Last night I read this Telegraph article written by Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He has talked before about the value he places on Christianity being a moral bedrock of our society, but in this article he goes even further. Here are a few extracts:
“Christianity in all its forms has shaped the heritage, morality and public life of Britain; and Christian belief continues to influence our society for the better.
“Christians continue to be positively involved in public life, from the role of Anglican bishops in scrutinising legislation in the House of Lords, through the moral leadership offered by Christian leaders, to the contribution of thousands of churches and Christian charities to the social fabric of our neighbourhoods with their volunteering and sacrifice.
“At a time when Christians are under attack for their beliefs in different parts of the world, I am proud of the freedom of belief that exists in Britain. But there is no room for complacency. To suggest that Christians in our country are literally persecuted would be to demean the suffering of those around the world facing repression, imprisonment and death. We should, however, recognise that long-standing British liberties of freedom of religion have been undermined in recent years by aggressive secularism, especially in the more politically correct parts of the public sector.
“I believe that the Christian Churches have a unique position in British society and a particularly strong claim to be heard. We are a stronger country when we embrace the religious character of our nation, and when we champion what unites the British peoples across class, creed and colour.”
Mr. Pickles appears to be falling over himself to praise Christians and churches for all they do to benefit our society. He even goes on the attack against secularists describing the National Secular Society is “intolerant” for attempting to have town hall prayers banned.
The tone of his article suggests that he really means what he’s saying and gives the strong impression that he has a personal Christian faith, even though I’ve not found evidence that he has stated this on the record. You don’t hear someone using this sort of language without having a pretty good understanding of what it means to be a Christian. His approach is much clearer and grounded than David Cameron’s has been in the past when he has discussed Christianity.
So all in all, this is a very positive move. The question however is why now? Is it to try to calm the situation and reassure Christian Conservative voters following Nick Clegg’s ‘bigot’ remark towards those who oppose same-sex marriage? Is it because of the cases at the European Court of Human Rights fighting for the right to wear a cross at work? Is it that since the cabinet reshuffle and the appointment of Baroness Warsi to the new post of minister for faith and communities, the Government has made an active decision to reach out to Christian voters and show them that they take their faith seriously?
I suspect it is a combination of all of the above. Mr Pickles tries to reassure those who oppose gay marriage that their concerns are being listened to without going against the current Government policy. He also tries to explain why the Government thinks Christians should be allowed to wear crosses even though Government lawyers at the European Court have been arguing that Christians do not have their rights violated by having religious symbols banned.
In his attempts to address these apparent contradictions he exposes the lack of joined up thinking over these issues in Government, which is an ongoing frustration to many Christians as the Government’s rhetoric fails to match their actions. Mr Pickles does give a few examples of how the Government has supported faith communities, but they don’t stand up as major achievements.
These words leave me torn. I don’t doubt Mr Pickles’ sincerity and praise, but where is it taking us? Christians don’t deserve privilege over other groups, but at the same time expect to be given some respect by those in power. We all have much to be thankful for in this country as a result of its long established Christian roots. Christians contribute to our society in an incredibly diverse way that no other group can match. Most Christian leaders want to engage constructively with government and do indeed want to know that they are being heard and taken seriously. They want to know that the way churches and Christians serve our communities will be valued and respected.
Deep down I’m an optimist and you only have to look back to the bad old days of “We don’t do God” to see how the new Government’s rhetoric on faith issues has substantially changed from before. The new alliance of Eric Pickles and Baroness Warsi in the Department for Communities and Local Government bodes well. Both have demonstrated they are willing to stand up for the Christian faith against determined opposition. We now wait to see whether they can actually deliver or if these words were just said to try to shore up the Conservative vote among Christians.
Matthew Barrett at Conservative Home writing this morning summed things up well:
“Overall, Mr Pickles sounds like he is trying to reach out to Christian voters and assure them that the blue half of the Coalition shares their values. He doesn’t equivocate or confuse things by attempting to seeing both points of view – he simply addresses Christian concerns. Perhaps this is a subtle post-reshuffle shift – attempting to shore up conservative-minded Christians, a group the Tories desperately need if they are to win in 2015. If so, Mr Pickles could have a word with William Hague and Justine Greening, to press the case for “those around the world facing repression, imprisonment and death”. “
This in more than a Conservative issue. It’s about how much respect politicians give people who have a faith and who want to contribute positively to this country’s well-being. Christians have much to offer because their values and morals are built on a solid foundation. If Eric Pickles genuinely wants to fight this cause on behalf of the Christian faith, then we should all get behind him and offer our support, whatever our political persuasion.