The steeples are all still there: the architectural jewel of most English villages and British townscapes. But the churches beneath them are often empty. They are served by vicars and priests who hurry from one church to another on Sundays, preaching to dwindling congregations in scattered locations. Some, of course, are no longer active churches at all. They’ve been converted into residential properties, pubs, nightclubs – sometimes even mosques.
The same retreat from Christianity is evident at a national level. There are still Anglican bishops in the House of Lords – supposedly symbolising Christianity’s central place in national life. The Archbishop of Canterbury is still present at most great national occasions. Despite all of this superficial continuity, however, Britain has become one of the most secular nations on earth, and at an astonishing rate.
Fifty years ago just three per cent of Britons regarded themselves as holding no religion at all. Now it’s 45 per cent. Irreligiosity is particularly pronounced among the young, with two thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds describing themselves as “nones” – holding no religion at all. This rapid secularisation, established by an analysis of 20,000 Britons by Ben Clements, of British Religion in Numbers, is relentless.
Immigration of Catholics and Muslims into Britain – as well as the growth of Evangelical megachurches in many towns and cities – has injected some spirituality into the nation, especially in London, but the overall decline of religion continues, with profound consequences for public policy.
Most notably there is growing hostility to faith schools. The mainstream political parties still defend them – the Coalition government has even expanded them – but a majority of the public think their time is up. There is also hostility to the continuation of the Lords Spiritual in the Upper House. In a nation where religion has a special place in the hearts of fewer and fewer individual Britons, more and more people don’t want religion to have a special place in national life, either.
This threat to religion is, interestingly, also occurring in the one Western nation that has always managed – almost uniquely – to retain high levels of religious devotion with increased material wealth: the United States. Just 20 years ago American politicians on both sides of the hyper-partisan aisle were united in supporting the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Ninety-seven of the 100 US senators voted for it to become law. The liberal Bill Clinton added his presidential signature. Today, however, America is divided over a new law in the Midwestern state of Indiana which is almost identical in intent – because it is seen as an attack on homosexuality. Apple’s chief executive officer Tim Cook and the Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher are among a throng of America’s great and good who have joined leading Democratic Party politicians against what they see as religion’s attempt to undermine the greater goal of equality.
This is not the place to examine the detail of Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s law. Suffice to say, we have moved very quickly from a situation where a predominantly Christian culture tolerated and respected a minority view about gay rights to one where the new dominant liberal view about equality is not sure if it will tolerate the Christian minority. And by “liberal”, I mean that very contemporary form of illiberal liberalism.
The secularists will dispute this interpretation. They will say that the freedom of Christians to worship remains intact, and they’d be right – at least for now. But freedom of worship is only part of what it means to be a Christian.
American Evangelicals and Catholics issued a joint statement on religious liberty in 2012 expressing the concern that “proponents of human rights, including governments, have begun to define religious freedom down, reducing it to a bare ‘freedom of worship’.”
They said: “This reduction denies the inherently public character of biblical religion and privatises the very idea of religious freedom, a view of freedom such as one finds in those repressive states where Christians can pray only so long as they do so behind closed doors. It is no exaggeration to see in these developments a movement to drive religious belief, and especially orthodox Christian religious and moral convictions, out of public life.”
Secular society needs to understand that Christianity is not the only or primary loser from this “defining down” of religious freedom. As law and social norms combine to close down church schools, require faith-based charities to lose their religious distinctiveness and exclude pro-life Christians from standing for elected office (it’s already happening in Canada’s inappropriately named Liberal Party), it’s the wider society that will lose most. And those who have least to lose, the poorest of the poor, will lose most of all.
When Christians are excluded from public life, society will lose the modern-day Wilberforces and Shaftesburys who campaigned against great social injustices, motivated by their faith. Society also loses the faith-based charities that offer an alternative approach to defeating social problems.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently attempted a defence of the public contribution of Christians. “I have little in common, politically or theologically, with evangelicals or, while I’m at it, conservative Roman Catholics,” he wrote. But he added: “I’ve been truly awed by those I’ve seen in so many remote places, combating illiteracy and warlords, famine and disease, humbly struggling to do the Lord’s work as they see it, and it is offensive to see good people derided.”
He continued: “I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been Evangelicals, nuns or priests. Likewise, religious Americans donate more of their incomes to charity, and volunteer more hours, than the non-religious. In the United Statesand abroad, the safety net of soup kitchens, food pantries and women’s shelters depends heavily on religious donations and volunteers.”
This, sadly, is not how an increasing number of our fellow citizens see the Church or its work in the world. A dip into the comments thread below Mr Kristof’s piece revealed not just suspicion of Christianity but a great deal of contempt, too. Consideration of the good works that the Good News prompts Christians to perform is being drowned out by at least two bigger conversations.
One conversation reflects the ongoing legacy of the culture wars, especially in America. For many citizens of the Western world, not least the young, Christianity is defined by its opposition to gay rights and equality for women. Bestselling Christian writer Philip Yancey recalls that he once took a flight and the first question his fellow passenger asked him, after they realised he was a churchgoer, was what he thought of homosexuality. He was simultaneously appalled and saddened that Christianity has allowed itself to become defined by this issue. How have we got to a position where people aren’t asking about the truth of Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection, or about the problem of pain and suffering, or, indeed, about the potency of Christian social work?
The second conversation that is underpinning hostility to the Church is the violence that is being committed in the name of religion throughout the world. A biblically illiterate nation such as Britain – where one in five youngsters think Jesus plays for Chelsea – cannot automatically be expected to distinguish between violence committed by people claiming to be Muslims and violence committed by professed adherents of Christianity.
While atheist-based philosophies have spilt a great deal more blood in recent history than faith-based philosophies, there is no escaping that religion (or at least a false interpretation of religion) is motivating many young men to commit atrocities throughout the world today. This is the age of 9/11, of the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria, of Islamist gunmen attacking a Kenyan college, going from door-to-door, shooting the Christians and freeing the Muslims.
We should be clear at this point that, while interpretations of Islam explain most of the religious violence in the world today, Muslims are also the greatest victims of that violence. In Burma, they are the victims of Buddhist monks. Tragically, Muslims also kill many more fellow Muslims than they kill Christians or people of other faiths.
Fashionable social attitudes and a growing fear of religious violence are combining to push religion out of public life in developed societies. The correct response to this is not to pre-emptively drive the religion out of our own contribution to public life. If we sound like everyone else in the public debate – as Anglican bishops in the House of Lords often do – there is little point. Christians need to be different.
But different in which ways? I would argue that, most importantly, we should stop fighting battles that are already lost. Continuing to resist gay equality laws strikes me as the most important of such battles. If the Church continues to fight the right of one man to marry another man it will continue to increase the number of “nones” that I began this article with, especially among younger citizens. Churches should give up trying to impose Christian morality on everybody else and instead fight to protect their right to organise themselves according to biblical orthodoxies. I’m not convinced that this is a winnable battle, but it is the only battle in this area that is conceivably winnable.
Then there is what I’d argue should be the defining cause for Christians in public life: the battle against religious persecution abroad. From secular North Korea and China to Hindu India and across most of the Muslim world, this is a time of unprecedented religious intolerance. In some countries the intolerance is enshrined in laws and enforced by the state – as in China and Saudi Arabia. In countries like India most of the attacks on Christians and churches stem from social norms.
The charity Open Doors distinguishes between what it calls the “smash” type of violent, murderous persecution and the “squeeze” form of vilification. “Squeezing” involves being excluded from your family or losing your job because you’ve changed your religion and become an “apostate”. Open Doors lists many examples of squeezing – including cases in Djibouti where Christian converts have been forced into marrying a Muslim, and one convert’s house was looted by his relatives after he refused to return to Islam.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, visited Egypt last month to highlight the persecution there. In Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptians have a Muslim president who appears to be very concerned to protect its minority Christians. But he faces an uphill battle to convince many of his fellow countrymen to do the same.
His recent instruction to rebuild a village church in tribute to Copts beheaded by ISIS is being strongly resisted by Muslims in the area, who have attacked Christians with Molotov cocktails. As the brilliant recent BBC documentary Kill the Christians testified, being a Christian in almost every part of the Middle East can be terrifying.
Does Britain need an envoy for religious freedom of the kind America and Canada have? Or does such a position ghettoise the issue within government and absolve other ministers of their responsibilities? Should British aid be used only to support organisations that are religiously inclusive? Does the Foreign and Commonwealth Office do enough in bilateral and multilateral meetings to promote religious understanding? Do our diplomats and soldiers possess basic religious literacy when they serve overseas? All of us need to get these questions on the agenda of our politicians.
But we need to understand why they’re reluctant to take international religious freedom seriously. That begins with a reflection on the roots of religious intolerance and ignorance at home.