Yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister gave a speech in Luton entitled An Open, Confident Society: The Application of Muscular Liberalism in a Multicultural Society. Building on the Prime Minister's recent comments on the failure of multiculturalism, Nick Clegg asserted:
'Once established, liberal societies still need to be renewed and re-established, generation after generation. ... Liberal societies do not expect everyone to live in the same way, or believe in the same things; conformity can crush liberty. But in liberal societies, all of us must defend the freedoms of others, in exchange for freedom for ourselves. In an open society, values compete but do not conflict.'
How do we reconcile this with the judgement earlier this week of Lord Justice Munby and Mr Justice Beatson that 'the equality provisions concerning sexual orientation should take precedence' over the equality provisions concerning religious discrimination' (even if only in the 'limited sense' of Standard 7 of the National Minimum Standards for Fostering and the Statutory Guidance on Promoting the Health and Well-Being of Looked-After Children issued under section 10 of the Children Act 2004)?
According to the recent snapshot of beliefs and habits of evangelical Christians in the UK published by the Evangelical Alliance and Christian Research, 38 per cent of evangelicals believe it is becoming more difficult to live as a Christian in an increasingly secular society. Interestingly, this proportion is significantly influenced by which news sources are heeded: Mail readers are almost twice as likely to be concerned as Guardian readers (48 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively; Times readers hold an average position of 37 per cent, while Telegraph readers are closer to Mail readers in their understanding of which way the cultural winds are blowing, with 44 per cent saying it is becoming more difficult to live out their faith).
This exaggerated perception of persecution, and how we should respond to it, is put in its proper context by both a cursory examination of Scripture (e.g. Matthew 5:10-12, John 15:20, 1 Corinthians 4:12, and 2 Timothy 3:12) and the experiences of so many Christians abroad – most notably, this week, the assassination of Pakistan's Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, just two months after that of his fellow critic of the blasphemy laws, Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab province.
The truth, as we noted in our 2009 report Sustaining Democracy, is that religious freedom is fundamental if democracy is to be sustained. For if people of faith are not free to practise what they believe, then all other liberties of the faithful come under assault.
Nevertheless, although 'The dominance of "the religion of secularism" in the public sphere holds out little prospect for the equality of expression of religious truth claims' (Sustaining Democracy, p.14), the Deputy Prime Minister is surely on to something when he insists that the only way we can defend our own religious freedoms is to 'defend the freedoms of others.' As an Egyptian Christian leader put it following the recent protests there, 'If the Church is not on the streets fighting for a free Egypt, we forfeit our place in the new Egypt.' Equally, if the Church here is not fighting for a free Britain alongside others who feel oppressed and excluded in this country, then we forfeit our place to witness to Christ's sovereignty in the new Britain.