If you control language then you control the debate. That is what the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci claimed in his theory of “passive revolution”, which focused on shaping attitudes in order to secure changes in a society’s culture.
The methods may seem opaque now, but his successors are those who seek to reduce Christianity’s special place in society by anonymising religious denominations and removing any sense of entitlement, either for Catholics, Anglicans or, more broadly, for this country’s Christian heritage.
This is the product of a pseudo-liberal groupthink that remains inherently hostile to the religious having any role in public affairs at all. It therefore seeks to “manage” religions (or, as they are termed these days, “faith communities”), lumping Catholicism in with small groups like Scientology and the Bahá’í. We find ourselves corralled together as “people of faith” in order to be controlled, minimised and, all too often, demonised. This all stems from a mindset where religion is seen to be an inherently regressive force, something that once enjoyed privileges and from whose clutches society should be escaping.
Something that’s had too much power and now needs firmly putting in its place. In fact, so pervasive is this belief that no less a figure than Barack Obama spouts it. Speaking in Northern Ireland while he was attending the G8 earlier this year, Obama said: “If towns remain divided – if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs – if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear and resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.” At a stroke, his infuriating remarks reduced a complex ethno-national conflict to the fault of Catholic schools and the insulting, injurious and entirely spurious belief they are somehow fermenting intolerance and hatred.
Yet whatever disdain liberals reserve for the role of Catholic education now pales against the suspicion they direct towards the steady trickle of Islamic schools that are beginning to open up. Last month the Al-Madinah free school in Derby was judged by schools regulator Ofsted to be inadequate, with the threat that it would be closed unless urgent measures were taken to rectify its poor performance, which included discrimination against girl pupils and non-Muslims. There will have been a collective muttering of “I told you so” among the panjandrums of the liberal educational elite, who see a growth in Muslim schools as a nightmare scenario, a de facto licence to introduce gender discrimination into the classroom, with a curriculum offering little more than “madrassas on the rates”.
Yet, rather than deal with the problem at hand, describing the Al-Madinah free school as a “faith school” is a way of not calling it a “Muslim school”. This way, Islamic schools can be challenged, but couched as a collective punishment for the God botherers. This is why “faith” is a linguistic holding pen for Catholics, a way of marginalising the role of religion in society, but also a means for Catholics and other Christians to cross-subsidise Islam. This is the product of a post-9/11 obsession in trying to bring Islam into the mainstream to avert any accusation that there is a “clash of civilisations” with western Christian mores. The solution to reducing Islam’s “otherness” has been to place Muslims firmly together with all the other “people of faith”.
In minimising religion in this way, the aim is to reduce it to a solely private matter. It cannot provide moral leadership in a pluralist society. It must not provide adoption agency services that do not abide by strictures about gay relationships. And it certainly should not be involved in “indoctrinating” children with religion in school.
As Catholics, it is time we reasserted our separateness. We should stop allowing ourselves to be hemmed in by those who seek to manage and marginalise us. We should lead a counter-Gramscian cultural shift towards making the expression of religious conviction in the public sphere seem normal again. This should start by eschewing terms like “faith school” and “faith community”. It should also mean proudly and visibly proclaiming Catholic schools to be just that.
After all, there are no problems with Christian church schools. They offer the state sector – as they always have done – a bedrock of consistently superb educational establishments, basing access not on wealth but simply on religious adherence.
Measured either by parental consent or examination results, church schools form the building blocks of our state education system. So those liberals who dislike them should be forced to come clean about what they really mean.
Of course, what they really want is no more Al-Madinahs. They want to strangle off the very concept of Muslim schools, which they believe will usher in retrograde practices (with some evidence, it has to be said). But their liberalism is torn between protecting the rights of a religious and ethnic minority and upholding universal rights for girls. That’s their headache.
It’s time we Christians stopped allowing ourselves and our institutions to be framed as a problem simply because atheistic liberal opinion is too weak, or too conflicted, to face up to and deal with Islam’s less attractive cultural practices.
Of course, the parents at the Al-Madinah free school are simply exercising the same parental choice we enjoy in establishing a school that gives expression to the tenets of their religion. But if they see the value of boys and girls differently, the state, in the guise of Ofsted’s inspectors, is entitled to come down hard on their errant practices. But that is their battle to fight, not ours.
We Catholics should defend our right to religious freedom and parental choice, defending the record of Catholic schools in providing first-rate comprehensive education. We should throw off the shackles that have us bound up as a faith group in order to be classified and marginalised by atheistic pseudo-liberals. We should wrest control the debate by insisting on our own language to define ourselves. We can start that process by losing “faith”.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of the website Labour Uncut and a former special adviser in the last Labour government
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 22/11/13