Michael Nazir-Ali and ‘Christian’ values

The Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, has caused a lot of comment with his recent article Breaking faith with Britain. The Guardian even produced a rather hopeless leader that describes the article as ‘potentially dangerous’ and calls on Rowan Williams to condemns the bishop’s views, without actually providing any coherent reasons for why they should be rejected.

Having read the full article, I would say it is wrong-headed, (though not dangerous) largely because it combines a rather poor knowledge of history with a rather poor grasp of ethics. Nazir-Ali’s main point is to show how the many of the current ‘liberal’ values in the West (and particularly the UK) are derived ultimately from Biblical principles. Now, in a broad sense this is justified, and I get fed up with the more militant atheists who try to deny this. But it’s important to remember that for hundreds of years many of these Biblical principles were simply ignored by the church of all denominations. It’s disingenuous for the bishop to refer to the Dominicans discussing the natural rights of native Americans and ignore widespread Judeo-Christian acceptance of slavery for thousands of years. And to say that anti-immigrant feeling in the 1960s was due to a breakdown in Christian hospitality is to ignore 700 years or more of violent anti-immigrant behaviour (that’s excluding the St Brice’s day massacre, but including thirteenth-century treatment of the Jews). There are also Biblical ideas (like holy war or stoning women), which are now rightly rejected.

It is also bending history till it breaks for him to talk about the existence of an ‘Evangelical-Enlightenment consensus’ in Britain from the eighteenth century onwards. While the church may have preached the theoretical equality of all men, it was deeply opposed to many of the attempts to obtain their practical equality, as to many other Enlightenment ideas. The church has historically always been disproportionately represented on the side of reaction and oppression.

Nazir-Ali claims essentially that you can’t have these liberal values without Christianity. There is a historical argument that some ethical values are fairly religiously (and hence regionally) specific. The principle of equality developed in Christianity (and Jainism) but not in Hinduism. The Buddhist tradition of non-violence has few parallels among the Abrahamic religions. But it doesn’t follow from this, as Nazir-Ali claims, that Christianity is therefore necessary to sustain such values. The disestablishment of the church of Wales has had no discernable effect on liberal values there. The principles of the English legal system survived their implanting into a US without a monarch. A commitment to scientific discovery once frequently sustained by a desire to understand the wonders of God’s creation has survived most scientists becoming atheists. The ‘values and virtues by which we live’ do not now exist in a vacuum, as Nazir-Ali claims. Equality can be based on the belief that all humans are similarly evolved apes, just as much as on the belief that we are all divine creations.

The most controversial (and weakest part) of the bishop’s argument is when he argues that this ‘moral and spiritual vacuum’ provides no resources with which to resist radical Islamism. Here there seems to be complete intellectual incoherence. In what way is radical Islamism a threat that UK secularism cannot withstand? The radical Islamists have no hope of military victory sufficient to take over the UK. Demographic claims are the same paranoia about being ‘outbred’ that have been proved malignant rubbish for the last 100 years. What is left is the possibility of mass British conversion to Islam, which is frankly ludicrous. If fiercely held ideology can always defeat a less committed and more apathetic majority, why isn’t Britain Nazi, Communist or indeed Catholic today? (His complaint that the church simply gave in to liberal values in the 1960s also ignores the fact that the Catholic church (and other very traditional denominations) didn’t achieve a much better position by digging in their heels against social trends).

What Nazir-Ali wants is more religion in politics. I’m not against that in principle (my religion does influence my political views), but he seems to have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. While he rejects coercion and theocracy, he says:

But there is room for persuasion; to argue our case in terms of the common good and human flourishing, and to show how these depend on our spiritual vision.

This is precisely the wrong way round. Britain is now a largely non-Christian society and I cannot see this changing in the near future. To tell non-religious people that they need our religion to sustain values which they already hold is ludicrous if not downright offensive. If we Christians are going to play a useful role in politics, it needs to be by showing why policies and values we support on Christian principles (e.g. care for the poor or the environment) are ones that non-Christians should support in terms of their own non-religious values. If there isn’t a good non-religious reason for a policy (e.g. opposing homosexual equality), then Christians are wasting their time and credibility in arguing for it. Christians (and other religious people) in the UK need to spend less of our time demanding respect from others and more demonstrating practically that we deserve it. And I don’t think the Bishop of Rochester is helping us much in that.

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4 thoughts on “Michael Nazir-Ali and ‘Christian’ values

  1. I stumbled across your post by accident, but I’m very glad I did.

    You have put forward a very cogent and lucid argument and as a resident of Rochester and a keen independent liberal thinker (with pro christian leanings) I couldn’t really agree more.

    Your closing paragraph says it all.

    Thanks.

    XoD.

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  2. Well put; unusually so, in my experience.
    In my personal purview Francis Schaeffer was the first to argue the fundamental character of Christian faith to human ethical health, and that without such grounding civilization would cease to respect humane values.
    This led him into increasingly hysterical denunciations of current Western culture, and promising God’s wrath against it.

    The Bishop’s declaration is loosely allied with such apologetics, and then goes on (as did Schaeffer) to argue for self-aggrandizing activism on the part of Christians. This is clearly at odds with Jesus’ saying “My kingdom is not of this world, else would my servants fight.” Then there’s the matter of turning one’s unsmitten cheek to an attacker.
    The Gospel message is one of forswearing self-defense, on the principle that God should be one’s Protector. It stands in contradiction to ‘identity politics’ pushing-and-shoving for social ascendancy.
    Granted, since before Constantine the practice of the Church has with few exceptions taken an aggressively punitive posture towards dissidence and difference, but this has nothing to do with a Gospel mandate. It is strictly ‘of this world’.

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    • You’re right that the denunciation of Western culture has a long tradition in conservative religious thought (see e.g. Pope Pius Nono). But the culture war against terror does seem to be producing a bizarre twist on this: conservative commentators lining up to praise the liberal values they normally condemn, as a way to bash Muslims. For example, although Michael Nazir-Ali talks about the importance of freedom of expression, he voted against the recent repeal of the blasphemy laws. And there have been assorted homophobic and sexist Christians eager to denounce the wickedness of Iran killing gays or the Taliban’s oppression of women.

      The identity-politics tendency in some UK Christianity is (I hope) a temporary reaction to the fact that while Christians aren’t discriminated against in the UK, the wider culture has lost a lot of respect for them. The problem is that this loss of respect has often been justified: if we don’t want to be thought of as bigots and killjoys, we need to stop being bigots and killjoys and start producing a more positive message. I think this does happen at the local level (my church is very good), but at the national level Christian leaders are still getting the wrong message across.

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  3. Aye and truly.
    When propriety is seen to trump piety (particularly the sort that sacrifices to serve widows and orphans) and cruelty and fear are seen to be leading influences in public proclamations, there is indeed a wrongness of message abroad and at home.

    Thank Heaven for your local level.

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