Thursday, 23 February 2012

UK Christians are not "persecuted", says England's top Catholic

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Vincent Nichols
The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Rt Rev Vincent Nichols, has responded to the recent debates over "militant secularism" by saying that he does not believe Christians in Britain are the victim of persecution. "I personally don't feel in the least bit persecuted," he told the Guardian. "I don't think Christians should use that word."

At a time when "persecution" is frequently invoked by Christians who are unhappy with legal rulings concerning their faith, for instance in cases concerning the religious exemptions in the workplace, or the recent (and since overridden) judgement against council prayers in Bideford, it is refreshing to hear a leading religious figure reject the use of the word. As secularists have often pointed out, suggesting Christians are "persecuted" in Britain to some extent diminishes the plight of Christians, and other religious and non-religious groups, who suffer genuine, violent and life-threatening persecution elsewhere in the world.

However, in his interview with the Guardian Nichols does not entirely reject that the anti-secularist rhetoric that has emanated from the country's religious and political establishment in recent weeks, saying that secularism "has produced a seeming determination to tear the legal and therefore cultural life of the country away from its Christian roots".

In suggesting that secularists are tearing Britain away from "its Christian roots", Nichols has added his voice to those who have recently presented secularism as a hostile threat to British society. It's a strange inversion of reality – at a time when the country has a government that is perhaps the most accommodating to religion in recent memory, with a Prime Minister who has declared Britain to be a "Christian country", and cabinet ministers such as Baroness Warsi and Eric Pickles speaking out for Christian Britain at every opportunity, secularists are somehow presented as being in control, putting the finishing touches to their sinister plan to eject religion from the land.

Yet the truth of the situation is that secularists are simply arguing that we should have a government that doesn't favour religion, that doesn't alienate large sections of society by proclaiming that we live in a "Christian country", that doesn't divide children by encouraging the spread of religious schools, and that doesn't argue that community cohesion is best attained in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society by emphasising the role of Christianity, at a time when those in power are doing the exact opposite.

The advocates of "Christian Britain" seem to have realised that they can discredit their opposition by turning "secularism" into a dirty word. It's a clever move, but it is one based on a fallacy. Secularism is not the same as atheism, and it is not the enemy of faith – it is the enemy of religious privilege, and the guarantor of religious freedom. In the face of calls for a return to a monocultural Christian Britain that no longer exists (and indeed never really existed), those who support diversity and a neutral state, whether they are religious or not, should surely join together in defence of secularism.
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