Pluralism and Persecution in the UK

Despite the Telegraph’s deliberately provocative title (“Christians are more militant than Muslims, says Government’s equalities boss”), which doesn’t accurately reflect the content of the article, the Chairman of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission recently raised some interesting points and makes some insightful observations about integration, pluralism and claims of religious persecution in modern society (ht:M*).

Trevor Phillips explained that although the Commission did not have a reputation of standing up for people of faith in the past, he is committed to do so in the role. But the Telegraph also reported that Phillips observed that Evangelical Christians in the UK are more “militant” in complaining about discrimination — by which he appears to be referring to bringing administrative or civil actions under equality or employment legislation — than Muslims in the UK.

From his vantage point, according to the Telegraph, this is because

Muslim communities in this country are doing their damnedest to try to come to terms with their neighbours to try to integrate and they’re doing their best to try to develop an idea of Islam that is compatible with living in a modern liberal democracy.

The most likely victim of actual religious discrimination in British society is a Muslim but the person who is most likely to feel slighted because of their religion is an evangelical Christian.

I think this is a fascinating and insightful observation. Evangelical Christians, in Phillips’ view, are cynically claiming discrimination, primarily in cases relating to homosexuality, possibly as a vehicle to make headlines and gain political influence. I am not sure what data informs this particular observation by Phillips but the point about Muslims in the UK, by and large, making a real effort to integrate or at least find a way to come to terms with “a modern, multi-ethnic, multicultural society” seems valid, in my own admittedly limited observation.

Similarly, I share Phillips’ skepticism in the face of Evangelical Christian claims of being persecuted. Phillips acknowledges the mean-spiritedness of the new atheist pundits such as Richard Dawkins, whom he names specifically, which he says he regrets. But he also notes that “there are a lot of Christian activist voices who appear bent on stressing the kind of persecution that I don’t think really exists in this country.” I also think that such claims by a majority religion in a country that does not even have an institutional separation of church and state and where the state religion is Christianity are extremely dubious. Whether the source of such claims of persecution really is a veiled attempt to gain political weight and influence is more difficult to affirm and I don’t think it’s particularly necessary to do so in order to agree with the deeper point about pluralism.

If Phillips is correct in his observations, it raises the inference that Muslims are more committed to religious pluralism in the UK than Evangelical Christians. This might seem ironic at first blush but is less so considering that adherents of minority religions are the most immediate primary beneficiaries of a society’s commitment to religious pluralism (the “modern, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society” to which Phillips refers also, in my view, would necessarily encompass a robust notion of religious pluralism over and above mere toleration). Majority religions, by the way, also benefit in the long run from true religious pluralism because it is in everyone’s best interest for peace and prosperity (in my opinion) for such pluralism to exist, even if it means that a majority religion doesn’t get to proscribe the adherents of minority religions in their spiritual privileges or deny them of their individual rights as citizens. Depending on their perspective, adherents of the majority religion might view this as more of a bug than a feature (Warren Smith?) but in the bigger picture, where true religious pluralism exists, my belief is that adherents of the majority religion will not desire to leverage this position in this way.

Perhaps the most controversial opinion to surface in Phillips’ observations is that the Christians who are responsible for all the noise are people whose manner of belief is “incompatible with living in a modern liberal democracy”. More provocatively, according to the Telegraph, Phillips identified such people as African and Caribbean immigrants who are gaining influence in traditional Christian churches in the UK. Whatever truth there might be to this observation, it is far from the politically correct thing to say both on religious and racial grounds (though Phillips is himself a black Christian).

I can see this latter observation about this type of Chritianity raising warning flags among advocates for religious freedom and freedom of conscience. As someone who considers himself in that category, I cringe to think of a government agency tasked with enforcing equality legislation making the observation that certain people’s religious beliefs are “incompatible with living in a modern liberal democracy”.

But in the same breath, Phillips asserts the Commission’s and his own personal commitment to the principle of religious autonomy:

The law doesn’t dictate their organisation internally, in the way they appoint their ministers and bishops for example.

It’s perfectly fair that you can’t be a Roman Catholic priest unless you’re a man. It seems right that the reach of anti-discriminatory law should stop at the door of the church or mosque.

I’m not keen on the idea of a church run by the state.

I don’t think the law should run to telling churches how they should conduct their own affairs.

Based on his observation that the Evangelical Christians making all the noise about persecution and discrimination hold beliefs incompatible with living in a modern liberal democracy, it could seem like he was making a threat of some kind and planning to somehow restrict those beliefs or the possibilities of those who hold the beliefs through his role in the Commission. But in stating clearly that the Commission “is committed to protecting people of faith against discrimination and also defending the right of religious institutions to be free from Government interference” and that he personally doesn’t think “the law should run to telling churches how they should conduct their own affairs”, even with regard to women or gay clergy, it does not seem like this is the case.

I have wondered whether there is really anything to Christian claims at being the most persecuted people/religion in the world, which surface from time to time in the United States and the United Kingdom. These claims have never rung particularly true for me. Life in a pluralistic society founded on the rule of law entails some give and take. Some of the “give” in the equation might feel a little uncomfortable. To what extent should our commitment to pluralism and liberal democracy bridge the gap between this discomfort and actually claiming that we are being persecuted? In my view, Mormons have a much more valid claim to persecution in modern society than Evangelical Christians but I still fear that we far too easily raise concerns about being persecuted where that is perhaps not the case and perhaps if we ourselves were only a little more dedicated to contributing to real religious pluralism in society, we would not come to a conclusion that we are being persecuted but rather that we are “giving” (consecrating?) something in return for the privilege of building such a society.


  1. I don’t know about the world, but from my experience in the U.S. and Europe, Muslims are persecuted significantly more than other groups. European nations have created laws that take aim at Muslim architecture and Muslim clothing. And the U.S. isn’t much better–the ridiculous outrage against the “Ground Zero” mosque, for example.

    Members of the church used to face that same level of persecution in the U.S. Now that the persecution has died down, many members of the church are all too quick to join our former tormentors in persecuting minority religions. We complain about the percentage of people who would not vote for a Mormon while ignoring the fact that a much larger percentage would never vote for a Muslim. Instead of complaining about being persecuted, we should strive to ensure that other minority religions are not persecuted.

  2. I often drive past the construction site for an Islamic Center/mosque in a major American city. I’ve noticed it for at least 6 months now, and when it is finished it will be a beautiful building and a credit to the surrounding community.

    On at least 3 separate occasions I’ve notices instances of vandalism and spray-painted anti-Islam slogans on the unfinished walls. To my knowledge, the imam has never gone to the newspapers or TV to claim religious persecution. I’m trying to imagine how LDS people would react if something similar were done to one of our temples when it was under construction. I don’t think hissy fit even begins to describe what I would expect.

    Good post, John. Thanks.

  3. I’m tired of Christian victimhood.

  4. Mark Brown, what you describe DID in fact happen here in Los Angeles, at the Westwood Temple, during a small bout of anarchic fanaticism (relatively minor vandalsm) during Prop. 8.. No hissy fit from local leaders or from SLC. same as with the BoM musical. Whoever is advising the 15 on public relations is doing a great job. The persecution card has not been played extramurally, and the rope-a-dope strategy has been paying off. Anti-Mormons are now running out of ammunitions and steam. The only hostility I hear wrt Mormons is how to score seats to the musical.

    Those of you who did not like President Jimmy Carter should at least know that his proudest legacy (his words) is not Camp David but the elimination of Guinea worm. My own vote for most Christian act is when Carter broke from the larger unrepentedly segregrated church to cofound a welcoming congregation (yes, this still happens in GA and SC). He lost many “friends” over that move.

  5. Excellent post, John.

    The extremist evangelicals are no different than the extremist Muslims – who are no different than the extremist Mormons and the extremist atheists. Well, the tendency toward violence as a solution is a very important difference within those groups, but when it comes to being “incompatible with living in a modern liberal democracy” . . . there are too many members I know whose views I would put into that category. I also include “political violence” as a real form of violence, and that opens all kinds of doors that many would rather keep closed. I believe LDS extremism tends to be less severe than Muslim and Evangelical extremism in that regard, but it still is there and obvious.

    As for the actual European situation, the evangelicals and other Christians have no legitimate argument about being the most persecuted people. Put them to the test and ask them to trade places with millions of people in hundreds of different groups and I am sure not one of them would do so – and not just for reasons of religious conviction. It’s a really stupid statement.

  6. Of course it’s daft to talk about Christian persecution in England where the Supreme Governor of the Church of England is Her Majesty the Queen and where Anglican bishops as Lords Spiritual occupy seats in the upper chamber.

    What Britons don’t like are evangelicals of any religion.

  7. RJH: Surely, the fact that there are anglican bishops in the house of lords is no evidence of christianity.

  8. John Fowles,
    Nice post.
    “Majority religions, by the way, also benefit in the long run from true religious pluralism because it is in everyone’s best interest for peace and prosperity (in my opinion) for such pluralism to exist, even if it means that a majority religion doesn’t get to proscribe the adherents of minority religions in their spiritual privileges or deny them of their individual rights as citizens.”

    I’d love to see this idea fleshed out more.

  9. Do we believe in religious pluralism in the church, perhaps when it’s extended to us? I am always uncomfortable with talk of the family being under attack, meaning our definition of it. Talk of “the world” as a pace that is trying to undermine us also fits into this category.

    To me these are claims of persecution that come into the category of not willing to fit into a tolerant society

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