TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Only Christianity can save Britain from Aggressive Secularism and Religious Fundamentalism

I.

Last Sunday Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, published a controversial article in The Sunday Telegraph, linking Muslim immigration and multiculturalism to the loss of the Christian culture that, in his words, “made Britain great.”

Unsurprisingly, the political and religious establishment reacted in entirely predictable ways. Politicians from both right and left condemned his remarks for being divisive and excessive. Religious figures, especially some representatives of the Muslim community, accused the Bishop of scaremongering in the face of Christianity’s decline in the UK. In either case, the implicit charge is that his analysis is one-sided and that it feeds the growing Islamophobia that apparently threatens the country’s unity and cohesion.

II.

These reactions distort Nazir-Ali’s position and miss the point of his intervention—the need for a robust national debate about the centrality of Christian faith and culture for the future of Britain. The Bishop’s first argument is that the adoption of multiculturalism has prevented the integration of immigrants by abandoning the idea of a common national culture in which different ethnic and religious minorities can participate. This process has been reinforced by the ideology of “multifaith” that effectively denies the “distinctively Christian character of the nation’s laws, values, customs and culture.” Taken together, multiculturalism and multifaith have undermined a shared organic culture framed by Christian beliefs and practices, and replaced it with a segregated and ghettoized society where communities live side by side in mutual ignorance and fear.

Far from stirring up anti-immigrant sentiments, this diagnosis is shared by some of the UK’s most liberal voices. Only last year did Trevor Philips, Chairman of the British Commission for Equality and Human Rights, warn that the country is “sleepwalking into segregation.” Evidently, the ongoing crisis that erupted violently in 2001 when Oldham and other cities experienced racial riots has clearly not been recognized. Nor have its underlying causes been addressed. That is part of the reason why the Bishop’s analysis is so pertinent.

Nazir-Ali’s second argument is that the decline of a common culture has fostered the rise of two extremes—secularism and fundamentalism, and both are ruining what is left of Britain’s Christian heritage. Secularism has taken on the mantle of neutrality in order to guarantee equal rights for all citizens—adherents of all faiths and none. In reality, according to the Bishop, the secularist approach “has its own agenda and it is certainly not neutral.” By refusing to privilege any faith, secularism makes all belief systems the same, thus displacing the dominant Christian culture in favor of a multicultural and multifaith “mish mash” that tolerates everything and believes in nothing.

In turn, this agenda, which (in his words) “lacks the underpinning of a moral and spiritual vision”, favors the spread of Islamic fundamentalism because extremists are able to recruit among those who are spiritually alienated from a society that values little else than binge-drinking and sexual promiscuity. Indeed, the causes for Islamic extremism are neither economic nor social but instead cultural: the bombers of July 7, 2005, and the perpetrators of the attempted attacks in London and Glasgow last summer were all well-educated and from middle-class families. In this and other similar cases, the fatal attraction of extremism is its appeal to spiritual purity and strict divine laws—a perverted theology that clothes suicide bombings in the garb of martyrdom.

Indeed—and this is the Bishop’s third and undoubtedly most controversial argument—the problem of fundamentalism cannot be blamed on secularism alone but has its roots in Islam. The ideology of Islamic extremism is turning already segregated and ghettoized communities into “no-go” areas for all those of a different faith or race—a form of hostility that, according to Nazir-Ali, “is but the other side of the coin to far-Right intimidation.” The point he is making is that this ideology is akin to fascism and white racism because it is supremacist and tolerates no dissent, whether from infidels or apostates (however, at this juncture, the article lacks differentiation and makes some rather silly points: the Bishop fails to stress that a large majority of Muslims are opposed to extremism, and he lumps together extremism with sharia-compliant banking and what he describes as the deliberate “artificial amplification for the Adhan, the call to prayer”, but more on this below).

Nazir-Ali’s final argument is perhaps the most significant—that Britain’s identity crisis cannot and will not be solved unless and until a specifically Christian vision is once more restored to the center of national life. Such a vision consists in the equal dignity and freedom for all, justice and compassion, as well as “the teaching and example of Jesus Christ regarding humility, service and sacrifice.” But he warns that the prospects are increasingly remote: the predominant multicultural consensus enforced by the elite has drained Church of England (CoE) establishment of much of its substance and downgraded its status by elevating multifaith over the Christian character of country and culture. As a result, the CoE now suffers from what the Bishop aptly calls the “trappings of establishment,” unable to confront the religious relativism that is at the heart of the secular multifaith ideology. The future of the CoE and, by extension, of Christianity in Britain may well stand and fall with disestablishment.

III.

If, so to speak, Bishop Nazir-Ali committed any sin at all in publicizing his view, then it is sin by omission—perhaps inevitable in an article of less than 800 words. First, he did not mention the fact that Britain’s Christian culture was already in crisis prior to the massive wave of immigration. Indeed, until the early 1960s, Christianity constituted the common frame of reference for the nation’s self-understanding and sustained a shared culture framed by an integral vision of human life revolving around mutual bonds of fraternal charity. Britain was well and truly a Christian land, it just didn’t go to church quite as much as some Roman Catholic or other Protestant countries. As Callum Brown has extensively documented in his book The Death of Christian Britain (2000), it was women (rather then men) who sustained the Christian moral worldview of the Victorian age until the second half of the twentieth century.

The swinging sixties changed all that by denouncing the past as reactionary and oppressive and proclaiming the long overdue advent of sexual liberation and female emancipation. The evidence that Brown produces refutes the classical thesis that secularization began during the Industrial Revolution. This shift in mainstream culture was reinforced by—and prompted—the sweeping legislative change in the later sixties, in particular the Sexual Offences Act and Abortion Act of 1967. Taken together, the abandonment of traditional sexual practices and family life in favor of a culture of permissiveness helped spelled the demise of Christian Britain. (Interestingly, there are strong parallels with the US: in his recent book Why the Democrats are Blue, Mark Stricherz shows how the adoption of a feminist manifesto at the Democratic convention in 1968 marked the beginning of a long process that resulted in the desertion en masse of the Democratic Party by Catholic workers.)

The point of all is to say that immigration cannot be blamed for the decline of Britain’s Christian culture—especially given the fact that first-generation immigrant communities tended to be culturally conservative and resisted the permissive ideology of the 1960s. What mass immigration under the banner of multiculturalism did do is further to undermine a sense of shared belonging and the communal bonds that sustain a national ethos and identity.

The second omission that limits Nazir-Ali’s remarks is the impact of secularization on religious minorities, above all Muslims. There can be no doubt that Britain’s contemporary culture is profoundly secularized and in many respects hostile to traditional religion. From teenage pregnancies to gang violence and single-parent households, the UK is characterized by social and family breakdown that is unique in the West. This, coupled with anti-religious legislation by successive governments (including Tony Blair’s), has created a climate of suspicion on the part of many Muslim communities that adhere to strict moral codes and cherish the life of extended families.

Moreover, in this and other respects such as banking, Islam has something important to teach Christianity, in particular the liberal wing of the CoE. Islam, like Judaism, is a holistic religion where faith positions every aspect and area of life, including politics and the economy. As such, Islam repudiates the practice of usury and imposes other limits on free-market capitalism, in an attempt to re-orient economic production and exchange toward the common good. To an extent, Islamic banking can be seen as part of a religious alternative to untrammeled free markets and the ensuing commodification of human life that the West and its worldwide client states have witnessed.

This brings me to my final point—the third omission by Bishop Nazir-Ali. Part of the reason why Britain is no longer a Christian country is Christianity itself, especially liberal Anglicanism. Most liberal Anglicans have uncritically embraced the post-1960s consensus and extended this ideology to Church teaching and practices (especially with respect to abortion and homosexuality)—thus provoking a backlash by traditionalists. As a result, the CoE is divided along essentially secular lines, between liberal progressives and evangelical conservatives. The mediating middle, consisting mainly (but not exclusively) of high church Anglo-Catholics has been marginalized and now represents (in the words of the late Gillian Rose) the “broken middle.”

Callum Brown concludes the above mentioned book by saying that “the Britain of the new millennium is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die.” If this is true, which undoubtedly it is, then religion needs something else than more mindless modernization. Christianity needs to be theologically more orthodox and politically more radical—and it is far from clear whether in its current configuration the CoE can still offer such an alternative. Little wonder that after Islam, the fastest growing religion in Britain is Roman Catholicism. Anglican Britain may be dying, but Catholics will not surrender Christian Britain to the complicit collusion of liberal secularism and religious fundamentalism without a fight.

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