The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, comes in for a lot of stick — not least from columnists like me.
But in the past few days, he has said something important. He has criticised Government ministers for thinking that Christian beliefs are no longer relevant in modern Britain, and for looking at religion as a ‘problem’.
Many Government faith initiatives, he observed, assumed that religion was an eccentricity practised by oddballs, foreigners and minorities.
This is not just a seasonal exercise in special pleading by a Church leader. Dr Williams has put his finger on what should be a cause of extreme disquiet — the war of attrition being waged against Christian beliefs.
In recent times, there has been a string of cases in which it is no exaggeration to say that British Christians have been persecuted for expressing their faith.
In July, Duke Amachree, a Christian who for 18 years had been a Homelessness Prevention Officer for Wandsworth Council, encouraged a client with an incurable medical condition to believe in God.
As a result, Mr Amachree was marched off the premises, suspended and then dismissed from his job. It was a similar case to the Christian nurse who was suspended after offering to pray for a patient’s recovery.
Christians are being removed from adoption panels if they refuse to endorse placing children for adoption with same-sex couples.
Similarly, a Christian counsellor was sacked by the national counselling service Relate because he refused to give sex therapy sessions to gays.
What this amounts to is that for Christians, the freedom to live according to their religious beliefs — one of the most fundamental precepts of a liberal society — is fast becoming impossible. Indeed, merely professing traditional Christian beliefs can cause such offence that it is treated as a crime.
Take, for example, the case of Harry Hammond, an elderly and eccentric evangelical who was prosecuted for a public order offence after parading with a placard denouncing immorality and homosexuality — even though he was assaulted by the hostile crowd he was held to have offended.
Or look at the case of the Vogelenzangs, a hotelier couple from Merseyside, who last week were cleared of a ‘religiously aggravated’ public order offence after being prosecuted for insulting a Muslim guest.
While their behaviour may have been offensive and unwarranted, it is nevertheless a source of wonderment that for the police, ‘hate crime’ doesn’t seem to occur whenever Christianity is pilloried, mocked and insulted — as happens routinely — but only when a minority faith is in the frame.
Indeed, the Archbishop’s complaint echoed an earlier Church-backed report that accused the Government of merely paying lip service to Christianity while focusing support on Muslims.
The curious fact is that Labour’s hostility to faith is highly selective. It does everything it can to protect and support minority creeds while appearing to do everything it can to attack Christianity.
The root of this double standard is the unpleasant prejudice that minority faiths hail from cultures where people are less well-educated and so cannot be blamed for their beliefs. This, of course, is a deeply racist attitude, and is commonly found on the Left.
As Dr Williams observed, one of the effects of the modern hostility to religion is to give the impression that faith is not really very British. But on the contrary, it is part of the national psyche — even among people who don’t go to church.
To stop the denigration of religion, the Archbishop has called on government ministers to be more willing to talk about their own faith. But since this is seen as the province of cranks, politicians are reluctant to do so because of the risk of public ridicule.
This well-nigh insuperable difficulty was acknowledged yesterday by Tony Blair in an interview about his religious beliefs. As his former spin doctor Alastair Campbell once famously observed: ‘We don’t do God.’
This is because among the intelligentsia, the animosity to religion runs even deeper than the upside-down value system of the multicultural agenda. It springs from the fixed view that reason and religion are in diametrically opposite camps.
Anyone who prays to God must therefore be anti-reason, anti- science and antifreedom – in other words, an objectionable, obscurantist nutcase.
But this is the very opposite of the truth. Rationality is actually underpinned by Judeo-Christian beliefs.
Without the Biblical narrative, which gave the world the revolutionary idea of an orderly universe that could therefore be investigated by the use of reason, science would never have developed in the first place.
And it was the Judeo-Christian belief that all individuals are made equal in the image of God that gave rise to human rights and democracy.
Of course, terrible things have also been done in the name of religion. And equally, people without religious faith can believe in freedom and equality, and lead moral lives.
But that’s because they draw upon a culture that rests on religious foundations. Strip away those foundations and what’s left would be a brutalised and chaotic society.
You don’t have to be a religious believer to be mightily concerned by such a likely consequence. But anxiety over fundamentalism has resulted in rising hostility to all religion.
Notably, however, this is not the case in the U.S., which remains overwhelmingly an upfront Christian society. Its politicians are neither ashamed nor embarrassed to call upon God to bless America at every opportunity.
Unlike U.S. mainstream Churches which, as descendants from the English Puritans, remain deeply wedded to the Biblical tradition, the Church of England has always looked down on true Scriptural believers as half-wits.
With such a half-hearted foundation of religious belief, it has been more vulnerable than other Churches to the secular onslaught against religion.
Dr Williams exemplifies this weakness by trying to go with the flow of social change and is for ever apologising for Christianity.
Certainly, it did some terrible things in the past to people of other faiths. But it is also responsible for the astonishing achievements of western civilisation.
Rather than complaining about politicians, Dr Williams should use his office to teach the nation about the seminal importance of Christianity to this society. But to do that, he has to have faith in his own Church — a faith that too often appears to be lacking.
The key point about the U.S. is that it still believes in itself as a nation and in its values, which are rooted in religion. Loyalty to their churches follows from loyalty to the nation in a kind of benign cycle.
In Britain, however, religion and nation have formed a vicious cycle in which hostility to the country’s identity and values reflects and feeds into hostility to the religion upon which they are based.
The Archbishop’s anguish at the onslaught upon Christian faith is very real. But unless he starts promoting the Church as the transcendental custodian of a civilisation rather than the Guardian newspaper at prayer, the society to which it gave rise will continue to sleepwalk off the edge of a religious and cultural cliff.