Baroness Warsi’s visit to the Holy See in February, as the leader of a ministerial delegation, seemed beforehand like it would be the very definition of low-impact. The presence of a prominent British Muslim in the state capital of Catholicism, affirming at the same time mutual ties of religious tolerance and diplomatic co-operation: a nice bit of spin for all involved, but not much of a headline generator. Addressing an assembly of the Vatican diplomatic college, among them future papal nuncios to governments around the world, it was perhaps inevitable that her speech would centre on the role of religion in politics and public life.
What was so surprising, however, was the tone with which she approached her subject. Buoyed by a receptive audience at the Vatican, Warsi thundered into a new and far more aggressive rhetoric than has previously typified the debate in the UK. Having quoted from Pope Benedict’s remarks at Westminster Hall last year – remarks which, during a visit not entirely well-received, were conciliatory and well-crafted – that the secular and religious spheres ‘should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue’, Warsi then pivoted from this message of unity to decry a new breed of ‘militant secularisation’ which ‘demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes’. This, of course, generated considerable media attention, although unfortunately for her the focus has been rather more on the alleged militancy of secularism than on the religious values she believes are under threat.
Warsi’s accusation has been betrayed by the waves it has created: we wouldn’t have noticed them so much if the waters were already rough. Certainly many in this country would, if not endorse it, at least be familiar with the phrase ‘militant atheism’: the zeal with which Richard Dawkins and others attack the holding of religious beliefs becomes more inflamed the more they see that reasoning will not destroy faith. So often simplified to such apparently binary and irreconcilable positions, it is unsurprising that these debates tend to produce more heat than light.
‘Militant secularism’, on the other hand, is a not a concept most of us would recognise. Comments coming from such a public-minded religious figure as Giles Fraser, until recently Dean of St Paul’s, that ‘secularism is not, and never has been, the political arm of atheism’, affirm that, however heated our theological debates, politics is an entirely separate matter. As a nation we have no mainstream appetite whatsoever for theocracy. We are all secularists now, even the religionists. The issues which persistently irk the strongest proponents of secularism – faith schools, say, or bishops in the House of Lords – will continue to be debated, yet in a time of tension over vital national issues such as austerity budgets, economic turmoil, and NHS reform, they remain stranded on the political fringes.
Baroness Warsi’s speech in fact has less to do with the role of religion in politics than with the appearance of religion in public life. When Alastair Campbell interrupted an interview with Tony Blair in 2003 with the words ‘We don’t do God’, it wasn’t in order to make a religious point, but to prevent a PR disaster – he didn’t think that faith should be part of the political narrative. David Cameron’s answer to this in his ‘We are a Christian nation’ speech in December for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, like Warsi’s speech last month, was aimed not at forcing religion back on to the political agenda, but rather at making faith a public virtue again.
There is merit in both these stances. If faith is held dear by many in this country, then members of our society shouldn’t feel that their right to observe it is discouraged. On the other hand, if we agree on the need for secular government, then we must realise that the political and administrative spheres are not the proper place for religious expression.
It is in this light that we should welcome Mr Justice Ouseley’s ruling in February, which Warsi’s speech was no doubt in part aimed at, on the legality of holding prayers at council meetings. This has been cynically interpreted by some with particular interest as either a victory for atheism or a threat to religious freedom. In fact it is nothing more sinister than a practical assessment of the official duties of a council meeting.
In his judgment, Ouseley explains that he deemed the prayer sessions to be unlawful not on the basis that the prayers were discriminatory, as the claimants had attempted to demonstrate, but on a technicality of the Local Government Act 1972, s.111(1):
“… a local authority shall have power to do any thing … which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions.”
Ouseley recognised the contradiction that, if a councillor’s duties required him to attend the meeting, but did not require him to be present for the prayers, then the prayers were not part of his duties and so could not be justified as relevant to the discharge of the council’s functions. And, religious or otherwise, matters irrelevant to the council’s business should not be part of its meetings.
And in the elegance and decorum of this judgment lies the point of secularism: it doesn’t need to be militant, nor even anti-religious. The most basic point of statute asserts that governance is to be conducted with regard only to civic duty. The challenge for religious groups now is to recognise that this is not an attack on their freedoms.
From where, after all, does this desire arise to politicise religion, to overextend the boundaries of faith into the administration of a local council, to bestow a religious aura on an otherwise secular function? If Warsi’s rhetoric is a barometer, it certainly seems there is a perceived threat, to freedom of belief and to the freedom to express those beliefs. This is an unnecessary insecurity: the threat to faith is intellectual, and vigorous at that, but it does not seek to repress. By the same token, the faiths must learn to accept that their precinct is the spiritual and, yes, the social. But not the political.