A Green Party internal panel in Brighton has recommended the expulsion of Cllr Christina Summers from the Green Group on Brighton and Hove Council after she spoke out against – and voted against – a Council motion supporting equal marriage. Equality has long been a Green Party commitment; Cllr Summers argued that her faith meant she had to speak out and vote as she did. Without going into the detail – the internal panel has yet to publish its reasoning and the Green Group has yet to vote on the recommendation – it is claimed that Cllr Summers breached an agreement signed by all Council candidates that she would not oppose Party policy on this issue, and also that she took part in protests outside an abortion clinic in Brighton.
Cllr Summers clearly sees this decision as discrimination against Christians, and as an assault on her freedom of speech. In the BBC report linked above she is quoted as saying:
“It’s discriminatory against Christians. It’s a typical symptom of prejudice, blatant prejudice.
“It raises a big question – can Christians serve in the public realm? They are saying don’t bring your faith into politics.”
It’s an argument we hear time and time again from fundamentalist Christians – and adherents of other religions – in the face of secularism. Without going into the details of the Panel’s recommendations there are important general issues that this case illustrates about the clash between private and public values, the nature of citizeship and the pursuit of privilege.
There is obviously a clash here between public values and private faith, As a party Greens believe that discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, or sexuality, is wrong. We also believe that the harrassment of vulnerable women outside abortion clinics is wrong. Neither of these is incompatible with members holding strong views about, for example, abortion in private.
In Brighton and Hove Greens ask their candidates for public office to affirm their support for equality, and campaign accordingly – indeed, part of the reason why Greens have emerged as the leading party in Brighton and Hove is their unequivocal and vigorous support for equality on the grounds of race, gender and sexualtiy. But as soon as we make an exception on the grounds of faith, we are no longer respecting faith; we’re privileging it. We’re in effect saying that we only expect our elected representatives to uphold those values – the values on which they were elected and to which they signed up when they became candidates – insofar as their private convictions allow. And that seems to me to be an untenable position. Where does it end? Because faith is of necessity a private, personal matter it could be used to justify almost anything. And I’d argue that the moment we privilege faith we have ceased to respect it, because you have created an environment in which the public idea of respect – based on a common and mutual acceptance of public values and evidence, and the compromises that are necessary to make a civil society work – cannot function.
What this means for Greens and for anyone else involved in promoting equality is that, to be serious about equality, you simply cannot accept a position where faith is privileged in this way. It blurs the private and public in a way that is, in my view, unacceptable and dangerous. It means that political debate moves from an understanding of common responsibility and respect to a shouting match based on personal and private conviction. It is dangerously close to that most fascistic of political errors, the cult of sincerity.
To argue that Christianity is being driven out of life in Britain is arrant, self-evident nonsense. We remain one of only a handful of countries in the world in which the state religion is guaranteed representation in Parliament. Although religious observance has declined, there is no sense in which worship is restricted. Christians are not harassed in going about their daily lives, or their observances. This is not a debate about religious freedom but about power and privilege, in which Christians appear to be arguing that they have an exemption from the disciplines and compromises of public, democratic life and a right to assert their values in a privileged way.
It is in the assault on the division between public and private, rather than in the requirement that Christians become, in the broadest sense, citizens that the real route to authoritarianism lies. I’d argue that one of the prime duties of a civic society is to protect the right of all citizens to hold and practise their beliefs, to the extent that it does not affect the rights and freedoms of others; once you cross that line between public and private it seems to me that you are on the way to authoritarianism. In refusing to privilege faith, we are in effect protecting it.