Friday, 11 April 2008

Cardinal wants privileged place for faith in public policy

Here we go again. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor thinks that our old friend 'aggressive secularism' is gaining ground in the UK. Not only that, he wants to roll back the tide of secularisation by ensuring that Christian leaders maintain their 'privileged position over the representatives of other faiths' in contributing to public policy.

The Guardian highlights the apparent contrast with his Anglican counterpart's recent sympathetic mutterings about Sharia law, citing the Cardinal's argument that multiculturalism has 'destroyed the unity that once held Britain together'. But both archbishops are really saying the same thing: that religion should be accorded pride of place in public debates, even though the majority of the population doesn't practise any kind of faith.

The Cardinal is probably right when he says that 'people are looking for a common good in this country' and asking 'What is it that binds British people together?' (Gordon Brown and his ministers seem to wring their hands over this question at least once a week, and come up with increasingly worrying answers - first oaths of allegiance to the Crown, and now proposals to militarise our schools.) But Murphy O'Connor is surely wrong to argue that 'there is no other heritage than the Judaeo-Christian heritage in this country' and that to abandon it and replace it with a 'totally secular view of life' would lead the nation down 'a very dangerous path'.

One grows a bit weary of banging on about this, but even if we acknowledge the important role played by religion in the early centuries of this nation's life, it's undeniable that many of the core values that we now accept as essentially British (or European, or American) developed out of a secularist criticism of religious authority, and often in the teeth of opposition from religious establishments - whether we're talking about freedom of belief and expression, or female suffrage and women's rights more generally.

And while it's nice of the Cardinal to acknowledge the Jewish and well as Christian foundations of our shared values (something you wouldn't have caught a Catholic leader doing fifty years ago), it makes you wonder how long it will be before religionists are arguing for a privileged position for Britain's 'Judaeo-Islamo-Christian heritage'. I confidently predict it's a phrase that will trip off the tongue of Rowan Williams or some other muddled multifaithist before the decade is out.

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