The Ashers Bakery case is back in the news, as the Christian Institute-backed business seeks to overturn the original ruling, that they discriminated against Mr Gareth Lee when he ordered a cake for an event promoting marriage equality.
The Christian Institute has for years been pushing a false narrative of Christian persecution. The National Secular Society has been documenting their propaganda, describing the Christian Institute as:
“A slick propaganda machine, working hard to create the impression that Christians in Britain are being persecuted and discriminated against on an unprecedented scale”
Why is the Christian Institute so keen to fight the corner of Christians claiming persecution in the highest courts available, when they lose almost every case? The answer is that the purpose of these cases is not to win, but to garner support. It has worked, too – senior bishops like John Sentamu and present or former Government officials Eric Pickles and Sayeeda Warsi have adopted their language, citing “militant secularism”, “aggressive atheism” and combinations thereof as the source of Christian oppression.
This is a fiction – many active and senior human rights officials leading these cases, like Michael Wardlow of the Equality Commission, are Christians themselves. Note the deliberate conflation of secularism, the political ideal of separation of church and state, with atheism, a philosophical position on the (lack of) existence of gods, ignoring the fact that many religious people, like Wardlow, are also secularists.
The rhetoric isn’t just about blaming and smearing those who resist Christian privilege, but about tapping into the Christian religion itself. Consider the Ashers Bakery case. We saw at the pre-hearing rally in the Waterfront Hall how hundreds had to be turned away as Christians rallied to support their anointed martyr, Colin McArthur. This was symbolic of Jesus on the Mount of Olives, as he bade farewell to his followers before his trial and execution.
This actual desire to be persecuted is embedded deep in the evangelical psyche; to be persecuted is to be more like Jesus, to be more godly, to be justified in your faith. It also encourages emotional rather than analytical thinking, which has been linked to increased religiosity.
Some evangelicals, however, see this persecution narrative as deeply unhelpful and divisive, recognising, like us, that no good can come of alarmist sectarian division. What the Christian Institute fear is not persecution, a very real thing for Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, but non-existent in the West. No, what they fear is the loss of privilege and power Christianity enjoyed for so long.
The blameless LGBT community are the unfortunate victims in this; we have seen how Russia and some African states have deliberately demonised them, using them as a symbolic proxy of the liberal, decadent West as they see it, in an attempt to harness nationalist zeal. This is not a new tactic – identify a small minority and whip up hysteria against them to rally support, consolidate power and deflect attention from institutional failures, the Holocaust being the most infamous example. Tyranny 101.
In the case of the religious Right, the normalisation of LGBT identity and rights symbolises the dominance of sin, the rise of Satan, and the coming of the End Times. As loopy as it sounds, this, too, is something they eagerly anticipate. This doesn’t stop them from wanting dominion over, and subjugation of, those ‘sinners’; there may be a chance to turn them from their wickedness, and that, in turn, surely guarantees one’s own salvation!
To those Christians in whom Jesus inspires kindness and respect for others, the loss of privilege secularism brings isn’t a problem – they aren’t interested in a confrontation. To those Christians who want to proselytise and dominate society as it once did, it’s a disaster, and spells the end for their regressive ambitions.