Yesterday, as Paul Goodman has outlined on Tory Diary, Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) compared Christians who object to the erosion of freedom of conscience in recent equalities legislation to Muslims trying to impose sharia on Britain.
Mr Phillips who has made a career in promoting equality and diversity really should know better than that. On the most generous reading either he has failed to understand sharia enforcement or he has failed to understand Christianity. Either is an appalling lapse from someone in who is responsible for promoting tolerance of diversity in society, something that Mr Phillips seems to be doing the exact opposite of in relation to Christians.
Trevor Phillips has shown a most basic misunderstanding of Christianity by assuming that it somehow aims at a theocracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. True, there was a theocracy of sorts in the Old Testament, but church and state become completely separate entities in the New Testament. That is a major distinction from Islamic law (sharia) where religious community and state are one, with the state expected to enforce religious law on all, whether radical, traditionalist or liberal Muslims as well as on non Muslims.
There is in fact nothing in the New Testament that would justify some sort of enforcement of Christian "law" on an unwilling population. Although, that does not of course mean that Christians should not be free in a democratic society to argue on the same pragmatic grounds as secularists or anyone else that their own ethical standards are good for society. That of course is not the case in any country where sharia is enforced. If Mr Phillips does not understand these basic differences between Christian ethics and sharia enforcement then it is questionable as to whether he is really qualified to hold his present post.
In fact, far from Christianity being like sharia enforcement there is a significant danger, and I put it no stronger, that the actions of some secularist liberals in seeking to legally enforce their views on others are in danger of unconsciously drifting towards totalitarianism – as the Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi cogently argued this week.
Britain has a noble tradition of religious freedom that slowly emerged after 1559 when Elisabeth I promulgated an Act of Uniformity requiring everyone to assent to a particular worldview, that of the established church. It was not until 1871 that Britain attained full religious freedom following the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts which had restricted access to university and public sector employment to those holding Anglican beliefs. This freedom of belief is one of the defining "British values" that has historically led many victims of religious persecution to find sanctuary on our shores.
What we have seen in some aspects of the recent ‘equality’ laws, that Trevor Phillips insists should be rigorously enforced, is a degree of reversal of that 450 year march towards freedom and toleration. Once again, areas of public life are being restricted to those holding a particular worldview, in this case, not an Anglican one, but a narrowly defined secularist one.
Take for example, the enforced closure of the Catholic adoption agencies that Mr Phillips cited when he likened Christians who conscientiously object to aspects of new "equality" laws to proponents of sharia enforcement.
Prior to the "equality" legislation that enforced their closure, any person deemed suitable by the law was able to adopt – Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, heterosexual or gay – because there was a diversity of different adoption agencies. In other words the law tolerated diversity while local government involvement in adoption ensured ample access to adoption for any gay people that wished to adopt. (I am not a Catholic by the way, but I do believe in historic British values such as of freedom of religion and the state not dictating belief to its citizens). However, the "equality" laws did away with that toleration of diversity and enforced a particular belief system on anyone involved in the adoption process. The result was that a number of Christian magistrates had to resign from adoption panels as well as the closure of Catholic adoption agencies that were till then successfully placing around a third of the most difficult to adopt children. Hardly a great result for vulnerable children, or for the historic British freedoms that in a better world someone chairing an Equality and Human Rights Commission might actually be expected to stand up for.
And so I simply ask the question of Trevor Phillips, "Do you genuinely believe in tolerating diversity or is it, in fact the case, that you only believe that certain narrowly defined types of diversity should be tolerated? Do you believe in fact that your own belief system, exemplified in the "equality" laws whose existence you argued for, should be enforced on everyone?
Now do remind me Mr Phillips please, you were saying that people who wanted to enforce their beliefs by law on other people were similar to those who wanted to enforce sharia on Britain…