One of the most disturbing aspects of the UK general election campaign has been the blatant anti-Christian prejudice that has been promoted by some major national newspapers. This has specifically targeted Christian candidates, claiming that they are unfit to hold public office because they hold Christian beliefs such as believing in miracles or Biblical sexual ethics. Even the Prime Minister was condemned by one major national newspaper for visiting one of the UK’s largest black churches – because the church opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.
The general election campaign began with Lib-Dem leader Tim Farron being pressured to say whether as an evangelical Christian he believed gay sex acts were “sin”, something he described as an overtly “theological” question. For two years he had been fending off this question, but finally yielded to immense pressure, not least from his own party activists, and said it was not sinful. The Spectator had predicted two years ago that he would be forced to do this, calling him “the victim of a secular inquisition”.
Next the media asked the Prime Minister the same overtly theological question and Theresa May, having clearly been warned by her staff in advance, dismissed it with a “no”. Both the BBC and Channel 4 appeared to think that it was appropriate to ask the leader of a major party during an election campaign an overtly theological question i.e. what is/is not a “sin”.
Then the Daily Mirror published a story on 4 May mocking Kirsty Adams, a candidate standing in the marginal seat of Hove, because she had once prayed for a deaf man and he had been healed. Then on 18 May the Spectator not only repeated the story, but also in an article entitled “Election 2017: do you believe in miracles?’” concluded by claiming that this showed her “manifest unfitness for public life”. (This is the same publication that, two years earlier, had called Tim Farron the “victim of a secular inquisition”.)
On May 27 Buzz Feed targeted former MP Caroline Ansell standing for re-election in the highly marginal seat of Eastbourne and pointed out that her majority was only 733. The online news site condemned her for, after winning the seat in 2015, having had an intern in her office from the Christian charity CARE, which eight years ago funded a conference seeking to help people who wanted to overcome same-sex attraction.
However, the award for the worst example of anti-Christian prejudice during the election should go to the Independent which, on 30 May, ran a story condemning the Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to one of the largest and fastest growing black churches in London. Not content, with claiming that being a Christian made one unfit to stand for election as the Mirror and the Spectator had, it went even further and suggested that any candidate even visiting a Bible-believing church acquired guilt by association which in turn made those unfit to hold public office. In an astonishing display of intolerance and prejudice, the newspaper labelled the church as “extreme” because it opposes abortion and in 2006 its pastor had, along with 185 other leaders of black churches, signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph. The letter raised concerns about “Christianophobia” and the possibility that the Sexual Orientation Regulations then going through parliament could force Christians to promote beliefs incompatible with the Bible, when many of the “tens of thousands” of black Christians in their churches had come to the UK precisely because of “the freedom of living according to their Christian beliefs in a Christian democratic country”.
This specific targeting of Christian candidates bears marked similarities to the way that gay people were “outed” in previous generations. Although there have been a few attempts to target Christian candidates in this way in previous elections, it is only in the last twelve months that we have seen mainstream media journalists asking Christian candidates specifically “theological” questions in an attempt to prove that they are “unfit” to hold public office.
This is an extremely dangerous situation that seriously undermines one of the most important historic British values – freedom of religion. Between 1719 and 1888 Britain abolished a series of laws known as “Test Acts” which required people to assent publicly to particular beliefs to hold certain jobs such as being a school teacher, lawyer or university professor or stand for election to parliament. There is a serious danger that the media are creating what is in effect a new Test Act by the back door.
Therefore, as we set out in our Manifesto, which was endorsed by a cross party group of parliamentarians and church leaders, we are calling on the next UK government to pass a law stating that no one holding or standing for public office should be required to hold particular (religious or non-religious) beliefs or (except where there is a genuine occupational requirement) face discrimination because they do not hold particular beliefs.