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01 January 2008

Building a better home together

Building a better home together

General Director Joel Edwards is thrown in at the deep end of tolerance...

This past November, I was appointed as a commissioner on the newly formed Equality and Human Rights Commission. It's a challenging and exciting role, and I am delighted with my appointment.

The National Secular Society, on the other hand, were not. They put out a press release saying that I had no right to the job as I had "made a career out of opposing equality for homosexuals". The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association commented that the Alliance is "one of the most homophobic organisations in Britain, sheltering extreme anti-gay groups".

To remove religious conviction from the public square is as sensible as removing the engines from an aircraft

The appointment happened just a few days before the Temple Address, when the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, came to speak on tolerance. In many ways the timing was perfect because it flagged up a key question in modern politics: do I even have the right to comment on human rights?

According to these secular groups I am so intolerant that they will not tolerate my place on a body negotiating the choppy waters of 21st century tolerance.

Delicate balance

This goes right to the heart of the debate that we launched at the Temple Address. Where does religious conviction fit in to society's balance of rights, responsibilities, diversity, equality and multi-culturalism.

The secularist would of course answer "it doesn't", but this would be to betray history. As Dr Sacks so brilliantly said in his address, the roots of liberalism and the new-found tolerance that went with it were in fact religiously inspired.

Last year we celebrated 360 years since the Putney Debates, which pioneered the liberal democratic settlement, where the Levellers called for equal rights irrespective of status or property (although sadly not gender). It was to Genesis and the Gospels that they turned to justify their demands. And the debates started with five-hour prayer meetings (which in Jamaican Pentecostalism would be referred to as "the preamble").
To remove religious conviction from the public square is as sensible as removing the engines from an aircraft in flight. For a while the plane may glide and seem to be fine, but before long it will only be headed in one direction - down - by which time it is too late to start remembering how it was you got airborne in the first place.

A tolerance which calls for the exclusion of conviction is no tolerance at all. If modern-day politics seeks to silence voices, be they religious, gay or atheist, then a key pillar of an open society will have been destroyed. True tolerance is not the absence of conviction, or even conversion. It is the absence of coercion.
In a liberal democracy it is intolerant to disallow religious views based on secular prejudice. And after all, secularism is just another religious position,  as Professor John Gray and others have so ably argued.

This is not to say there are no limits to tolerance, or that it is an easy terrain to negotiate. Dr Sacks made it clear in his speech that tolerance is a political rather than a moral virtue, a necessary pre-condition for peaceful co-existence. It does not condone any and every moral choice.

And neither do we pretend to agree with Cathy Ladman, who said, "All religions are basically the same - guilt with different holidays." Tolerance is not to deny religious difference. As evangelicals we still assert the divinity of Jesus Christ but can also respect Dr Sack's view that the Messiah, like his oft-quoted friend's plumber, is still to show up.

Shared humanity

Tolerance was shown at Temple Address when we ate together - Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Sikh and Christian. Our dietary requirements may have betrayed our religious differences, but our appreciation of fine food and conversation showed our shared humanity. Together we debated, sometimes disagreeing but also finding points of consensus as we asked how we could build a better society together.

We would aim to do the same with those of other faiths or none, including the National Secular Society. We are called to love those who may hate us and to repent when we may have wronged them. And we are called to a humility that is prepared to learn something new from those who inhabit a different narrative to our own.

Tolerance is never passive, a retreat into religious ghettoes of mutual indifference. We should do good to others because they are made in the image of God, even though they may not share our image. We have to demonstrate to society - particularly as evangelical Christians - that we are for the common good, not just for our own marginal interests. So when we protest that a committee on abortion has excluded ethical considerations, we do not do so simply for a narrow sectarian agenda. We do so because a society that removes ethics and philosophy from discussions of human life will be the poorer for it.

These are, as Dr Sacks argues in his most recent book, matters of moral consequence. And disagreements about morality must never be treated in the same way as disagreements about taste and aesthetics.

The Chief Rabbi laid a challenge before us in his address, one which echoes the title of his book, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. And that challenge is that as different faiths we have to build a better home together - working with each other we have to help to re-make our broken society. On behalf of the evangelical community I embrace that challenge.

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