THE editor of this newspaper remarked to me that he had spent the weekend with his head in a tub of wallpaper paste. This seems needlessly energetic when he could have had exactly the same sensation from reading the press releases of the National Secular Society (NSS).
The story the NSS got into The Independent was an absolute classic of its kind. A spokesman responded to the Prime Minister’s mentioning her religious beliefs in an interview by saying that she “would do well to remember that she governs on behalf of everyone, including those of minority faiths and of course the majority of citizens who are not religious.
“While it is fine for Theresa May to have a faith, what she mustn’t do is abuse her position to promote Christianity or impose her own religious values on others.”
Because if there is one thing the NSS abhors, it is the imposition of their own values on other people. I wonder if anyone will be so idle and bored as to ring them for a quote on the Queen’s Christmas message: “Abusing her position to promote Christianity.”
There was a great deal of coverage of people abusing their position in this way last week. Three days after her interview with The Sunday Times appeared, Mrs May told the House of Commons that she believed in “‘the jealously guarded principle’ of that ability to speak freely . . . respectfully and responsibly, about one’s religion.
“Of course, we are now into the season of Advent, and we have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech and our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of. I am sure we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith, and also feel able to speak quite freely about Christmas.”
Wallpaper paste would be more exciting.
Then came the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, David Isaac, to tell us that it was all right to celebrate Christmas, since this would not offend anyone.
Phillip Blond’s think tank, ResPublica, launched a report on religious liberty, which was, for the most part, interesting and profound (News, 2 December). But it contained one passage of resonant silliness, saying that religious liberty and economic growth went hand in hand. That would explain the dreadful stagnation of the economy in China over the past 30 years of religious repression. If only, I thought as I read it, someone could write about these questions, just once, as if the most important ethical issue of our time was something other than whether gay couples should be free to buy wedding cakes.
The Archbishop of Canterbury inaugurated a debate on British values in the House of Lords last Friday, which hardly anyone, apart from the religious press, seems to have reported on at all, unless you count the unattributed lift of his best idea into a Guardian leader.
It was Gaby Hinsliff, writing in The Guardian, who had the least hysterical piece on the war against Christmas. What Mrs May had said about Christmas, Hinsliff wrote, “was in itself fairly meaningless, because there’s nothing meaningful to say about a nonexistent problem. (For any Christians genuinely discriminated against on grounds of their beliefs, there is already recourse in law.) And fighting culture wars in this way does leave politicians looking a little like adults at a toddler tea party, gravely pretending to drink nonexistent tea from an empty cup.
“But even that game has, deep down, a purpose. The toddler knows the cup is empty really, but it’s gratifying to be taken seriously by a grownup, and that strengthens the bond between them.
“If the intention is to build trust and thus get a hearing for the more thoughtful things May has said in the past about religious plurality and respect for all faiths — well, maybe it’s not the liberal way, but liberals are not in power any more.”
ALL this talk about “respect for all faiths” was thrown into high relief by the publication of the report by Dame Louise Casey into integration. Despite some passages on the white working class, or on the Roma of Sheffield, this was overwhelmingly a report about Muslims.
That is hardly surprising when this is the group that people are worried about. The report was entirely scathing about known scandals, especially in Rotherham, and about the “Trojan Horse” conspiracy in Birmingham. But what interested me was the disconnect between the “British values” that the report quotes, and those that the Government and our society actively practice.
These are supposed to put a very high value on tolerance of different faiths, but the report quotes polling for The Guardian, conducted in 2015, suggesting that “more than 55% of the general public agreed that there was a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society”, while another poll suggested that “79% [of the population] felt that Muslims should definitely or probably make a special effort to state their allegiance to Britain”.
It is a bit hard to understand from those figures how the problem of intolerance is concentrated among the four per cent of the population which is, in fact, Muslim. Yet that is the impression given by much of the coverage.