This week saw one of the two candidates to become simultaneously leader of the UK’s Conservative Party and Prime Minister drop out, leaving her rival to claim the crown without any further voting. The reason Andrea Leadsom withdrew was a sustained media campaign against her that by Friday last week was being described by seasoned political commentators as “feral” and based on prejudice towards her Christian faith. It was being claimed that her support for traditional marriage and family values, rather than wholeheartedly endorsing every aspect of the gay rights agenda, was morally wrong and that being a Christian in politics somehow made her suspect. On Friday last week, well before that campaign of abuse had reached its zenith, Paul Goodman editor of ConservativeHome the UK’s main independent Conservative website and himself a former MP and shadow minister observed:
“Scrutiny is one thing; prejudice is quite another. Iain Dale was right to suggest this in his column this morning that much of the media coverage of Leadsom’s campaign has been feral. Support for same-sex marriage is a litmus test of social acceptability among the class that helps to shape our political culture, and there is a sense in some of the reporting of her reservations about it that her position is not merely wrong but somehow wicked. Nick Boles’s famous text to other MPs can also be read in this way. Leadsom has also been asked while being interviewed on TV if God speaks to her..”
(For more details of this see our Operation Nehemiah article). Of course all politicians have to take the rough and tumble of politics, but this went far beyond that. Following her decision to withdraw from the leadership contest on Monday, partly due to the impact on her children, former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith observed that:
“The departure of Andrea Leadsom on Monday morning, even by the low standards of Westminster leadership elections, was painful. I was deeply concerned that the concerted and brutal attempt to destroy her character led directly to her resignation.”
While Daily Telegraph journalist Allison Pearson asked:
“What was the final straw? I think Leadsom was genuinely shocked by the poisonous attacks from forces within her own party. She said it was highly unlikely that the daily stories saying how useless/dishonest/Christian she was ‘are coincidental’ (Interesting isn’t it that no-one calls practising Muslim Sadiq Khan a ‘religious nutter’)…Well the skullduggers succeeded.”
Even before these events it was becoming increasingly difficult for Christians to become parliamentary candidates for any of the major political parties without being seen to give at least notional assent to the “new morality” that regards traditional Christian sexual ethics as outdated. However, the level of anti-Christian prejudice directed at Mrs Leadsom took this growing exclusion of Christians from certain areas of public life to a new level by directly interfering in the choice of who should be the next Prime Minister. That level of interference in the political process in one of the world’s most longstanding democracies is a deeply disturbing development.
What we are seeing is indicative of a wider loss of freedom of religion, not just in the UK but across many western countries. The enforcement of the new morality has already forced out of their jobs Christian marriage registrars, magistrates on adoption panels, marriage guidance counsellors and is even being enforced on private businesses as in the case of Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland.
This disparaging of Christianity is, as Daily Telegraph journalist Allison Pearson pointed out, not directed against all religious belief, but specifically against Christianity. Indeed, one of the strangest aspects of the media coverage of the whole Conservative leadership contest, was the fact, that until the very end of that contest there was absolutely no mention whatsoever of the fact that Mrs May, who is now Prime Minister, had while her leadership rivals were occupied with the referendum campaign, quietly set up a committee to look at whether the UK should legally recognise shari‘a courts. Yet this received almost no media scrutiny at all until the leadership contest was virtually over and only then in response to a concerted campaign by women’s rights groups. In contrast, the fact that Theresa May’s rival Andrea Leadsom was open about her Christian faith led to a barrage of the most brutal and humiliating media coverage.
This is clearly not a level playing field. It is Christianity and historic Christian belief that is subject to so much prejudice. What is particularly disturbing about this new anti-Christian prejudice that has been formenting for the last decade or so, is that it now operates at governmental level.
The UK has a proud history of freedom of religion that emerged over three centuries. Laws requiring individuals to assent to particular beliefs in order to hold public office were successively repealed between 1673 and 1871, which marks the point at which full freedom of religion was achieved. Yet, it is now becoming increasingly evident, as this week’s events only too painfully demonstrate, that progress over former centuries towards full religious liberty is now being put into incremental, but nonetheless very evident reverse.
Why does that matter? Well it matters for two very important reasons.
First, from the sixteenth century onwards freedom of religion gradually developed into one of the UK’s defining national values, something that also became true of other countries that emerged from it, such as the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It was the reason that refugees fleeing religious persecution came to Britain, whether French Huguenots in the sixteenth century, Jews fleeing the Nazi Holocaust or later Ugandan Christians, such as the present Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, who fled Idi Amin’s brutal regime in the 1970s.
Secondly, as we argued in a recent editorial, the disparaging of Christian belief by government and governmental bodies is itself becoming directly linked to a growing trend of wider anti-Christian prejudice in society, which has in turn encouraged a small but increasing trend of violence against Christians. In fact, in some instances, as in the Ashers bakery case, there is a specific link between action by a governmental body – in that instance the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland - and anti-Christian violence.
Both of these trends have enormous long term implications. However, the incremental way that they are happening means that many members of the wider public will be unaware of the bigger picture. The treatment of Mrs Leadsom needs to be a wake-up call.
That is why Barnabas Fund is calling for a national conversation in the UK and other western countries about the importance of freedom of religion as one of our most important historic national values and how we maintain it.
We are free to speak up for the persecuted church elsewhere because we have freedom of religion here. It is vital that we protect it.