How you would describe your beliefs in relation to religion?
I am an Evangelical Protestant.
What made you adopt/retain this identity?
I didn’t grow up in it. I came to it later in life. I became convinced it was true.
Do you think that GB is an equal and tolerant society in relation to religion and belief?
My own belief is that Great Britain is not an equal and tolerant society in terms of religion and belief, and recent research carried out by the Equality Commission itself shows that is the case. Our perception (that it is not equal and tolerant), in my view, is backed up by evidence that there is an understanding that there is a hierarchy of rights, and religion and belief are at the very bottom of that hierarchy.
I think it is increasingly difficult to live as a Christian in today’s Britain and the challenges are political, legal and social. There is case after case on the legal front affecting Christians who are not freely able to live their ordinary lives.
We just had a case, the first discrimination case, which has actually been won by a Christian, last week… that is the first case that I think I can remember that has actually been won by a Christian. The young lady involved had to go through terrible times, she was accused of discrimination simply for answering questions put to her by a colleague in the workplace… this shows that even in the ordinary life of this country it is extremely difficult to live like a Christian. And the political sphere, all the way through, there is clearly an anti-Christian political mood in the country and that is the shown by the kind of legislation which has been passed, setting aside the democratic process to achieve predetermined outcomes. So, on the legal front and the political front I have been working with the Evangelical Alliance for 17 years. 17 years ago I was predicting that a lot of laws that have been passed would be passed and lots of my colleagues thought I was scaremongering. I have 17 years of historical perspective on this. Everything I scare-mongered about has actually happened and quicker than expected. Huge changes indeed. Socially, now very clearly the Judeo-Christian consensus that was part of what we could call the UK constitutional arrangements, has certainly disappeared in my view and you can see this in all kinds of ways. Several years ago this was clear with the abolition of the blasphemy laws, which I thought were highly symbolic though practically with no impact. So, you can see that all of the areas of society, politics and the law… the culture has changed.
How does your religion regard human rights?
I would argue that Human Rights definitely have Christian origins, and at their basic level, the concept of human dignity is at the heart of Christian theology. That theology has outworked itself in Western society through many centuries. Of course, human rights have now become a very different animal. Regarding many of the founding documents of America and elsewhere, now all the battles seem to be about how to interpret their original meaning. Of course, there are different views in America, but you have parallel arguments in the UK. For example, in America, there is a very strong divide between those who believe that the Constitution should be interpreted as the original founders intended it to be understood and between those who believe that it is a living document that can be reinterpreted and developed in any way, and that is paralleled by debates in this country. We have had debates in this country about biblical authority or what is the sort of authority that Christians follow… Evangelicals believe that is based on biblical revelation, but an increasing number of people, including Christians, (I wouldn’t say necessarily Evangelical Christians although there may be some people who call themselves Evangelical), who would actually argue that the Scriptures are not a final given revelation, but can be interpreted in new ways. But that is not a view that I or most Evangelical Christians uphold… So, yes human rights have a Christian origin, but we would argue that they have developed in ways which are not Christian. So, for example, I find myself saying frequently… human rights have become very narcissistic tools, they have become very individual in their out-workings, whereas human rights in the Christian tradition are very social, how we organise our lives as communities, rather than a self-focusing entity. So, the idea of individuals demanding human rights and entitlements is not something that Evangelical Christians strongly support. They would see it much more as a balance between rights and responsibilities.
Does your group have a practical influence on human rights?
We have always played a part in the debate on human rights in Britain. I refer to the Evangelical Alliance, of course, but there are also other Christian groups with whom we work closely, which engage actively with the political world and with the quasi-political world. So, for example, ever since its inception I have been working with the Equality Commission and I would work with other groups such as the Charity Commission. I have been an adviser to the Charity Commission and to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. And my colleagues are involved in other bodies too. So, yes, Evangelical Christians play a very active role. When the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in its latest piece of research, wanted to obtain some statistical evidence of how Christian and other faith representatives experienced being Christians, or Muslims, or others in today’s Britain, they came to the Evangelical Alliance to disseminate the questionnaire. We actively supported the Commission. On many occasion we supported it; on other occasions we opposed it and challenged it.
Do you think that public authorities generally respect human rights?
I would say generally speaking Human Rights are respected by the Government and other public bodies in Britain, but it depends on how they are respected. We respect all human rights, and the Government says it does the same, but in practice our experience is that some are more equal than others, and whereas equality and human rights following the 2006 Equality Act and the setting up of the Equality and Human Rights Commission originally sought to provide a level playing field for all strands of human rights, based on fairness… at that stage the emphasis was on equality in the context of diversity. Now I think quite a lot of that language has gone. You rarely hear nowadays of diversity being as important as equality, and as I said, the experience or perception of many Christians is that religious human rights are very much at the bottom of the rights hierarchy and if there is a conflict between human rights religion and belief rarely win. incidentally, we don’t necessarily want to ‘win’. All we want is a fair outcome, in which everybody’s rights are respected. But we don’t think that is happening.
I think our experience about public bodies dealing with religion and belief is mixed. It depends on whom you are dealing with. There is a lot of ignorance in public expressions of the State in what human rights are and what the law is. Frequently our organization, and other organizations, seem we are having to tell the police their job. Quite often the police have arrested people on the streets who happen to be preaching the Gospel, but that’s illegal. They can’t do that, but the police often don’t appear to know the law and assume the worst. So, we get interventions at all kinds of levels which create a chilling effect. I was involved with Government itself. As you know, a little while ago, there was this bill about same-sex marriage before Parliament and along with others, we organised a conference on marriage in the Queen Elizabeth’s Centre which is right opposite Parliament, and it is actually owned and run by Parliament and on the very day the conference was due to take place, the conference was banned by the Government. I remember arriving on the steps and not being allowed to get in. It has taken several years and a case against the Government for them to acknowledge that their action was illegal and they paid a large amount in that court settlement, but what they effectively do was preventing the expression of freedom of speech and this came from the Government’s ministers themselves. And here we are. We have ministers who either don’t know or understand the constitutional arrangements or who sometimes seem to deliberately ignore democratic freedoms if it suits them politically. The whole process of approval of same-sex marriage was in our view a travesty of democracy.
Do you think that the State achieves the correct balance in intervening in the expression of religious freedom?
It is a big challenge for the State to decide when to prevent people from exercising their religious or ideological freedom. I am not saying that it is easy, you know, but we look at the Government to preserve our fundamental freedoms and freedom of speech is one of the most precious. We have had to fight legislation over the years that would have seriously undermined freedom of speech and I could go through all kinds of examples. The latest threat, really, is the Home Secretary’s proposal to combat anti-extremist movements. On the one hand, we can understand that the Home Secretary must combat the threat of terrorism, but at the same time the cost of losing fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech is very worrying. Our fears in that area are shared by quite a few secular groups. Over the years we have been joined by secularist groups. Normally we don’t have a lot in common with them, but they have joined us on a number of issues throughout the years, and this latest one is a good example. There must be sensible voluntary restraint at some point for freedom of speech to properly work. Usually there has been a consensus in society that we are not free to do or say everything we want, and that has worked remarkably well. What you do when that consensus goes, we accept is a problem… but what sort of society do we want to live in? Increasingly a number of colleagues suggest that they are finding themselves in a ‘1984’ situation. That is something which worries us… an Orwellian society. For example, in the imposition of ‘British values’… who decides what those values are? The Government? What right has the Government to tell us what those values are? Who decides that? Has there been a national debate? This is a constitutional issue and no national debate has taken place. The Home Secretary has effectively told us what British values are and if you don’t agree, you can be criminalised or penalised. This is seriously overstepping the mark!
Do you regard living in a Parliamentary democracy as a positive thing?
I can’t consider any other workable or fair alternative to democracy. Democracy shouldn’t make it harder to be a Christian, but the question is whether democracy is effectively upheld in today’s world. My own theory is that Governments in the west are finding it more difficult to govern and to exercise authority and control, and what we see is a narrowing of the democratic process. The fear is one day we will wake up and it will be more of a dictatorship than a democracy. So, I think that democracy is harder to sustain and the Government is falling into the trap of becoming more dictatorial or statist. The position of my organisation is that an authentic understanding of democracy must be defended at all costs.
Do you feel that you have duty to vote?
Yes, I feel I have a personal duty to vote as a citizen and as a Christian.
Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law? Would you like to see the judiciary empowered to strike down legislation?
I wouldn’t like to see an empowerment of the judiciary in the UK. Judicial activism in the USA, in my view, has been disastrous. For example, is it right for States that voted overwhelmingly against gay marriage to have those decisions overturned by one politically biased judge? That is just not democracy in any shape or form. The whole idea of judicial activism is something I am very concerned about. The problem is we are seeing it in this country as well. Some judicial decisions are actually politically motivated and many seem informed by a secular philosophy strongly opposed to the Judeo-Christian consensus we have benefited from for so long. It is difficult to prove, however there is an increasing perception that political decisions are being made by judges under political and philosophical pressure.
The Crown in Parliament is my understanding of the nature of democracy in this country. That is not to say that the judiciary does not have a role. An interesting recent example of where I would question the right of the Supreme Court to interfere is with the whole subject of assisted dying. The Supreme Court sent signals to the Government that they expected them to legislate in this area. But they didn’t legislate on it, you know… that was the message that came out of it. My response is that only Parliament can make decisions on a major matter like that. No court can decide that assisted dying becomes legal in this country. The courts, surely, are only there to interpret and apply the existing law, not to make new law. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have an influential role when the law develops, but traditionally it has been considered that Parliament decides such matters. The Law Commission has also a role in it, to lobby Government regarding situations in which the law needs changing. I think that is the right way.
Does it concern you that the House of Lords is not elected?
In relation to the House of Lords, my view, and probably in line with the views of the Evangelical Alliance, it hasn’t been a very good idea to be packing and unpacking the House of Lords as we have seen it, just for political reasons. My view is that the House of Lords does illustrate the need for a bicameral experienced revisionist chamber to ensure a balanced and safeguarding Parliament, not least due to the nature of the present House of Commons with career politicians and huge lack of experience of this Chamber, including very young MPs who have often not done a serious job in their lives apart from the political world. The HofL is composed of experts, who contribute a huge amount to the democratic process. In my view, it is hugely valuable, but I think there are inevitable questions about the future of the HofL.
How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
We were broadly supportive of the Wakeham Commission, which recommended very sensibly in our view a revision of the representation of bishops in the Lords. Not removing them, but taking account of not only other Christian representation… Anglicans are now a minority in this country in the Christian faith. Some of the new Churches are bigger than the Anglican Church, and of course Roman Catholics are there. So, our view was that recognition ought to be made of other Christian Churches, as well as other religions altogether, and probably there ought to be, not strictly in accordance with demographics, but there should be some recognition of the role of the Church of England. We wouldn’t actively seek to get rid of bishops in the House of Lords. If it happened, say as part of a natural disestablishment process, we would not oppose progressive disestablishment as such if that became part of the way society was going, but we wouldn’t do anything to encourage disestablishment. Our members are made of a mix of Anglicans and non-conformist members. Many non-conformists would not support establishment, but many Anglicans would not support establishment either. Having said that, many others do. We therefore have had a pretty neutral position on that. Our position would be not to resist changes, but also not to encourage sweeping them away by saying it is an anachronism or something like that. Certainly, we wouldn’t go along with the secularists on this.
How do you feel about the EU and devolution?
Within the Evangelical Alliance there would be representatives on all sides regarding Europe and devolution. The Evangelical Alliance as such doesn’t take a definitive position on all of that, although I think there would be, broadly speaking, support for more devolution. The question about whether we should be in or out of Europe is one that divides us, probably 50/50. There are those who want to come out of Europe altogether. There are those who see legal decisions being made in Europe as alien, and indeed we fought some legal battles in Europe in the early 2000, particularly with the Equal Treatment Directive, which predated the current debates. Having said that, there is much in the ECHR which I think it is crucial, and in recent years I have been more worried by attempts to withdraw from the Convention and replace the HRA by a British Bill of Rights. Personally I think it won’t happen, it is complicated, there will be opposition and you know, I would probably myself take the view that the ECHR is quite a protective back-up to what could go wrong in a particular State and if Britain ever lurched towards a dictatorial position or tried to clamp down on human rights. A few years ago I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but I no longer know…
In terms of the settlement for Scotland, this has raised real issues. English votes for England and whether Scottish MPs should be voting on English issues. It is only now that this has become important, because Scotland has been demanding more and more powers. Now you are getting a strong view within England… ‘hang on… it is British taxpayers who are subsidising Scottish powers that they don’t enjoy themselves… and there are Scottish MPs who are voting on matters which only affect England. There are all kind of issues that are now important. If Scotland gets more powers, what are the effects on England and other nations? I don’t think we can avoid that debate. Broadly we are supportive of the Union. I’d be supportive of the Union. I think the break-up of the UK would be a backwards step. Having said that, the perception I have is that increasing number of English people I know… and I am not saying this is the Evangelical position… but an increasing number of English people are saying ‘you know, let the Scots go and find out how to run their own economy, rather than subsidise it’ and also the democratic issue about how the SNP can have more than 50 MPs after securing merely half the votes of UKIP… people find it difficult. So, the question of PR could be back on the table, although interestingly the Lib Democrats who always pushed it, now don’t. What to make of all of that? These are serious and complex issues, and I wouldn’t want to say what an Evangelical view on all of that is at the moment, because I think my colleagues and I would disagree on lots of that.
What does your faith teach about power and the responsibilities which come with it?
What does my faith teach about power? It teaches that it is dangerous. It also teaches me, as a non-conformist that the Church should not be in power. So, personally I have a problem with a State Church being too near to power. My personal view is that over the issue of women bishops, for example, at the end of the day the PM told the CofE to either do it or the Government would… that, to me, shows the dangers of the Church being too closely linked to power. In my theology, and I think that is shared by lots of Evangelicals, the role of the Church is to speak to power, it’s to advise, it’s what we would call a prophetic role in society… to warn Government, but not to do Government or be influenced by it. I am not saying Christians should not be involved in Government, but I am saying that the Church should not be Erastian in any sense.
Do you think that Evangelical Christians are appropriately represented in public life?
It is difficult to say if we have enough Evangelical Christians in Parliament, local authorities, etc. Nowadays many people who are Christians, in public office are very quiet about it. They don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to say a word about their faith. I think that is terrible because our view is that Christianity is public, and there are has been a kind of secularist campaign to remove religion from the public sphere, so that the realm of religion remains in the private and personal spheres. I have had ministers saying to me ‘you must leave your faith at the door when you go out in the morning’. I think members of the judiciary have said almost similar things. The picture is quite mixed on that. If that is where society is going, I would have a fundamental problem with that. I am not convinced about this. This is my personal view… I think the pendulum has gone too far. This is not what public life want to see and intends, but there have been unintended consequences of the way legislation and public policies have been developed and outworked, and that pendulum has to swing back to a more reasonable balanced position. I am an optimist and I think the pendulum will swing back, but if it doesn’t, then I would fear for the future really, because there are many examples of Christians who feel at loss about their basic freedoms. I can tell you that for every Christian case that has got into the court, there are probably say twenty other cases that haven’t, mainly because the individual concerned doesn’t want personally to go through the trauma of being in the public eye, and then finding themselves the recipients of abuse and threats… I can give you a very good case, the case of Lillian Ladelle, who ended up in the Court of Human Rights. She was expected to do something at work against her conscience and apart from the fact that the decision was wrong and freedom of conscience is a valued fundamental right, she was herself personally attacked, abused, graffiti sprayed on her house, etc… she went through a terrible drama and she suffered psychological and physical consequences as a result, just for standing up and defending what she believed to be true. The system let her down and didn’t protect her. And many, Christians who have seen what happened to Ladelle don’t want to go through that. So, there would be many cases which would be in the pipeline normally, and that would have a good chance of success, but they never make it, because the individual is not prepared for the associated trauma. That came out in the recent survey carried out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Do you think that there is enough distance between the executive/legislature and the judiciary?
I don’t think there is enough judicial independence. I am worried about it. Who knows the answer to that one? I just feel that over a period of 17 years, that the way many decisions have been made by the court suggests there is sometimes (subtle) political pressure…
How does your group challenge decisions which it regards as problematic?
We use many mechanisms to try to challenge Government’s decisions though strictly speaking a government decision cannot be challenged once it’s made. The Evangelical Alliance’s position has been traditionally trying to work with Government and I can give you many cases in which we have done it. In 2006 with the Charities Act we worked very carefully with the Government to help them to shape the whole philosophy of charitable status… we were involved with the Labour Government to help formulate the basic philosophy behind the new legislation and that translated through into the Charity Commission. When the Charity Commission was then charged with interpreting the law I worked with the Charity Commission to do that. There are other cases where the Evangelical Alliance has worked with Government, particularly in religious freedom and freedom of speech legislation over the years, and I can remember a number of years ago when the whole question of hate speech was raised in a particular piece of legislation, and the Government clearly wanted us to support them in what they were trying to do. We tried to work with them to achieve it and it came a point in which what they were deciding to do would have become unacceptable… It would have seriously undermined fundamental civil liberties, and I remember reaching a point with the Government minister in which I said ‘we cannot support you on this. We shall have to oppose you in public’. I remember the Government minister telling me ‘I am really sorry about that, you know, may the best man win’ – and actually we did win. There was public dismay about what the Government was trying to do and I always remember the outcome of that bill in the House of Lords, at 10pm, when the Government lost a particular vote, and I happened to be in the Lords’ lobby after the vote and that Government minister actually went out of his way to shake my hand and said ‘well, the best man won then’ and that’s how I think engagement with the Government should work really, seeking to persuade, and there are many instances in which we have come to mutual and beneficial agreements. I regard that as constructive engagement but I can equally tell you situations where we have been ignored and lied to, promises were made which were not kept, you know… and a validly democratic voice was deliberately suppressed, and so the engagement should be like that, and our motivation is always constructive engagement. I can’t answer for other Christian groups but I am sure they would say the same. Some of them might consider that they have largely given up on democratic engagement with the Government, they are often betrayed…. So they might prefer to work through the media or the court. We wouldn’t necessarily seek to adopt such an approach.
Do public authorities have a good understanding of the needs of Evangelical Christians?
Public authorities have varied understanding of the needs of Evangelical Christians. It depends on what public authority we are looking at. Some public authorities work brilliantly with Churches and religious groups. There is a lot of constructive engagement, but again there is a big issue for example in the education area… what is OFSTED doing with Church schools? Lots of serious questions about whether OFSTED has a political mandate to enforce certain so-called values in Christian schools and that raises concerns about fundamental civil liberties. Should parents be forced to have their children be taught certain things, particularly when they contradict fundamental religious values? A big issue I forecast coming up is continuing freedom to remove children from classes on what would be compulsory sex education. We already have a real issue in Scotland… will that be repeated in other parts of the country? Can school authorities override the rights of parents in education and in upbringing? We are seeing increasing State interference with privacy and family life. That’s surely a fundamental right which should never be interfered with.
Is it important for you always to act within State law?
Evangelical Christians, as represented by the Evangelical Alliance, are committed to the rule of Law. Full stop. Could we conceive a situation under a tyrannical Government where civil disobedience may be necessary? Yes, we could.
Is the Rule of Law applied equally in our society? Do some groups experience prejudicial or preferential treatment?
I think Christians are not treated equally. Questions are raised in areas like adoption, for instance. Christian parents are immediately told ‘what if your child is gay? Would you adopt a gay child? What would you do?’ There is an immediate assumption, stereotypical assumption, particularly about Evangelical Christians, that it is affecting the whole outworking of the law in many social areas and you have to look at a recent case which was won by a Christian, in which the judges said that the treatment which the Christian received was based on stereotypical assumptions about what Christians believe and do… and therefore I think that increasingly, as I said before, religion and belief tend to be at the very bottom of a clear rights hierarchy. Sexual orientation, without a doubt, is at the top. They usually win every case they fight.
How do you view the general tendency over the last 15 years towards an increase in police powers?
I think the increase of powers of the police has been necessary. The threat faced by the security forces to be able to anticipate and have information related to terrorism demands it. But the restriction to civil liberties may become too high and too painful. The things which Evangelical Christians hold dear are not particularly having prayer rooms or wearing crosses round the neck, although some Christians may value those things… No, it is more than that. It is about freedom of conscience. I am increasingly aware that such areas are under scrutiny and threat and this was quite clear in the survey which was conducted by the Equality Commission.
Don Horrocks is an Evangelical Christian, who until his retirement was Head of Public Affairs for the Evangelical Alliance. His work led to him engage actively with the worlds of Parliament, politics and theology.