British values, EDOs and whether we’ll keep our church buildings

Now they are free of their Liberal Democrat shackle, the Conservative government will press ahead with plans to scrap the human rights act and introduce Extremism Disruptions Orders (EDOs) based upon “British Values” (whatever those are supposed to be). I previously commented on EDOs here. However, there are a few new features that warrant comment.

David Cameron states:

For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance.

This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach. As the party of one nation, we will govern as one nation and bring our country together. That means actively promoting certain values. (Source: Guardian)

It is, therefore, apt for Politics Home to state ‘David Cameron is promising to introduce a bill in his first Queen’s Speech that will give authorities stronger powers to clamp down on radical groups and individuals – even if they have not broken the law.’

The Guardian claims the measures are intended to give the police ‘power to apply to the high court for an order to limit the “harmful activities” of an extremist individual’. Harmful is defined as a risk of public disorder, a risk of harassment, alarm or distress. The measures will allow for bans on broadcasting and requirements to submit to the police in advance any proposed speech and any web, social media, or print publications. Extremist organisations which seek to undermine democracy or use hate speech in public places are also in view. The bill will also contain new powers to close premises “where extremists seek to influence others”.

All of this is done in the name of promoting the heretofore undefined concept of “British values”. When pressed on this idea, we are told British values incorporate such novelties as freedom of speech and tolerance of others. This either means we have our British values mixed-up or such measures are not really in the name of British values. For, it seems strange to defend free speech and tolerance by denying free speech and tolerance to all views but state prescribed orthodoxies. If free speech and tolerance are truly British values, that should surely extend to speech we find hateful and unpleasant. Indeed, what room is there for the exercise of tolerance if we are never faced with opposing views we must tolerate? Throwing people in prison for expressing unorthodox views – whatever they may be – is a strange approach to tolerance and free speech. Dare I say, it isn’t really tolerant at all.

The major problem with these limits on free speech is that they are the slippery slope to repression and authoritarianism. Though judgment may begin at the house of radicalised Islamist terrorists and sympathisers, it very quickly narrows in to those who hold a whole raft of views outside of mainstream thought. Theresa May has already alighted upon those who oppose gay equality legislation as “extremist”. Whatever your views on that particular issue, it is surely not right to criminalise those who disagree (unless they have violent thoughts towards those who don’t share their views and plan to act upon them). It has political ramifications too. Judgment will begin with those archetypal extremists in the BNP but will soon narrow to take in UKIP, the hard-right of the conservative party any number of “extremist” left-wing parties and the hard-left of the Labour party.

The rhetoric being employed in favour of this legislation is precisely the same as that used to try and suppress those movements most people today see as vital moments in history. At one time, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the Labour movement, the Civil Rights movements of America and Northern Ireland, those fighting apartheid in South Africa, those asking for Home Rule for Ireland, just about any independence movement and any number of other significant historical movements have been labelled “extremist” or some similar epithet.

I am not suggesting those being radicalised by Islamists sit within this same company. However, two things should be said. First, it is the unstated consequences of this legislation that will inevitably impact the newer movements that could potentially sit amongst such historic company. Secondly, some of these historical movements – often church-based dissenting movements – sought to enshrine the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech in British law. For several hundred years those rights have been broadly recognised. It is, therefore, immense folly to claim to uphold British values – especially the values of freedom of speech and religion that were won primarily by dissenting churchmen – whilst simultaneously eroding the freedom of those very people to exercise those rights. Threatening prosecution and the removal of buildings for stating views that do not accord with state orthodoxy is a return to medieval rule whereby the governing religion is not Protestant or Catholic but a secularism that isn’t fully realised and still hides behind a veneer of the more palatable facets and labels of Christendom.

The way in which the limits on free speech have been applied over recent years is well documented. Street preachers have been the ones who faced the brunt of these pernicious laws and the militancy of those who are desperate to find offence in the things of faith being presented in the public square. Unfortunately, street preaching has fallen out of favour in many Christian circles. I don’t know whether it is out of fear of man, embarrassment of the mode, a lack of belief in the power of the gospel and the folly of preaching or something else altogether. Whatever the reason, it sometimes felt as though many unwilling to engage in such public proclamation sat idly by whilst those brave enough to do it faced the ire of the law. It was as though many viewed police involvement as the comeuppance of those foolish enough to engage in such outmoded practices.

As I have argued throughout my posts on free speech, what was being done to evangelists on the street was soon to come home to roost in church buildings. And such is coming to pass. EDOs are specifically designed to root out “extremism in all its forms” and grants powers to close down buildings and venues in which “hate speech” (as yet to be properly defined) is propagated. This was a potential Martin Niemöller moment, and I’ll leave it to you to decide how we fared on that front. The offence being taken on the street is now going to be taken in the church. In fact, offence needn’t even be taken in the church. Sermons and studies placed online, or even “extremist” views being taught in principle could spell the end of our church buildings and venues and/or the vetting of our sermons and studies.

One can only hope the government sees sense and changes course. If not, this may be an issue on which the church will have to suffer if it is to remain faithful to the word of God. We can nevertheless rest assured that the church of Jesus Christ was not built on the back of state sponsorship and nice church buildings. The early church did quite well without well disposed primary schools offering them a nice venue on a Sunday. What we need, as much now as then, is a work of the Holy Spirit and deep belief in the sufficiency of the scriptures. It takes God’s word and a work of his Spirit to bring revival. Perhaps we need to lose some of our buildings before we fully realise that.