Tim Montgomerie, founder of ConservativeHome and co-founder of the Conservative Christian Fellowship has written a column in today’s Times arguing, according to the headline, that “churches must fight to keep their freedom”.
The content is behind a pay wall so for those of you who are not subscribers I will summarise his actual argument:
1) ‘religious conservatives’ and ‘religious traditionalists’ are threatening religious freedom by campaigning on unpopular causes.
2) There are some things they shouldn’t compromise on (for Montgomerie, abortion) but they should give up on unwinnable battles like gay marriage, which are turning off young people and making them hostile to religious freedom.
3) Rather than trying “to impose their conception of morality on the rest of the population” they should instead “be coming together to protect their fundamental right to believe the things that they do and not to be marginalised for doing so.”
This argument is disastrous for three reasons.
First, he seems to be saying “stop exercising your religious freedom, you’re threatening religious freedom”. The whole point of not just religious freedom, but freedom of speech more generally, is that it is the freedom to say things which are unpopular. A strategy which seeks to maintain freedom of religion or freedom of speech by never saying or doing anything that makes anyone else uncomfortable is doomed to failure. Becoming nice, assimilated and untroublesome to majority ideologies short-circuits the hard work we need to do of learning to live alongside each other, and work with each other for a better society in spite of deep disagreement.
Secondly, and disappointingly, Montgomerie has bought into the idea that religious people engaging in public debate amounts to “imposing their conception of morality on the rest of the population”. Engaging in our shared democratic life, proposing a vision of human flourishing and the common good as it relates to our personal, social and political existence is not “imposing” but “proposing”. Without citizens engaging, campaigning, voting and contributing to our lawmaking according to their own passions and priorities we have no democracy at all. When the Jubilee 2000 campaign, a largely religious movement, argued that Third World debt should be cancelled, no one claimed they were attempting to impose their conception of morality, but instead propose a more just policy. Any campaign, from licensing dog owners to reducing childcare ratios is about how we order our society, what freedoms and constraints we should all live under. Even the most libertarian proposals would effect other people’s lives by removing some of the scaffolding of society. Proposals may be outvoted or out argued and this is right and proper, but labelling religious people as the only ones trying to “impose” their vision of the common good on others is disingenuous.
Finally, Montgomerie’s call for religious people to stop focusing on common issues and instead argue only for their own freedom would have the exact opposite effect to the one he hopes for. Already, the churches and other faith groups are often seen as defensive and self-interested. This is usually because when they are fighting and campaigning on more popular social issues (i.e. welfare reform or the environment) they receive no coverage. However, retrenching from both these popular and the obviously unpopular issues is theologically incoherent and a recipe for tribal identity politics.
In our increasingly plural society consensus is no longer an option, if it ever was. Christians must be engaging in this diverse public square intelligently, graciously and authentically, seeking the good of society as a whole not just their own rights. If we take Montgomerie’s advice we will end up muted on everything except our own vested interests, and then we really will be in trouble.