselves less graciously than we should. Positive attitude education already exists for Race,gender,sexuality and disability so why not Religion. Its frustrating to read some anti Christian comment often populist and based on cliche’ If education is a key element it may be that school is going to be a difficult area. A local school recently had ”open the book” suspended after a complaint that it was indoctrination. We may need to find other creative ways to inform society. Most of us do not experience marginalisation and certainly not persecution, more often just low level prejudice amidst most people beleiving we should all be left to be what we are. The ”axe grinding” ”taking issue” end though is playing out in the courts and is important in that it creates a climate in society whereby if it becomes OK or not acceptable to be a Christian and that we can freely talk about our faith, then more people hopefully become engaged, involved, develop a relationship with Jesus and more people will become Christian workers in the field and make a positive contribution to society . I would be reluctant to criticise the campaign groups too much, they may appear a bit paranoid and alarmist at times but the issues needed to be raised without them i wonder if the ”clearing the ground report” would have happened. If we get the space we are hoping for in the future hopefully we can just get on with the really important work that Jesus asks of us.

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