Does being a Christian disqualify a public figure from participating in debates about government policy?
Matthew Parris is a former Conservative MP and one of Britain’s most loved political journalists who regularly writes for the Times. He has an established reputation as an iconoclast and, as an openly gay atheist, has surprised people by writing in defence of Christian missionaries and in support of the idea that homosexuality is in part a conscious choice.
However, his latest offering, ‘Religion does not belong in the small print’, lacks his usual rigour and clarity. Parris is arguing that people who have faith-based convictions should declare this to be the case when they speak publicly on issues where their faith might have some bearing.
On the surface, this seems a not unreasonable request. Public figures should not attempt to conceal their personal or worldview convictions, especially if these have an influence on their views about an important issue of public policy. But Parris seems to be saying more than this and his argument is, on this occasion, flawed.
What appears to have inspired the piece is a debate he had with the former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali at a fringe meeting organised by ResPublica, a think-tank, at the Conservative Party conference. Nazir-Ali put forward a case against ‘gay marriage’, which Parris said ‘could have been made by an unreligious professor of sociology’.
His argument was ‘apparently based on the social and cultural value of marriage as presently defined, the importance of a stable upbringing for children, and the resistance people feel to attempts “to change the meaning of the word ‘marriage’ ” ’.
Parris then asked the former bishop if he believed that ‘homosexuality was a sin’ and accused him in the article of beating about the bush with his answer. He goes on to say that Nazir-Ali was ‘being disingenuous’ because he ’plainly believes that homosexuality is a very considerable evil in the eyes of God’. In Parris’ view ‘the rest of us have a right to know the source of (peoples’) opinions, and if they are faith-based those who hold them have a duty in all honesty to declare it.’
He argues that ‘it is slippery for people to couch objections that are really undeclared religious objections in the language of a secular argument.’ ‘The reason’, he says, ‘is obvious. ‘The audience may not share the speaker’s religious faith, and if they knew his advice was faith-based might wish to discount it.’ In fact Parris seems to suggest that his own ‘mild support’ for ‘gay marriage’ only arose when he saw ‘who was massing on the other side’ of the argument.
Parris then relates the case of an MP arguing in support of a reduction of the abortion limit to twelve weeks who used arguments about the humanity of the preborn baby as revealed on ultrasound but neglected say that he was a devout Catholic. He implies that this is another example of ‘concealment’.
As a Christian who often speaks about issues of public policy on the media, I find Parris’s argument disturbing for four reasons.
First, it is an example of a growing trend in media debates on public policy whereby those advocating a particular position try to advance their case, not by countering their opponents’ arguments, but rather by undermining their personal credibility. This is essentially avoiding the argument by launching an ad hominem attack. To say that someone only takes a certain position because they are a Christian or a Jew or a Sikh or a 'bigot' is just an excuse for not engaging in serious debate about the issue in hand. It is disingenuous, cowardly and disrespectful.
Everyone knows that Nazir-Ali, as an evangelical Christian, is opposed to homosexual practice per se, not least Nazir-Ali himself. This is a given. But on this occasion he is speaking not to Christians in a church who share his faith convictions but rather to a mixed group at a political conference. Naturally he is going to employ arguments against gay marriage that he thinks will appeal to his audience. This is not being disingenuous. It is what all good debaters do. It is in fact what Parris himself does. Nazir-Ali is simply choosing not to use all his arguments, but only those he feels will be convincing in this particular context.
Second, Parris seems to be trying to imply that Nazir-Ali’s only real objections to ‘gay marriage’ are religious. This is simply not true. The Coalition for Marriage, which has amassed 600,000 signatures in this country against a change in the law, does not actually use faith-based arguments and some of the strongest opponents of the proposed policy are actually secularists or gay people (Brendan O’Neill and Andrew Pierce are two notable examples).
President Sarkozy, another secularist, opposed gay marriage in France on the basis that civil partnerships already offered gay people all the rights of marriage and that legalising it would lead to disunity and unrest. The government of largely secular Australia recently rejected gay marriage by a large majority in both houses egged on by its left-wing atheist prime minister. Why should Nazir-Ali not be entitled to use non-religious arguments if they embody some of his objections to legalisation?
Third, Parris seems to imply that Nazir-Ali’s arguments on gay marriage should be rejected on the grounds that he also opposes civil partnerships and all same-sex sexual relations per se. But why should the fact that Nazir-Ali holds an absolute position on homosexuality (which he does) mean that he cannot argue against a specific legal change on gay marriage? Is he seriously suggesting that people who hold views at one end of a spectrum on a specific issue of public policy are not as entitled as everyone else to express those views in the public square? Parris expects his own arguments to be judged on their own merit. Why not extend the same courtesy to Nazir-Ali?
Finally, why does Nazir-Ali, as a Christian, have a duty to declare his faith position when in fact everyone who expresses an opinion in this debate is doing so from one world view perspective or another? There is an element of hypocrisy in Parris demanding that the former bishop declare his faith, whilst he himself is seemingly not under an equal obligation to confess that he is a practising homosexual or an atheist, when both almost certainly are informing his own views on the issue. Personally I don't think that either of them should be required to reveal their personal convictions. But if it is to be demanded then let's have a level playing field.
Parris is a good journalist but this latest piece falls short of his usual clarity and incisiveness. And as one who generally enjoys his writing, I am disappointed that he seems to have based his current ‘mild support’ for gay marriage more on the fact that those who have different world view convictions from him oppose it, rather than on a careful evaluation of the arguments.
Dr Peter Saunders is a former general surgeon and CEO of Christian Medical Fellowship, a UK-based organisation with 4,500 UK doctors and 1,000 medical students as members. This article has been cross-posted with permission from his blog, Christian Medical Comment.