Whether it recognises it or not, Christianity has an image problem. At a recent lecture at the University of East Anglia, the former home secretary Charles Clarke spoke of how he had seen Christianity before coming into closer contact with it while in office.
Like so many members of our political elite, Clarke was neither a theist nor did he have much idea of what Christians really believed. He thought he understood enough but, as he later realised, all he knew was what the loudest voices in the public square shouted. Since the content of what he heard confirmed the view he had imbibed through his education – that Christians were on the whole narrow-minded reactionaries, especially on matters of sexual morality – he saw no need to think further on the matter.
It was only when Clarke came to work with the churches and other faith communities in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings that he realised how unrepresentative those noisy voices were. It would help relations between church and state, he thought, if people like him saw – and heard – voices other than those with strong opinions on a narrow range of issues. A state church was unnecessary, but a state which understood the churches – and indeed faith communities generally – would be better placed to see, as he put it, that “we all need God”.
A call for more literacy in matters of faith did not go amiss with an audience coming to a series, sponsored by the Keswick Hall Trust, on the overall theme of the need for it. But there were some questions asked about what religious literacy meant when Clarke went on to ask why on earth the Catholic Church had to take such a high-profile public position on issues such as abortion and contraception, especially when its leaders must have known that so many of their own followers did not agree with them. Some said that, at the very least, this showed how even the friendliest non-theist fails the religious literacy test.
Others thought not, pointing to the number of Catholics, lay and clerical, who vocally disagree with the teaching of the Church, and from within the Church effectively ask the same question. Even Pope Francis has said we have perhaps emphasised some of these things too much. Is this evidence then that within the Church, as well as outside it, there is a recognition that we have an image problem? Are those who say that the world hates us because it hated Christ first, misunderstanding things? Does the world actually hate us because it hates the voices which are so clamant in the public square – and because they sound as though they hate the world and its ways? What secularists construe as hate confirms what they already thought; but can it be right, as Charles Clarke seemed to be suggesting, that the Church should soft-pedal certain issues because they cut across the consensus society has reached?
The Church certainly can, as the Pope has suggested, ensure that its teaching on matters society regards with distrust is not emphasised to the extent that it seems not to be talking about those many areas – from education, to welfare, migration or family life – where society is more susceptible to what it has to say; but the Church cannot, and should not, hesitate to say what needs to be said on issues such as abortion and contraception.
Yes, there is a danger here. The Prevent legislation, which requires universities, schools and public authorities to monitor “religious extremism” could easily result in orthodox Christians being targeted because their opinions are out of kilter with the values of our secular society. We have now enough experience of how this could work to say that “thin end of the wedge” arguments are usually prophetic. If even a friendly non-theist like Charles Clarke, who has come to see the good things religion brings to our society, cannot understand why certain issues matter to Christians, then the unfriendly ones, who are far more numerous, cannot be expected to even try.
Pope Francis, who has come in for some criticism for what he has said on these hot-button issues, may, however, have a point. Do we ask ourselves about the tone we use when discussing issues such as abortion and contraception? Do we ask ourselves about the impression we give by that tone?
There is a world of difference between soft-pedalling an issue and explaining to a baffled society why these things matter so much; our own anger at abortion can become an obstacle to the case we are trying to make, not least to a society that would rather not hear it – and will take any excuse to close its ears. If we sound angry and condemnatory, we simply play to the stereotype society has of us.
Professor John Charmley is head of the Interdisciplinary Institute at the UEA