Legislation to counter ‘extremism’ will threaten free speech for all faiths and give the state the final say on what we can, and cannot, teach our children

With ISIS in the news, and with young people leaving this country to join them, ‘‘extremist disruption orders’’ (EDOs), designed to prevent the spread of extremism, appear both sensible and popular. This is, we are reassured, about defending “British values”. Again, this seems unproblematic, until you start thinking about it. During the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats asked some searching questions about what this actually meant, and the legislation was dropped; now it is back on the agenda – and in the absence of the Lib Dems, the rest of us need to step up to the plate. Why so?

We can get our first glimpse of why we should be concerned from the response of the Conservative MP, Mark Spencer, to a query from a constituent as to whether EDOs would erode free speech. After the usual airy generalised reassurances about free speech being protected, Mr Spencer volunteered the suggestion that they might, though, be used against someone teaching that gay marriage was wrong. So, espousing the traditional Christian, Muslim and Jewish teaching on marriage, one which until a couple of years ago was the law of the land, can now be considered espousing ‘‘extremism’’? What other aspects of the teaching of our faith might fall under suspicion? It is not, after all, as though our ruling elite has shown itself particularly literate when it comes to religion. As Prof Tariq Modood of Bristol recently commented: “The decline of public religion in Britain in the second half of the 20th century has meant that British society, including higher education and its leaders, has little understanding of religion.”

Our leaders lack the ability to understand what faith means to people. They seem to think we should regard it in the same way they treat their party’s principles – something infinitely malleable and, in an emergency, saleable for something more serviceable.

The Welsh Government, not usually a fan of the Conservatives, has jumped on the bandwagon of the “extremism” agenda to suggest that because religious education is badly taught in Welsh schools, it should be scrapped and replaced with something that fits with the “social cohesion” agenda. This sort of thinking is the fruit of the old narrative, taken as normative in the West, that religion is a fading force in the world which can be generally done away with in the public sphere, and which, if it must exist, should be strictly confined to the private sphere. That this is not true of much of the rest of the world, or of many in this multicultural country, appears to be beyond the grasp of a political elite which fails to see the dangers that will follow by treating public affirmations of faith as signs of “extremism”. Mr Spencer’s blithe assumption that his constituent would agree with his definition of extremism is precisely what should worry us, because he is far from alone in sharing it.

With so many examples before us to choose from, it would be futile for anyone to argue that this is not the thin end of a wedge; it always is. Every time our liberties are curbed, we are assured that this is the end of it, but that will come only when the relevant authorities are satisfied we are all on message.

The mindset of the public sector on these things can be gauged from a circular that went out from Essex County Council last year to all churches telling them they must “comply immediately” with the legislation about gay marriage or face the consequences. This turned out to be the usual mixture of minatory language and incompetence we have come to expect from the authorities. The jobsworths had got their facts wrong: churches were actually exempt, but the instinct to compel others to obey the new norms was there, is there, and must be resisted.

We see this, too, in the way police forces have treated street preachers. There has been a slew of cases where men preaching from the New Testament have found their collars being felt by the police. Invariably they have broken no law, but policemen, overzealous to show their own compliance with groupthink, have pulled them in claiming they thought there might have been a chance that they might have caused a breach of the peace, or that there was a suspicion of “hate speech”.

Even without a complaint being levied, some police officers now take it on themselves to enforce the new secular norms. Old-fashioned attitudes, including the right of the free-born Englishman to speak his mind, are abandoned in favour of what our politicians and law enforcers decide is to be allowed. As Tony Hancock put it, “Did Magna Carta die in vain?”

Talk of defending British values is a smokescreen. It makes the unsustainable assumption that all values are reconcilable in the public sphere, which is true only in so far as we are allowed to espouse them. If the ‘‘right’’ to gay marriage trumps the right of the Church to teach its values on the subject, and a ‘‘woman’s right to choose’’ does the same against the right to argue the pro-life case, then we are really arguing that only one set of values is “British”. If the right not to hear street preachers call sin by its name is valued above the right to proclaim the Gospel, then Christians – and others – might well wonder about whether the values at play here are ones they share. The idea of trusting a religiously illiterate state to make these fine distinctions in the name of its definition of “British values” should concern us all.

Lest it be thought that we can trust the Conservative instincts of Mr Cameron, let us remind ourselves of his recent statement that: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone’.” The echoes of Orwell’s ‘‘Big Brother’’ are unmistakable. The new illiberalism, having made legal what was once illegal, now seeks to close down debate by making questioning its assumptions illegal, and politicians who wish to curry favour with it and who want to be thought progressive, collude in its censorship. Its adherents dress themselves in the old arguments of toleration, but in reality they will allow only their own thought-patterns to be tolerated. This, allied with the instincts of the security services to suspect we are all guilty until proven innocent, and the eagerness of religiously illiterate politicians to demonstrate how right-on they are, amounts to a toxic combination of threats to our liberties.

It is interesting to note the coalition that is coming together against this new illiberalism. The redoubtable Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, is not a man who often finds himself on the same side as organised religion, but his genuinely liberal instincts compel him to defend our right to speak freely in the public square, and there are many such who put their belief in freedom of speech first. It behoves the Churches to make common cause here not only with liberal secularists, but with Muslims and Jews. Lord Sacks recently commented that “the idea that we can abolish identity altogether by privileging the individual over the group is the West’s current fantasy”, and the faith community, like the family, poses a fundamental challenge to the ability of the state to regulate what we are allowed to think and say.

The Government’s upcoming Counter-Extremism Bill would give the state the final say on what we can, and cannot, teach our children, and on what expressions of dissent from the secularist consensus would be classed as “extremism”. No preaching from Romans 1:26-28 without fear of being arrested as an extremist, and as for protesting outside abortion clinics, is there anyone confident that a government would not consider such things “extremism”? We can be certain someone, somewhere, would regard even a Corpus Christi procession with deep suspicion.

The Government’s instinctive mistrust of what it does not understand, combined with an equally instinctive desire to ban opinions it dislikes, is worrying. Claiming to be progressive, the Government is, in fact, in danger of regressing to the days of the Test Acts of the period from 1689 to 1828, when membership of the political nation required a Confessional Test – were you or were you not a communicating member of the Established Church? We already see, with Andy Burnham, that it is necessary to jettison authentic Catholic teaching on matters such as birth control, abortion and gay marriage to secure support in the Labour Party, while Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s about-turn on the issue of same-sex marriage tells us the same is true of the Tories.

Politicians who are practising members of the Catholic Church are wise to either self-censor or change their views on fashionable issues if they wish to get on. The monstering of Tim Farron by a media shocked at the idea of a believing Christian leading a political party reveals how hostile our political life is to confessed Christians, while his own muted reaction on the issue of same-sex marriage shows how hard it is to speak against the fashionable consensus which so illiberally enforces its writ. Is it wise to give this political elite such wide-ranging powers to decide what we can and cannot express with regard to our faith?

It is, perhaps, hopeless to expect a Conservative Party bent on erasing all traces of it to remember its own history, but the last time it legislated directly on matters of belief was the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874. Designed to stem the rising tide of ritualism within the Established Church, it forbade various practices such as candles on altars and the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. The result was that some patently holy men ministering in the poorest parishes of London found themselves in jail for obeying their consciences rather than the government. The law quickly fell into disuse, but not before creating a generation of Anglo-Catholic martyrs. Perhaps Mr Cameron and Theresa May cannot conceive of men and women so principled that they would go to jail rather than defy their own consciences.

The idea of trusting a state so religiously illiterate that it cannot even decide whether “Islamic extremists” are, in fact, acting in the name of Islam, with the powers to label any expression of religion it dislikes as “extremist” is not one we should entertain. They may say they are coming for the “extremist” Muslims, but recent experience suggests it will be the Evangelical street preachers, then the anti-abortion protesters, followed by the teachers who maintain orthodox Christian, Jewish and Islamic teaching about the nature of marriage. If we do not protest now, who will protest when they come for us?

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (14/8/15).

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