Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Press on the Westminster Declaration

The Sunday Telegraph has published an article on the Westminster Declaration that I recently fisked: Christians launch pre-election 'declaration of conscience' on values. The sub-title of the article was
A bid to place Christian values at the heart of the general election campaign has been launched with a 'declaration of conscience' endorsed by senior figures from the Church of England, the Catholic Church and other denominations
That is a reasonable characterisation of the surface intent of this declaration. It then rather more worryingly says:
The Westminster 2010 Declaration sets out a broad range of policies that unite British churches, including support for traditional marriage and opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia.
When I analysed the declaration it looked far more like the agenda that religious extremists would support and certainly not religious moderates. Indeed, I would hope that moderates are against and would condemn this Declaration. However if the Telegraph, which is more sympathetic to Christianity as part for the political discourse than other UK Broadsheets, is correct, then this extremism crosses sectarian lines in British Churches, so where, I wonder, are the moderates?
[The organisation behind it] has a website database that aims to reveal the ethical position of more than 2,600 election candidates on issues such as abortion and stem-cell research.
This makes quite clear the political agenda behind the Declaration. (Dare I suggest that the Skeptical Voter scrapes this data to enhance their database?)
It could prove as controversial as its American counterpart, which allows for "civil disobedience" for Christians whose faith clashes with the law.
I certainly agree there. However there is no critical analysis of the declaration rather it only quotes some Christian views that augments the intent behind the Declaration such as
Dr Peter Saunders, chief executive of the Christian Medical Fellowship and another signatory to the declaration, said: "There has been a feeling of growing hostility to the Christian faith and that Christians are being marginalised from the public square.
That should be expected in a more secular – that is religiously neutral state. Special privileges are unjustified in such a state. So it is not surprising that
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, has told a BBC documentary that Labour's laws on equality are part of a secular "doctrine" that "can be as forceful and it can be as narrow minded as the worst of a doctrinaire Christian position".
The failure to see removal of a double standard by a single standard but, instead, as still a double standard only with different preferences and biases is a common and fallacious argument (unless the double standard is not being removed, which is not the case over the equality laws, except for certain Christians who are doing their best to keep their double standards!).

Overall it offered no real criticism of the declaration, really just reporting on its existence and, I suspect, giving it the publicity it needed to gain the many signatures it now has (it had only 2,600 when the article was published and now 8 days later it has about 17,500).

The Christian media think tank Ekklesia responds to this article in Conservative church leaders launch anti-war declaration for general election. Here they alleviate my main concern highlighted by the Telegraph article, when they disagree with its asserted broad appeal of this declaration, by noting
1. It isn't broad, but seems predominantly focused on abortion, euthanasia, marriage and the ongoing 'Christian discrimination' obsession (although paying passing lip service to some 'justice' issues)
2. It isn't a set of policies, but rather a set of values that relates to a small set of policy issues
3. It doesn't unite churches. The church leaders who signed it are overwhelmingly conservative in their theology, and the section on marriage alone would split the Church of England, and alienate groups like the Quakers
Looks like I have found the moderates that the Telegraph tried to define into non-existence.

They then, rather humorously note that the pledge implies an anti-war stance
Clearly this is aimed at abortion/ euthanasia. But the pledge does seem pretty unequivocal if taken to its logical conclusion. It is hard to see how protecting "the life of every human being" and opposing "any other act that involves intentionally taking innocent human life" could for example square with any support for the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter the replacement of Trident.
This is a good point which I missed and might take some of the sting out of my concern over “civil disobedience” – they would not endorse, presumably the killing of abortion doctors either?

On the other hand, what Ekklesia missed, is implication of the “innocent” qualifier, a common trick used by many religions which means they say nothing about the guilty and leave it open as to who is to decide who is guilty and what to do about them.

The other point, also missed by Ekklesia, is the implicit homophobia in the declaration, which one has to great efforts to miss. Still I do like their overall conclusion:
What it does show is the extent to which those putting the Westminster Declaration together are dualistic in their thinking, selective in their focus, and ignore some of the most central aspects of their faith that have something to say to the world around them - despite their claim to be 'representing' Christianity.
In their zeal to combat the 'marginalisation' of Christianity, they are actually doing a great deal to marginalise the faith themselves.
Meanwhile, in the Guardian, both pro and anti points of view have been presented. Andrew Brown is critical in The Multicultural Christian Right and Jonathan Chaplin responds in The Westminster Declaration Defended. Now I agree with Andrew Brown’s summary
The launch of a Christian programme for the general election and beyond is a significant political development, not a good one
However I am not sure over some of his arguments. He supplies some background to the
fairly coherent rightwing bloc in British Christianity. It is nationalist, socially conservative, suspicious of markets, critical of Islam, authoritarian … but what distinguishes it from Ukip, or even the BNP, is that it has a large and powerful black membership. The figureheads of the movement are two retired Anglican bishops, Lord Carey, who used to be archbishop of Canterbury and still carries on as if he ought to be, and Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, who resigned last year as bishop of Rochester.
Along with Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the head of the Roman Catholic church in Scotland, they are the most prominent signatories to the"Westminster Declaration" which was publicised on Sunday. But when you look down the list of 30 or so signatories, almost all of them representing groups you have never heard of, the most significant fact is that a quarter of them are black or representing black-led churches, and almost all would agree that the most dynamic Christianity in the world today is African.
Now this may all be correct or not. What matters is what the Declaration is and whom it attracts. The simplest answer is only religious Christian extremists. He is certainly confirms Ekklesia’s view that this is not of broad appeal to British Churches.

Brown insinuates an anti-Islam bent to the Declaration but it actually assumes a position of religious not just Christian liberty. Maybe they would have it otherwise but this certainly deflates any anti-Islamic reading of the declaration, if not the motivation of those behind it.
Unlike the Telegraph and Ekklesia he recognises the implicit homophobia and makes an interesting contrast to the US equivalent when he notes
But there is also a great deal that would never pass the filter of US Republican anti-political correctness
Let us be thankful for small mercies?

By contrast to my reading this declaration as a call for religious tyranny, he reads it as a call to martyrdom (which leads probably to tyranny?). He cements and, at the same time, ameliorates his martyrdom argument with
It's not clear what any of this posturing actually means in practice. But emotionally, it's quite clear. Christians in Britain are to behave as a persecuted minority, avid for injustice, watching the papers eagerly for signs that some other group is getting special treatment.
This is most certainly and troublingly true already.
What we're seeing here is the growth of Christianity as a player in multicultural politics, competing as a tribal identity for group privileges. It's ironic that the most prominent signatories of the declaration would regard "multiculturalism" as a thoroughly bad thing. I suspect that in the next few years, they will be showing us its bad side in ways that no one has up till now suspected.
An interesting and ironical twist on the issue and possibly support for why I think the claim for “religious liberty” is quite jarring in this Declaration. Still this might be a clever journalistic twist and insight but is it really important in the scheme of things?

Jonathan Chaplin in the self-same Guardian replies to Andrew Brown with
Liberals should not sneer at the Westminster declaration. It is a sign of democratic vitality, not sinister nor right wing
Instead of addressing the issues of the declaration itself he just tries to refute Andrew Brown’s take on it. In response to Brown’s, rather irrelevant in my view, “multicultural” jibe he writes
The "Westminster Declaration of Christian Conscience" is not evidence of Christianity as a "player in multicultural politics" but rather a response to the growing experience among Christians with theologically orthodox and socially conservative leanings of being unacceptably constrained or marginalized in key areas of public life. For the most part such Christians are not demanding special treatment but only a level playing field with other religions and with secular humanists. Yet matters of great importance to them – and, they are convinced, to society at large – are routinely derided as symptoms of a victim mentality.[My Emphasis]
It seems by responding that element of Brown’s critique Chaplin hopes to avoid dealing with the real issues of substance here. Brown has given Chaplin an excuse to avoid such issues. So Chaplin just restates some purported motivations behind the declaration, or of those likely to sign it. As for claims for not demanding special treatment, this is quite contrary to my reading of the declaration. One can look in vain for any argument from Chaplin to support this claim, there is none.

Rather than defend his rhetorical reading of the declaration, Chaplin picks up on other irrelevant issues promoted by Brown, such as his “alarmist stereotyping” of the ethnicity of the groups involved. Indeed Brown has given Chaplin too many reasons for Chaplin to avoid really responding to the underlying issues in the Declaration. This enables him to say “But there's nothing in the declaration to suggest that it is nationalist, authoritarian, or anti-Islamic” – well at least the later is a valid criticism of Brown, the former less so but by bringing up Brown’s “anti-Islamic” point Chaplin is hoping to collectively avoid all those issues. He fails.

The only really substantive point Chaplin engages with is over Brown’s point on homophobia, which Brown due to his focus on other issues made all too briefly. This enables Chaplin to say
Finally, to hold that heterosexual marriage is "the only context for sexual intercourse", as the declaration bluntly puts it, doesn't make you "homophobic".
Well I argue that anyone reading the declaration in a critical and unbiased fashion would have to agree with Brown (and me) and against Chaplin. However Chaplin has been given too much material by Brown to successfully avoiding having to face such issues.

Chaplin finishes with
Whether or not secular or Christian readers agree with the objectives of the declaration, discerning readers should respond by asking what interventions like this disclose about the continuing tendency of the British political system to silence or neutralise dissenting minorities. Over the last century or so it succeeded for long periods in gagging trade unionists, feminists, blacks, and gays and lesbians, and it currently silences the disabled, the elderly and religious conservatives, among others. No representative system can or should equally accommodate the demands of every single minority group, but a confident and strong democracy will seek to make space for as many of them as possible. Andrew Brown sees the declaration as a "dangerous development". On the contrary, it may be a sign of democratic vitality.
Chaplin ends with a false dichotomy. It is both a dangerous development and a sign of democratic vitality.

Now as long as Brown, myself and others are free and feel free to criticise such declarations, without fear of threats or actual violent reprisals, then both their and our democratic freedoms are protected. It is also dangerous because by taking it to its logical conclusion, by acting upon rather than talking through these points, the declaration could a significant step along the road to removing such democratic vitality from this country.

So it is up to everyone to participate in the vital democratic process of freedom of speech, including the freedom to criticise and condemn this declaration and any of those who support and sign it.