A strange and troubling paradox is now glaringly evident in society today. On the one hand the UK Government is praising and giving funding to Christian initiatives in communities and recognising the rich contribution the church makes to national life. On the other it is proposing measures to tackle extremism that could privatise Christianity. As we enter this New Year, it is clear 2016 will be a critical year for Christian freedoms.
This week former Whitehall mandarin William Nye talked of the "secularising spirit" now permeating the machinery of government. After 20 years of working at the highest level he sees the gradual "squeezing out of Christianity" from our national life despite the public expressions of support from ministers. The chilling effect has been that more and more Christians are afraid to speak out and feel disenfranchised.
The very nature of society is rapidly changing. Gone are the days when our culture was automatically framed by Judeo Christian values and laws passed based on these timeless truths. Since the First World War, the Enlightenment and the teachings of Darwin we began to see the retreat of Christians from national life. No longer was the language of Christian teaching understood or natural. Instead, the aggressive rise of secular thought, coupled with a new worldview that denied any absolute truths has led to a pluralist society where you can believe anything you want, so long as it does not jar with the 'anything goes' mentality that pervades our culture. Evangelical Christianity has become the unwanted guest at a party everyone else is trying to enjoy.
The silencing of Christianity, as Nye called it, is all the more apparent when you remember that traditionally Christianity has been a very vocal faith. Think of Wilberforce courageously telling Parliament his faith informed his tireless campaigning against the slave trade. In previous generations, Anglican ministers preached to parliament, urging our rulers to govern wisely and with a mind to God's truth. Nye's comments are a reminder that at the very least Christianity is in the eyes of many an entire irrelevance. Even worse is the very definite agenda to remove or undermine Christian values in favour of more progressive understanding of "truth". Secularism, materialism and postmodernism have undermined Christian values to the point where Christians themselves feel pressure to stay silent. Liberalism is the new orthodoxy.
It pains me to be such a merchant of doom at the start of 2016, but which of us can deny the sinister way Christianity is being quietly erased from public life. Jesus told His followers to expect persecution. And a sense of perspective is needed because we must acknowledge the freedom we currently enjoy. Fellow Christians are suffering in far more difficult circumstances in other parts of the world. But now the gospel freedom we have taken for granted for so long is under threat.
Quite rightly the Government is grappling with how to tackle extremism. However, the present proposals to seek to prevent the radicalisation of young people are ill thought through and could have dangerous repercussions for religious freedoms. It is not wrong to want to protect children from "undesirable teaching ", but in the context of the Government's strategy such a phrase carries a sinister ring to it. Traditional Christian views could be deemed undesirable because they are not accepted by wider society. The very heart of church life is being threatened by a weak definition of British values. The battle against plans to inspect youth groups and summer camps is really a battle of ideas and definitions. Plans to register and regulate "out of school education settings" need challenging. The Government have defined British values broadly, yes, but even the attempt to do so is flawed. The definition, highly subjective as it is, will come into direct conflict with Christian teaching on marriage, sexual ethics, education, gender, the dignity of life and so on.
Freedom of speech, conscience and religion were the earliest human rights to be recognised, as Os Guinness rightly reminds us a civil public square requires that all have the right to act and engage in public life. And we would also do well to remember Thomas Jefferson's words "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that their liberties are a gift from God". We erase these Christian truths at our peril.
It is vital that we are not naive about the scale of the challenge we face. If we had to stand up for Christianity by ourselves, we may as well give up now. But we are not engaging in this fight alone. Our God is ever faithful and awesome in power. He is able to do impossibly more than all we ask and it is within His power to stem the tide of liberalism and so called progressive ideologies. He uses people like us to make a lasting difference. Far from being quiet, Christianity should graciously be bolder in speaking the truth. 2016 is a year of many challenges yes, but also a year of real opportunity.
Nola Leach is the chief executive of CARE.