A secularist Reformation: Why are magistrates worried about Bibles in courts?

Published 13 November 2013  |  

The phrase "I swear by Almighty God, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" has long been a part of British legal tradition, and it will continue to be so even against the objections of secularists.

On the 19th of October 2013 the Magistrate's Association concluded a debate at their Cardiff Conference by ruling that the current witness oath model, a default Bible with alternatives available upon request, is still fit for purpose in the modern day. Those who opposed the Bible's place in courts argued fewer people in Britain identified with the Word as a serious concern. Magistrate Ian Abrahams who put forward the motion to the Magistrate's Association's conference said: "More and more I see people shrug their shoulders or say 'whatever' when asked to take [the oath]".

But those supporting it argued that its presence added a sense of severity, gravity, and power to the proceedings that a mere promise to "very sincerely tell the truth" would lack. The Right Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, said: "This could be the slippery slope towards the increasing secularisation of society… Where will it end – with the Coronation Oath? The Bible is bound up with the constitution, institutions and history of this country… It is right for people to have a choice of oath, a religious or non-religious one… But we are being urged, in the name of tolerance and secularisation, to restrict that choice."

By itself, this is a relatively minor issue of Christian presence in mainstream culture, and so it would be difficult to characterise it as a large scale victory for the Church and for the British Christian Community more widely. In fact, there is a danger that by becoming overly concerned or celebratory with such a small issue, the image of Christians as myopically self-serving when it comes to matters of public policy could be strengthened. However as the saying goes, it takes two to tango, and there is a far more serious question to ask given the size of this issue. What exactly are the secularists afraid of?

It is difficult to argue that the presence of a Bible in the court room adds anything specifically from the Christian faith to the proceedings other than the notion that there is a special importance to the proceedings. It is more of a trapping than a serious attempt to instil theocratic values into the justice system. The real meat of the oath is the fact that if you are proven to have lied under it, you are committing the crime of perjury, which carries with it a prison sentence of anything between three months and six years depending upon the severity of the lies involved. By swearing on the Bible, you're not promising to live your life as a Christian, you're not stating that you accept God exists, you're not even promising to go to church next week. So what are the secularists worried about?

What David Cameron has called "aggressive secularisation" has been beaten back on a number of issues in recent times. Local councils are still permitted to have prayers before the meetings go ahead, the Scouts have maintained their inclusion of God as part of their oath (with alternatives if requested), and the five Spiritual Peers have survived the many reforms to the House of Lords over the last few years. None of these seriously threaten the rights of those of other religions, or no religion. You don't have to take part in prayers, have your children in the scouts, and the Peers can be overruled by the Parliament act if the government so desires. So what is being fought for?

In many ways, the secularist's attacks on the outer trappings of Christianity in modern society resemble some of the more curious moments in the Protestant reformation. Although no one would seriously argue that secularists want to either decapitate or burn theists at the stake, their desire to remove the superficial impact of Christianity from our wider culture is reminiscent of the more radical Protestants' desire to destroy religious icons, sculptures, and other artwork for fear that they were idolatrous. But of course, the solution to idolatry isn't as simple as destroying the object. If it were, such a sin could be easily forgotten about. Idolatry is about worshiping something other than God. If it's not a statue of Baal or Mammon, it could be food, money, status or anything else.

Similarly, in removing the superficial trappings of Christianity in our society, the secularists aren't doing a blow to the religion itself. If anything, they are admitting it's stronger than their lack of faith would have us believe, as they apparently have a need to remove things that by themselves have no real power. All they are doing is making people angry, and seeking to remove colour from our culture and traditions. After all, if secularism is about the triumph of rationality and logic, where is the logical equation for what makes a country and people what they are. Should we ditch English and all speak Lobjan? After all, a great deal of that comes from Latin and Greek, the language of traditional prayers and the original New Testament.

If secularists really don't believe, then simply don't believe. Why put others in a position to not even hear about the slightest hint of Christianity. Do we really want a bureaucratised republic, free from character and history? While of course it would be wrong for Christianity to rule politically (something that Jesus himself warned against) can we not leave the family decorations out for everyone to enjoy?

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