In the UK Parliament debate on ‘gay marriage’ I was struck by the negative perception many MP’s had of the way Christians campaigned against the bill; and in some cases with good reason. Which makes me wonder if we need a fresh non-conformist voice in public life that is nuanced and engaged.
What might this look like?
1. It would value freedom of belief. Believing that faith is something freely chosen we should be ready to stand up for religious freedom for all and not just when it is about ‘Christian’ freedom. In the current debate we might start by supporting the right for people to be treated by the state in the same way, irrespective of sexual orientation, but also support the consciences of people who have specific objections to something (eg: pharmacists who object to prescribing the morning after pill). Which also means we need to suggest ways society might handle competing rights and responsibilities.
2. It should argue for a small state. Non-conformity suggests an inherent questioning of the state’s ability to determine what is good or bad, suspicion that the larger the state bureaucracy the more it might tend towards totalitarianism. Elements of this appear when the language of ‘equality’ starts to be a cover for ‘uniformity’. Personally, I am also deeply uneasy about the way some charities rely on government funding, particularly when this involves campaigning for particular changes in society, and think it would be healthy for there to be greater transparency and less state involvement. Small state does not mean no state of course and there will be occasions when we wish to argue that the government attends to the needs of 'the least' in our country and beyond. Again, personally, I'm uncertain that simply because the state can do could in an area we should encourage the state to fulfill that role when there are other means of doing so.
3. It appreciates the public benefit of civic institutions, mutual societies and the like. I'm saddened surprise that a Conservative – Liberal coalition government seems to fail to appreciate the benefits of this; particularly in response to the banking scandals. An encouragement for the expansion of Credit Unions and mutual financial bodies which could encourage small business finance might make a significant difference. Likewise as another scandal looms over the health service, one wonders whether the notion of organisations existing for public benefit or members benefit would be a helpful corrective. It seems to me this ‘institutional’ level is where the Government’s ‘big society’ comes unstuck and where a fresh vision of mutuality, democratic involvement and civic institution is needed most.
4. It encourages Christians to debate in the public square based on what is for the common good, rather than what is ‘christian’*. To work with others who hold similar views on a particular issue. (Make Poverty History and the IF campaign are examples where Christians are significant players alongside others). It argues for public policy based on ethics not profit, for the good of society as well as personal need and shared humanity not self interest.
I suspect I'm being a bit idealistic, but something needs to be done and we have things to contribute.
* By this I mean we need to communicate in ways that make sense in wider society as well as being coherent with our faith and an outworking of it. We also need to explain what we believe and the implications this has for our understanding of society; but they tend to be different occasions.