Tag Archives: Secularism

gay marriage

Marriage Equality & The Government’s ‘Legislative Boot’

By proposing to implement this restriction on the Church of England and Wales, the government risks alienating those religious people in favour of equal marriage and provides further ammunition for its opponents, many of whom now claim that legislative developments on the issue have appeared muddled and erratic.

[dhr]

gay marriage

[dhr]

Responding to government proposals on the implementation of marriage equality earlier this week, Conservative MP Richard Drax stated in the House of Commons, ‘I would like to ask the Secretary of State and the government what right have they got, other than arrogance and intolerance, to stamp their legislative boot on religious faith?’ It is in an attempt to safeguard religious institutions from legislative intolerance that the government made its announcement this week that the Church of England will be prohibited from performing same-sex marriages should they be introduced.

Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, explained the policy in Parliament, stating, ‘European law already puts religious freedoms beyond doubt, and we will go even further by bringing in an additional “quadruple legal lock”. But it is also a key aspect of religious freedom that those bodies who want to opt in should be able to do so.’ Despite this mention of the opt-in, one of the four parts of the ‘quadruple legal lock’ includes legislation explicitly preventing the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages. This threatens to inhibit rather than ensure religious freedom for religious institutions wishing to marry same-sex couples and risks alienating religious individuals in favour of equal marriage.

It would seem that the government has failed to distinguish the many shades of difference of opinion within the Church of England and in Wales on the issue of equal marriage. The assumption that same-sex marriage is necessarily oppressive to religious groups as though they are a monolithic whole can be dispelled by looking at both the Church of England and the Church in Wales, prominent members of which have expressed disappointment in the last week over the government’s announcement.

The Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens, as well as a spokesperson for the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, have both criticised the apparent lack of consultation regarding the ‘quadruple legal lock’. But in her address to Parliament, Maria Miller said, ‘Because the Church of England and Wales have explicitly stated that they do not wish to conduct same-sex marriages, the legislation will explicitly state that it would be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples.’

Even if prominent figures within either Church had indeed articulated this ‘explicit’ opposition to equal marriage during the consultation period, Miller’s reasoning for the plans seems too simplistic, not only in light of the variety of views on equal marriage among religious individuals but also given its many proponents within the Conservative Party itself. Just last week, the Telegraph reported on a group organised by key Conservatives including London Mayor Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Michael Gove in support of same-sex marriage within religious institutions. Prime Minister David Cameron has also announced that he favoured equal marriage within the Church.

These complications are making it easier for outright opponents of marriage equality, such as those within the Catholic Church, to more easily undermine the government’s progress on the issue. In response to Miller’s announcement, a statement released by the the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said that the government’s approach ‘can only be described as shambolic’ and went on to complain that, ‘There was no electoral mandate in any manifesto; no mention in the Queen’s speech; no serious or thorough consultation through a Green or White paper, and a constant shifting of policy before even the government response to the consultation was published today.’ Arguably, the response among outright opponents of equal marriage was always going to be negative, but confusion over the legal impact on religious institutions widens the scope for further criticism and doubt over the government’s competence over the issue.

By proposing to implement this restriction on the Church of England and Wales, the government risks alienating those religious people in favour of equal marriage and provides further ammunition for its opponents, many of whom now claim that legislative developments on the issue have appeared muddled and erratic. In an attempt to prevent equal marriage from being forced upon religious institutions, the government now suggests that the Church should be forced to turn same-sex couples away. Religious believers who support equal marriage may now be inclined to ask of their government, ‘What right have they got to stamp their legislative boot on religious faith?’

[hr]

Photo credit: renaissancechambara

WestminsterAbbey

The Episcopal Question: The Role Of Women In The Church

The nature of the Church’s enduring internal disagreement is the consequence of a belief, perhaps now held only among a few extremists, that an omnipotent authority has made demands of the sexes and that to ignore his will is to invite punishment.

[dhr]

WestminsterAbbey[dhr]

The General Synod’s failure to grant women the right to episcopal equality in November has ensured that the long-debated issue over women bishops will remain vociferously debated among believers for years to come. The problem is considerably important, not only to the faithful but also to British politics and society, in a number of ways. Firstly, as Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society has argued, the Synod’s vote is further evidence that the Church of England is not an appropriate political mechanism with which the state should be constitutionally intertwined. Sanderson highlights that denying the privileges and opportunities associated with the Church according to gender – a public institution – is a policy incompatible with the British government and its laws. However, secularists must be cautious before rushing to criticise the Church as a whole for the failures of its evangelical minority.

The Houses of Bishops and Clergy overwhelmingly approved consecration rights for women, while the House of Laity was short of the two-thirds majority required by six votes. While there is some considerable conflict between the evangelical and moderate wings of the House of Laity, it is appropriate to say that the Church as a whole has decided to support women in their pursuit of episcopal equality. Indeed, figures in the church have grown increasingly critical of the Synod’s voting system in light of the influence such a small opposition seems to have had on the result of the vote. In this case, it would seem that the theology and faith of a minority within the church has acted as a barrier to the wishes of the majority, in detriment to the pursuit of wider well-being for the believing community. This presents a fundamental problem for religious institutions that must be dealt with honestly and soon. Secular institutions have no divine mandate to separate men from women or to promote men above women, but the minority of evangelicals opposed to episcopal equality insist on deferring to God, who has apparently decided that each gender must have ‘different roles’ in the Church as in society. It is this deference that has prevented women from enjoying the same opportunities as men within the Church.

The struggle for equal rights in the Church serves as a reminder that religious belief is no guarantee of moral superiority or social foundation, precisely because of residual traditionalism and the sway still afforded to hardliners. The suggestion by Eric Pickles that we should ‘embrace the religious character of our nation’ – both that of the Church of England and of Catholicism – cannot be taken seriously when the Church’s long struggle to grant equality to its own members is kept in mind. Moreover, the wider hypocrisy of Christianity’s claims to moral authority is reinforced whenever we hear of some or other cleric’s spiteful remarks about homosexuality and marriage equality. Some may argue that opponents of equal marriage and episcopal equality take their positions for moral or spiritually important reasons, but who can measure the pain and frustration caused by these remarks and the petulant obstructionism than accompanies them? Are we really to say that these enduring struggles are evidence of a divinely inspired belief system?

Justin Welby, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed his dismay following the House of Laity’s decision, tweeting, ‘Very grim day, most of all for women priests and supporters, need to surround all with prayer & love and co-operate with our healing God.’ These remarks mean well, but they highlight a lack of understanding as to the fundamental conflict between secular equality and religious privilege. If those in favour of episcopal equality are to eventually triumph in this particular struggle, they must speak honestly about how the debate emerged in the first place. The nature of the Church’s enduring internal disagreement is the consequence of a belief, perhaps now held only among a few extremists, that an omnipotent authority has made demands of the sexes and that to ignore his will is to invite punishment. Secular institutions are unshackled by such beliefs and can make moral decisions based on human compassion without heavenly guidance. Given the largely male-dominated focus of religious doctrine and the kinds of authority it prescribes, it is no coincidence that religious institutions such as the Church of England are forced to grapple as they have with the prospect of powerful women.

[hr]

Photo credit: Alan Stanton

Big Ben and Westminster Abbey

The Peculiar Influence Of The Church of England

Given the influence of the Church of England and the claims it makes on issues such as the law and equal marriage, its new Archbishop has a responsibility to provide a transparent account of his views so that they can be properly scrutinised.

[dhr]

Big Ben and Westminster Abbey

[dhr]

While it is often said that the United States is politically and socially religious to a considerable extent, it is worth remembering that it is constitutionally secular. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment protects the right of every religious group to practice their faith privately, while ensuring that no one group receives advantageous treatment over others via funding or expressions of support from the state. It has also allowed for the establishment of non-religious executive, legislative and judicial branches of the US government, each free from the prejudices inherent in theocratic systems. This luxury, however, is not afforded to British citizens, who are instead expected to accept that the clergy of the Church of England, the dominant sect, will sit in the legislative house adjacent to that of the country’s elected representatives. Moreover, the monarch rather than the Prime Minister is the ultimate head of state and of the state religion, and while this intimate relationship between our democratic and royal institutions is often viewed as little more than a benign tradition, it remains a potential risk to political representation and social equality.

One of the by-products of this fusion of church and state has been the prominence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose commentary on social and political issues is often given a generous amount of coverage in the media. Dr Rowan Williams, who is now stepping down from the post, has frequently commented on issues ranging from economic justice to western foreign policy. However, while Dr Williams is entitled to express his views on these and any other issues, his responsibilities as a political as well as a religious figure mean that his opinions deserve the same critical scrutiny afforded to other political leaders.

Dr Williams’ suggestion in 2008 that elements of Islamic law should be accommodated in the UK provides a useful example of why this scrutiny is so important. While ultimately inconsequential, these comments nonetheless reflect claims about the nature and development of the judicial system. They also reflects a need among advocates of church and state cooperation to accommodate numerous religious groups, in a similar sense to the proposed inclusion of multiple faith representatives in the House of Lords. On the surface, such suggestions may seem to appeal to representation and fairness, but in reality they reinforce the exclusion of minor faiths and unbelievers while empowering major religious traditions undeservedly. Avoiding this discrimination is one of the main advantages of the US political system, which, instead of trying to cater for numerous faiths, separates all religion equally from the state. Far from constituting oppression of religious freedom, this method succeeds in preventing it. Crucially, Dr Williams’ comments on Islamic law suggest that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not only a participant in political discourse but can also seek to influence and develop it in ways that other religious and non-religious individuals cannot.

This unique influence can also be seen in religious resistance to equal marriage. On its website, the Church of England describes ‘the enduring place of the established church in providing marriages that have full state recognition,’ and has also claimed that marriage equality could threaten religious establishment in the UK. Moreover, Dr Williams’ replacement Justin Welby has maintained his opposition to equal marriage while simultaneously offering a vague commitment to re-examining his views ‘prayerfully and carefully’. In light of this, it is clear that while religion in the UK may resemble a ceremonial oddity, the views of leading figures on the validity of marriage could have a direct impact on the civil rights of individuals in society. These individuals, as well as advocates of an equal and fair legal system, deserve better than ambiguous spiritual statements of reflection and prayer from the leadership of the Church.

The political prominence of this leadership is indicative of a constitutional framework that places one religious doctrine above all others and insists on fusing it with the operations of the state. This structure is more than a mere historical peculiarity, and exists in opposition to the ideals of a modern and inclusive democracy. Given the potentially tangible influence of the Church of England, and the bold claims it makes on issues such as the law and equal marriage, Justin Welby has a responsibility, not only to religious believers but to every citizen, to provide a clear and transparent account of his views so that they may be properly scrutinised.

[hr]

Photo Credit: Better Than Bacon

trevor philips. sleepwalking into segregation

Sleepwalking Into Segregation?

As part of our series on multiculturalism, Patrick McGhee questions Trevor Phillips’ statement that we are ‘sleepwalking into segregation’. 

[dhr]

trevor philips. sleepwalking into segregation[dhr]

In 2005, the now outgoing Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips (pictured), responded to the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London by suggesting that Britain was ‘sleepwalking into segregation,’ adding that ‘we are becoming strangers to each other and leaving communities to be marooned outside the mainstream’. Phillips’ warnings about the dangers of segregation were met with scepticism by academics citing a lack of evidence behind his claims, but his arguments have unfortunately been more broadly undermined by the wider preferential views he has expressed towards religion over secularism.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph last year, Phillips expressed concerns about growing criticism of religion, commenting that ‘faith identity is part of what makes life richer and more meaningful for the individual. It is a fundamental part of what makes some societies better than others in my view’. He later added that religion is ‘an essential element of being a fulfilled human being’. The statements overtly suggested a superiority of faith over non-faith, not only as a means to live an individual life, but to excel as a society. These views have prompted condemnation from the British Humanist Association, and are disappointing given Phillips’ supposed commitment to equality. Crucially, the comments are also symptomatic of a wider imbalance between religion and the state. As Phillips himself has since suggested, far from facilitating improvement, the prioritisation of religion in society can often have dangerous consequences for both societies and the individuals within them.

There are numerous instances of religious interests denying important medical treatment to those most in need. Just this week, doctors have argued that faith in miraculous solutions is directly undermining efforts to ease the suffering of terminally ill children. Meanwhile in Russia, the trial of three punk band members over a protest at Moscow’s central Orthodox church has paid a disproportionate amount of attention to often farcical spiritual testimony at the expense of a fair trial. Both healthcare and the judicial process are aspects of society that have repeatedly been undermined by religious interference, frequently with the support of a close relationship between church and state. Perhaps most relevant to Britain and the debate around multiculturalism, however, is the issue of faith schools.

A piece for The Guardian by the chief executive of the British Humanist Association Andrew Copson makes the case against faith-based schools, citing exclusivity and fraudulent teachings as evidence that they are detrimental rather than conducive to human fulfillment. In this sense, educational institutions formed around religious traditions are directly and necessarily responsible for the segregation Trevor Phillips talked about. Separating young people into religious categories can promote lasting division and undermines the idea of real community. Instead, only a series of insular units are offered, and young people are often required to accept the tag they are given. More broadly, this system suggests that religion serves some special moral or intellectual function that cannot be performed adequately by schools unsupported by religious doctrine.

It is this notion of the moral superiority of religion that individuals such as Trevor Phillips have openly supported. It is claimed that societies are better or worse depending on how spiritual they can be, and that attempts to critique religion or its doctrines must be an attack on society itself. In reality, placing a protective shield around religion hinders our understanding of different faiths because it prevents open discussion around the merits of each tradition and its role in society. Institutions requiring objectivity, such as medical care, justice and education do not benefit from the intrusions of any special interest. If we are unable to make responsible judgements about how spirituality and faith affect these institutions, we risk failure in the pursuit of human well-being.

Just as political opinions should be open to scrutiny and criticism, so too should religious traditions, and while we are bold to desire diversity, we should not assume that faith is off limits to debate. If this assumption is not dispelled, we may yet become strangers to one another: Trevor Phillips’ preference for religion is contributing to our communal sleepwalk into segregation.

US Presidential Election Roundup: 05/8 – 11/8

This week’s roundup of the US presidential elections…

[dhr]

Romney attacks Obama over military voting [The Hill] Mitt Romney has criticised the Obama campaign for attempting to prevent a law that would extend the early voting period for military personnel.

[hr]

Obama policies under fire [Huffington Post] Mitt Romney has accused President Obama of ‘an extraordinary series of policy failures’ in the wake of a recent report on jobs.

[hr]

‘Apologies are in the air’ [Washington Post] The Washington Post rounds up a series of apologies from both the Obama and the Romney campaigns from the past two weeks.

[hr]

Romney supports Senate contender [CNN] Mitt Romney has campaigned in Indiana alongside Republican candidate for Senate Richard Mourdock.

[hr]

Obama ad attacks Romney on Planned Parenthood [Political Wire] A new campaign ad has criticised Mitt Romney’s stance on contraception and Planned Parenthood funding.

[hr]

Wealthy will ‘do just fine’ says Romney [CBS] Mitt Romney has said that the wealthiest Americans will ‘do just fine’ regardless of the outcome of the presidential election.

[hr]

Reid branded ‘liar’ by Republicans [The Guardian] The majority leader of the Senate Harry Reid has been accused of lying after claiming that Romney paid no taxes for ten years.

[hr]

Republican convention speakers announced [Huffington Post] The Republican National Committee has confirmed that Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be among the speakers at the Republican National Convention.

[hr]

July sees Romney raise over $100 million [ABC] The Romney campaign raised $101 million in July, it was announced this week.

[hr]

Obama predicted to exceed fundraising record [Politico] Although behind his Republican opponent, President Obama is expected to surpass the $750 million raised by his first election campaign.

[hr]

Jewish organisation demands Romney apology [The Hill] Jewish Voice for Peace has called on Mitt Romney to apologise to the Palestinians after comments made by the Republican frontrunner in Jerusalem last week.

[hr]

More convention speakers revealed [Huffington Post] Rick Santorum and Ron Paul will be among those joining John McCain and Condoleezza Rice as speakers at the Republican National Convention.

[hr]

Romney challenges Reid over tax accusation [Fox News] Mitt Romney has requested that Senate leader Harry Reid reveals the source behind his claims about the Republican contender’s tax affairs.

[hr]

‘Obamaloney’ [CNN] President Obama’s criticism of Mitt Romney’s tax policies as being ‘Robin Hood in reverse’ has been described as ‘Obamaloney’ by the Republican presidential hopeful.

[hr]

Republicans label Obama ad ‘dishonest’ [Telegraph] Republicans have criticised a campaign ad from the Priorities USA Action Super PAC for suggesting that Mitt Romney and Bain Capital may have been responsible for the death of a former employee.

[hr]

Obama maintains Colorado lead [Politico] A new poll has found that President Obama’s lead over Mitt Romney in the battleground state of Colorado has remained at around 49% to 43%.

[hr]

Obama appeals to women in Colorado [Politico] President Obama has spoken about the benefits of his healthcare reforms for women during a campaign trip to Colorado.

[hr]

Spokesperson promotes Romney health law [CNN] The Romney campaign has spoken about the successes of the Massachusetts healthcare law passed by the Republican contender.

[hr

Obama waging 'war on religion' says Romney ad [CBS] A new campaign ad from the Romney campaign has accused President Obama of threatening religious freedom.

[hr]

Polls show Obama lead [Political Wire] A poll for CNN shows that President Obama is seven points ahead of his Republican rival, while a Fox News poll gives Obama a nine point lead.

[hr]

Democratic National Convention to feature Republicans [Politico] Planning papers for the Democratic National Convention have revealed that the event will feature Republican speakers.

[hr]

Romney leading in Iowa poll [Politico] A Rasmussen poll gives Romney a two point lead over President Obama.

[hr]

Paul Ryan to be named VP [Reuters] Congressman Paul Ryan is expected to be announced as Mitt Romney’s running mate.

Compiled by Patrick McGhee.

Pussy Riot

The Pussy Riot Trial: Russia’s Resurgent Religious Right

Crucially, the Pussy Riot trial is important not only because it carries implications for the integrity and credibility of the Russian judicial system, but also because it is evidence of the country’s resurgent religious right wing. 

[dhr]

Pussy Riot

[dhr]

The BBC Trust ruled last week that Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman’s use of the phrases ‘religious hogwash’ and ‘stupid people’ during an interview about religion ‘breached the editorial guidelines on harm and offence’ because the words may have unintentionally upset religious viewers. The ruling was the result of just one complaint, raising serious questions about the disproportionate weight of the offended individual in swaying the process of open debate, but the apparent power of religious upset in manipulating rational decision-making can have even more dangerous consequences for justice and those it should serve around the world.

In the same week, it was reported that a 23-year-old mother had been sentenced to death by stoning in Sudan after being found guilty of committing adultery. The sentence comes after the Sudanese President articulated support for an entirely Islamic constitution in July, and has been condemned by Amnesty International. In a statement, Amnesty has specifically called attention to the unfair nature of the woman’s trial, in which they say ‘she was convicted solely on the basis of her confession and did not have access to a lawyer.’

Meanwhile, three members of the punk band Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina, have been detained in Russia since early March after performing an anti-Putin dance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The women have been charged with ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ by the court, facing up to seven years of imprisonment if convicted for their brief demonstration.

The trial began on 30th July and an interesting account by Pyotr Verzilov, husband of one of the accused, has described court proceedings from his perspective, detailing the court’s attitude towards the press and the conditions in which the three detainees are being tried. The Guardian reports that lawyers for the defendants have openly criticised the reportedly exhausting and unfair trial environment, with one stating: ‘this is one of the most shameful trials in modern Russia. In Soviet times, at least they followed some sort of procedure’.

Crucially, the trial is important not only because it carries implications for the integrity and credibility of the Russian judicial system, but also because it is evidence of the country’s resurgent religious right wing. As the writer Wayne K. Spear argues, it is important to note that this resurgence has been reinforced by the cosy relationship between President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Orthodox Church, reflected in early February by Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill’s description of Putin’s previous two terms in office as ‘a miracle of God’.

Despite an unconvincing call for leniency from Putin, the distinctly religious nature of the complaints made against the accused demonstrates the dangers presented by influence of religion in Russia’s legal framework. Witnesses for the prosecution have repeatedly implied a paranoid fear of the supernatural, as well as belief in literal hell, ‘black energy’ and divine judgement. Verzilov’s diary notes that one witness described the ‘devilish twitching’ of the protesters, while another complained of ‘spiritual trauma’ in the wake of their demonstration. It has also been reported that one witness deplored the role of the internet in spreading Satanism, accusing the three women of having ‘lowered themselves into hell’ with their actions. Questions from the prosecution have been no less focused on trivial expressions of offence, with the Guardian reporting that witnesses were asked about the meaning of their faith and how offended they were at the clothing worn by the protesters.

The tone of this dialogue underscores a religious sentiment that may have persisted in Russia since the Tsarist era, as the late writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens often suggested. In this sense, state support for the Orthodox Church may not be directly responsible for the faith-based fury surrounding the trial, but the overtly spiritual content of the prosecution’s case is a symptom of deterioration within Russia’s constitutional separation of church and state. As the verdict draws closer, it is clear that the increasing power and influence of the Orthodox Church is denying the Russian people a strong legal system blind to the special interests of religious tradition and uninterested in accusations of blasphemy, no matter how many claim to be offended by it.