Christianity in Public Life

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:41 pm on 11th March 2009.

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Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government 3:41 pm, 11th March 2009

It is a pleasure, Mr. Caton, to see you in the Chair. The contribution of Sarah Teather has reminded us all that this has been a debate of extreme theological literacy. I think everyone in the Chamber this afternoon would agree that some of our debates, sadly, are a little too short and I would have been very happy to hear many of the hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon expound their ideas at greater length. It was a particular pity that Dr. Harris had to compress his thoughts, because I would have liked to hear him speak at greater length. I have no idea whether I am unusual in that, but that is my view.

I should start by congratulating my hon. Friend Andrew Selous on conceiving this debate as a sort of procession that would honour the work of the Churches and faith communities. He succeeded completely. There have been some fine speeches. I naturally assume that all speeches from my hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches are fine, so I will single out, perhaps unfairly, Mrs. Hodgson, who clearly put a lot of thought into her speech, and the carefully worked-out speech of John Mason who made a number of interesting points about Church and state.

Many Christians seem to believe that there is new scepticism, even new hostility, in relation to Christians and the Churches, and about organised religion as a whole, and perhaps Christianity in particular. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon spoke for that point of view, and made it clear that he has nothing against organised religion, but simply believes that it should not have a privileged place in the pubic square. He gave that view with great intelligence and acumen. It reminded me of the recent campaign by the British Humanist Association, which sent buses around the capital, and perhaps elsewhere, proclaiming that there is probably no God, so people should stop worrying and enjoy their life—the presumption being that if there is a God, one should start worrying and stop enjoying life. I will not be drawn, nor presumably will hon. Members, into the logical fallacies of that argument.

At the Conservative party conference last year, the National Secular Society had a stall for the first time, and I think that represents how secularists are beginning to come into the public sphere to make their argument. The society states on its website that some delegates said, "Thank God you are here", which is a peculiar way of expressing gratitude for its presence, but perhaps that is a sign of the times.

What is making Christians, members of Churches and others so nervous? There are three reasons, and I will run through them quickly. First, the elephant in the room is violent extremism claimed in the name of Islam. No one can claim that the effects of 9/11 and of 7/7 in the UK have not had a significant knock-on effect on the tone and content of public debate. We saw that in passing in the recent debate on whether faith schools should be compelled to take 25 per cent. of pupils who do not practise the faith that the school in question stands for. We obviously do not view Islam with hostility, and I want to put it on the record that the Conservative party believes that Islam is a great and ancient religion, which has an invaluable part to play in modern Britain, but we must acknowledge that factor, and that it has influenced debate in recent years.

Secondly, aligned with that factor is the rise of fundamentalism. Conservatives have nothing against people who want to return to the fundamentals of their faith, but data from across the world show that it is generally true that the more liberal elements in mainstream religions are not recruiting members and worshippers as rapidly as the more fundamentalist streams. Those fundamentalist streams, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, can have negative aspects. I referred to violent extremism in the name of Islam. Some Jews—fortunately, a minority—seem to believe in an enlarged state of Israel that would encroach on the life of others. Some Christians in the United States, against that country's traditions, believe in a theocracy.