An interesting article here briefly discussing the potential of the new Harmanite ‘Equalities Bill’ to severely restrict the ability of religious communities to uphold the distinctive character of their organisational and pastoral make-up. The Bill is due to come up before the House of Lords, having had potential amendments in the House of Commons dismissed by ministers imposing a ‘guillotine’ on discussion, and the Christian charity CARE has issued a report (not available until the 14th) maintaining that, as things stand, religious communities, in particular the Catholic Church, will no longer be able to discriminate according to the principles of their faith.
Now of course, to remain level-headed, freedom of association for religious groups should not de facto trump state and societal commitments to certain basic expressions of a civilised society, and were there to be a religion that sacrificed virgins or butchered young children in worship of a sun god then there may well be a case for arguing the limits of religious immunity from such legislation.
However, clearly this is not what we’re up against – however much Catholic tradition and practice may induce bouts of hysteria from the atheists crowded disproportionately on the liberal-left, it yet remains comfortably and creatively part of civilised society.
The interesting question this raises, however, is whether this Bill is yet another step in the direction of creating a ‘Catholic vote’, a phenomenon on which Damian Thompson has written convincingly in the past. Or, to express it the other way round, has the relentless attack on the moral and religious norms of the Catholic faith created a situation whereby the instinct of many Catholic communities to vote for Labour as the ‘Party of the poor’ has been abandoned, superseded by a collective desire to assert Catholic social and moral teaching over and above the aggressive and, dare one say it, persecutionary approach of the nihilists on the metropolitan left?
I have a certain amount of sympathy for Damian’s argument, and in those areas where there remains large Catholic communities it will no doubt give Labour some pause for thought.
However, I do wonder if this analysis goes far enough. Because if we allow for the possibility of a Catholic vote, then might there not also be a case for a broader ‘Christian’ vote? Whilst, for example, the social gospel of the C of E has come under sustained attack from the left-liberal who thinks sociology, rather than theology, should dictate Church direction*, there nonetheless still exists a significant pool of Anglicans who may well decide that the rabid secularism (for which read atheism) and social liberalism of much contemporary liberal thought has become a significant enough problem.
And we needn’t stop there.
For one is bound to wonder about mainstream Muslims, or indeed orthodox Jews, the latter of which have had their right to define membership of their own religion curtailed by so-called ‘equality’ laws.
Yet even this might not go far enough. For having considered the religious dimension, one is compelled to further speculate about those without any particular faith at all, the ordinary working man or woman, whose moral and social compass may well have been shaped in a cultural landscape wholly different to that of those metropolitan elites from whom the majority of so-called ‘progressive thought’ emanates. One could even bring class in here – to my mind, and in my experience, the ‘working-classes’, or what remains of them, are socially conservative, even if on economic issues large swathes of them drift toward socialist ideals.
For this reason, I think there is a broader case to be made. Damian is right, in the sense that if the Roman Catholic Church is the most obvious and most outspoken bastion of socially conservative thought in this country then the atheistic impulses of this government might well be interpreted by Catholic communities as purposely discriminatory, and lead them to consider their vote accordingly. Yet, at the same time, I wonder if the Catholics are not merely the highest profile group suffering at the hands of a systematic attack on social conservatism wherever it exists, the inevitable clash between two competing world-views, an ideological battle that is taking place both within and beyond the traditions and practice of one particular faith.
This, then, is the dividing line New Labour has drawn. Which would explain why the pernicious doctrines of left-liberalism are facing such widespread rejection, from believer and non-believer alike.
*This is, according to George Weigel, the grounds upon which John Paul II dismissed Archbishop Runcie’s defence of the ordination of women.