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Holly’s Letter from America: The right to live one’s religion is under threat


Prime Minister David Cameron graced our shores this week.  Hot on the heels of the Paris attacks, it was a great opportunity to emphasise how the US and the UK are united, once again, not only in the war on terror, but in so many other things as well.  It was a chance to emphasise the ‘special relationship.’

And what makes our relationship so special?  ‘We share the same values’, both Obama and Cameron declared. 

Well, that’s a relief.  But, pardon me, Mr President and Prime Minister, would you mind explaining to me just what those shared values are?  OK – in your press conference, between the two of you, you mentioned pluralism, respect, tolerance, diversity, democracy, economic security and growth, national security, freedom of expression, rule of law, and an absolute commitment tofighting terrorism, extremism, and fanatical ideologies in any way we can.  Got it.

Excellent.  My only concern, Mr President and Prime Minister, is that freedom of religion wasn’t on that list.  But, this surely must be an oversight.  It is such an obvious, fundamental value that both of you just forgot to mention it.

The only problem is that it isn’t just you two forgetting to mention the importance of freedom of religion in the wake of the Paris attacks.  We, the West, are shouting that we are free, and that these terrorists want to punish us for exercising our freedom.  But which freedom?  Well, since Charlie Hebdo printed material offensive to Islam, it must be our freedom of speech which the terrorists want to target.  And thus, our response to the Paris attacks has developed into a celebration of free speech.  The media on both sides of the pond have waxed lyrical this week about our right to free expression.  It’s a ‘pivotal moment’, they say, for ‘free speech.’

Yet, there has been a noticeable silence in the media regarding that other freedom we have, which is inextricably intertwined with freedom of speech: the freedom of religion.  Take for example Timothy Egan’s editorial in the New York Times this week.  Egan interprets free speech, essentially, as the right to push boundaries as to what is acceptable in society.  He falls into the rather predictable analysis that ‘an enlightened society should be able to take the punch of satire and ridicule, even coarse satire and savage ridicule’ and ‘A faith that cannot withstand ridicule is no faith at all.’ 

Now, to be fair, Egan does mention freedom of religion:  ‘The simple genius of the First Amendment ties free speech to protection from a state religion – in the same sentence.  There could be no real free expression, the American founders recognised, in a nation with a state-sanctioned religion.’  But what Egan doesn’t say is that it works both ways:  not only can you not have freedom of speech without freedom of religion; you also cannot have freedom of religion without freedom of speech.

Really, the kind of freedom Egan is talking about is freedom from religion.  For him, free speech is the right to offend, the right to say ‘I think what you believe is not only wrong, but ridiculous.  It might be sacred to you, but it’s not sacred to me.’ 

But freedom of religion is very different. That’s the freedom to live one’s religion.  Freedom of speech, on this model, is the freedom to express one’s religious beliefs, to share one’s faith with others, and to teach it to one’s children.  It is also the freedom to say what Christians call ‘hard truths’, which will most probably offend someone at some point.  And that’s the freedom, Mr President and Prime Minister, that I see slipping away, in both of our countries. 

You, Mr President, have been called by the Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput ‘the most tone-deaf’ leader ‘to religious liberty in recent memory’.  And it isn’t just the Catholics that have noticed.  Seventy per cent of senior Protestant pastors think that ‘religious liberty is in decline’ in America, and 54 per cent of the American public thinks so, too.  

Your Affordable Care Act proposed to force employers to provide birth control to employees regardless of whether birth control was against an employer’s religious convictions.  Under your watch, people like Brenden Eich, CEO of Mozilla, have been forced to resign, or have lost their jobs, if they say, or have ever said, they believe in ‘traditional marriage’, or believe that homosexual acts are ‘sinful.’  Sounds like a violation of free speech to me. 

And just recently there was a story in the news about a teenage boy who wanted to become a transgendered girl, but his parents were Christians and refused to permit him to change his sex.  He committed suicide, which caused an outcry in the transgender community against his parents’ efforts to help him accept himself as a boy. Yet, the parents had a right to teach him Christian values, which assert the sanctity of the body, and the importance of the body for one’s identity.

Prime Minister, similar things are happening in the UK.  For starters, abortion debates are forbidden on some UK college campuses, and free speech is denied routinely to pro-life groups, which are usually run by Christians. 

And, just this week, days after you marched in Paris to defend free speech, a story broke in the press about how Ofsted conducted a ‘hostile’ inspection of a Christian school.  Chris Gray, principle of Grindon Hall Christian School in Sunderland, has lodged a formal complaint against Ofsted for the suspicious and manipulative way in which they inspected the school. 

New Ofsted guidelines established last year by your administration demand that schools ‘actively promote’  British values such as liberty, respect, and tolerance for different religions and beliefs.  Yet, Mr Gray said that as Ofsted carried out its inspection to determine the school’s commitment to these British values, the inspectors seemed to hold the view that ‘the Christian ethos of the school was adversely affecting our ability to be open, non-discriminatory and tolerant.’

Indeed, Mr. Gray complained that Ofsted seemed to have a ‘pre-determined’ outcome regarding the school’s performance in this area.  Thus, when a child asked ‘how it is possible to have two mums’, the inspectors viewed this as ‘indicating a lack of awareness of lesbian relationships’.  ‘Actually’, Mr Gray said, ‘I understand the child concerned was merely thinking in biological terms.’ 

Also, the primary school children were ‘asked if they knew of any boys or girls who thought they were in the wrong body.’  Ten-year-olds were asked if they knew what lesbians ‘did’.   They were also asked ‘What is evolution?  Do you believe in this or God?’ Mr Gray complained, ‘many of the questions seem to betray an underlying disrespect for the Christian faith.’     

So far, Ofsted has offered no apology.  So it seems, Prime Minister, that there is some kind of lack of understanding regarding the difference between teaching tolerance and respect, and forcing agreement. Christianity absolutely teaches tolerance and love, but it also holds that there are such things as truth and error, right and wrong.  We respect others, but we can’t always agree with them, and we should be able to speak freely about our disagreements.

So, Mr President and Prime Minister, as you stand together, proud to defend free speech, does the right to free speech include the right to express, share and live one’s religious convictions?  Or does it just include the right to ridicule, dismiss, and stifle religious convictions?  Neither of you have been very clear or pro-active on this point, so, as a devoted Christian, I was just wondering.

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Holly Hamilton-Bleakley
Holly Hamilton-Bleakley
Holly is a mother of six, now living in the United States. She holds an MPhil and PhD in Intellectual History & Political Thought from Newnham College, Cambridge. She blogs at Philosophy for Parents. Tim is her husband and a former RAF officer.

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