Baroness Warsi and Religious Identity
By David Pavett
Baroness Warsi has added a new dimension to the pro-religious rhetoric coming from the Conservative Party. David Cameron told us in his King James speech last December that he was a “vaguely practising” sort of Christian but that even if he didn’t go to church very often he knew that Christianity had been awfully important in our country’s background and therefore we shouldn’t give up on it now.
David Cameron set the tone for this type of speech by talking of the need for Britain to have confidence in “its Christian identity”. That identity, he argued, is a “crucial” aspect of Britishness. He knows that Christianity in Britain is undergoing a long term decline and that less that 50% of the population has any sort of significant commitment to Christianity. How to get round this problem? The trick is to declare, as he did, that values such as responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities “are the values we treasure” and “Yes, they are Christian values”.
This would make Christians of us all – except that it doesn’t. All these values existed before Christianity and most of us find our way to such values without the need for religion, and sometimes in spite of it. Even so David Cameron had to acknowledge a problem, after all not all Tory voters are believers, by adding that “Faith is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for morality”.
Baroness Warsi in her speech to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome repeated most of the ideas rehearsed by her boss but she added a new element. Whereas he made the unsubstantiated claim that it is easier to practice other faiths in Christian Britain than it is in secular France she claims not only that Britain welcomes religious diversity but that
in order to encourage social harmony, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities, more confident in their beliefs.
Behind this is a view of the nation as a collection of different communities each with their own beliefs who deal with each other on the basis of equality arising from their separate identities. Baroness Warsi says that the way to “accommodate” others is not by “watering down your identity” but by being “content in your own identity”.
What is completely absent from her view is any idea of identity fluidity or multiple identities. For Baroness Warsi people have a fixed identity and she only mentions one dimension of such an identity: religion. Moreover, she speaks of identity not as something that people choose and develop in the course of their lives but rather as something they are born into. She says
Because, for me, it’s about personal choice and the right to express one’s faith – whatever their faith.
But that is immediately followed by saying
So with my daughter’s school, as with my own upbringing, a strong sense of Christianity didn’t threaten our Muslim identity – it actually reinforced it.
Personal choice here seems to mean the personal choice of parents to choose the identity of their children. It would seem that there was no question that her daughter could be anything other than a Muslim just as there was no question for her father that she could be anything else.
And after all that Baroness Warsi ramps up the rhetoric on secularism. Whereas David Cameron merely questioned the idea of what he called “secular neutrality” in an increasingly diverse society she has adopted the language of the right wing in the US and talks of a determined assault on religion by a “liberal elite”. Notice the way “liberal” has been imported into the debate.
Then she gets into her stride. Spirituality is “suppressed” and divinity “downgraded”. There is of course no explanation of what this means. She complains that the project for a European Constitution (i.e. a Constitution of overwhelmingly secular states) made no mention of Christianity. The secular criteria for participation in public life are “all but impassible to anyone of belief”.
All this is rank nonsense and would not stand a moments examination. Christianity continues to have allocated places in the upper house of Parliament, vast state expenditure continues to flow to religious schools, and the media are available to religion as to no other belief system. Nonsense however is not excluded from the political arena and when it carries on its back that our identities are determined by our “communities” and that our communities are religious ones then a particularly harmful approach to our social cohesion is being advanced.
In his important book Identity and Violence the Indian scholar Amartya Sen warns of the danger of reducing identity in this narrow manner. He said
To see a person exclusively in terms of only one of his or her many identities is, of course, a deeply crude intellectual move … and yet, judging from its effectiveness, the cultivated delusion of singularity is evidently easy enough to champion and promote.
Easy enough indeed but dangerous and irresponsible.
Baroness Warsi has reinforced the confusion over secularism contained in David Cameron’s King James Bible speech. He referred several times to what he called “secular neutrality” which he claimed secularists advocate “in order to avoid passing judgement on the behaviour of others”. His argument was that the demand for a secular state is based on the view that it is unfair to other faiths. The secularists argue, he claimed, that this implicit judgement of other faiths is best avoided by making no judgements at all.
The confusion is palpable. The case for secularism was never that official sanctioning of one religion is unfair to others. It almost certainly is but that is not the point. The case for secularism is that it is not the business of the state to give approval any religion, or any belief system come to that.
He also said “I have never really understood the argument some people make about the church not getting involved in politics. To me, Christianity, faith, religion, the Church and the Bible are all inherently involved in politics because so many political questions are moral questions.”
This persistent distortion of a very simple point made by secularists is being repeated so often that it is taking on the force of the obvious for some people. Secularists do not object to religious people and institutions making clear their views on political matters. Secularists argue simply that no special privileges should be accorded to religion in making such comments. It is hardly a difficult to understand and the repeated distortion of such a simple point is a good indicator that something else is going on rather than an honest exchange of ideas.
It is difficult not to conclude that the struggle of David Cameron and Baroness Warsi against an imaginary secularist dragon is driven by politics. The disturbing thing is that this form of politics, in which politicians fend of non-existent challenges to religious freedom is already well known from the example of the United States. This sort of debasement of discussion of the issues is a threat to the whole political process and it is to be regretted that, despite some admirable efforts from individual politicians, no leading political figures in the UK have yet shown themselves prepared to stand for, and speak on behalf of, the ideals of a secular society.
In Identity and Violence Amartya Sen posed what should be regarded as the basic issue regarding identity.
One of the central issues must be how human beings are seen. Should they be categorised in terms of inherited traditions, particularly the inherited religion, of the community in which they happen to be born, taking that unchosen identity to have automatic priority over other affiliations involving politics, profession, class, gender, language, literature, social involvement, and many other connections? Or should they be understood as persons with many affiliations and associations the priorities of which they must themselves choose (taking the responsibility that comes from freedom of choice)?
We would do well to listen to the wise words of Amartya Sen and reject the anti-secularist rhetoric of Baroness Warsi and David Cameron.
(1) King James speech
(2) speech to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome
(3) Identity and Violence
Image by ukhomeoffice used under Creative Commons