Christianity in Public Life

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:24 pm on 11th March 2009.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister 3:24 pm, 11th March 2009

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and to Andrew Selous for introducing it. I also welcome the tone of the speeches. I shall give a secular point of view and I invite hon. Members to see whether it is extreme, because it is the secular point of view.

First, I want to ask about the definition of terms. The confusion starts with the title of the debate. I could understand and indeed sympathise with a debate about Christians in public life. As Mr. Streeter said, Christians and other people of religion should be encouraged to engage in public life. I agree with that. I do not think that they are shy in coming forward. Our democracy and public policy-making are better for it. People of all perspectives should come forward; there should be no discrimination—and I do not think there is—to prevent people of religion from coming forward and playing a role.

Secondly, should Christian values play a role in public life? Yes, they should, of course, in the battle of ideas, just as any others should, whether humanist, socialist or conservative, because we base our policies and moral standpoints on values. Whether there should be a monopoly for one set of values I very much doubt. Some countries have such a monopoly, whether through political dictatorship or theocracy, and we know that in theocracies some groups, such as women and gay people, do very badly. That is predictable and identifiable. However, there are clearly shared values. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and "Love thy neighbour" predate the New Testament. They are central tenets of Christianity, and also of most secular moral codes. They are something we should embrace. People may understand them as Christian and may argue that they should play a central role in public policy, but that does not mean it should happen because they are Christian. They are just a rational and sensible approach.

Arguing for Christianity in public life is equivalent to arguing that there should be a role in public life for Islam, socialism or liberalism; but I do not think there should be such a role, because it is a set of ideas and should not have privilege simply because it is religious. We recently debated blasphemy laws, which not all but many religious organisations were desperate to keep, although in fairness I do not think that many of them are represented here. Many hon. Members voted for their eventual abolition. Those laws gave protection in the battle of ideas and discourse for a particular set of ideas.

The other confusion is that the option is either relegation of religion to the private sphere—also labelled the privatisation of religion, which I do not believe in—or the privileging of religion. However, there is a middle way. The privileging of religion, which I oppose, would be to allow religious organisations that deliver public services to discriminate against their employees when they were delivering such a public service. I am not talking about proselytising or discrimination on religious grounds against vicars; I am talking about the people who provide the soup kitchens, shelters, and so forth. They should not be discriminated against on religious grounds, and we should not give money to organisations that discriminate against gay people or people of religion when delivering public service. They should not discriminate against service users on religious grounds. They should not have the right to do that, and should not be allowed to proselytise on the state, as it were, using public funding, or while delivering a public service.