Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Motes, beams and whinging Christians

Here is the story that has caught the attention of Christians around the world, especially the right-wing types. As usual there is more than meets the eye and their accounts are not entirely truthful.

A fundamentalist Baptist was standing on the street in England yelling out one of his typical sermons to people who found themselves within earshot of the man. Among his content was the usual rant that fundamentalists have against those demonic homosexuals, their favorite scapegoat for all that is wrong in the world today. He was then arrested under Section 5 of the Public Order Act for causing "harassment, alarm, or distress." He was told that he couldn't do this in public again. Keep the words "harassment, alarm, or distress" in mind.

Right-wing websites are in an uproar. One site falsely claimed that the same sort of arrest could happen in America because of hate crime legislation. There is no truth to that claim. The right-wing Melanie Phillips claimed that the minister was arrested merely for "preaching Christian principles," and that this is proof that "the attempt to stamp out Christianity in Britain appears to be gathering pace." According, to Phillips this is being done "under the rubric of promoting tolerance and equality—but only towards approved groups" and "some people are more equal than others." Phillips seems quite clear that while gays are protected Christians are not.

Phillips tried to tie this into unrelated cases to prove her claim that poor Christians are being oppressed in England. She lies about the actions of one "poor pensioner" who she says merely complained to her council about a gay parade. I covered this case and the "poor pensioner" was an antigay campaigner who went to a gay event and intentionally insulted people and then demanded they be censored by the law when they were rude to her in return. That, as we shall see, is fairly typical for Christian conservatives.

Phillips also wrote of government employees who were fired for being Christians. In fact they were fired for refusing to do the job they were hired to do. These were civil servants who refused to give services to gay people that are routine for others. If a Christian won't do their job they should be fired just as any employee who refuses to do their job should be fired. Religion is not an excuse for failure to perform according to the job contract. Phillips apparently thinks it is. In another case she laments how someone could lose a job for wearing a cross. Again that is the typical distortion of the Religious Right. In that case the employer had a rule against all employees wearing any jewelry, regardless of the content. Christians weren't being singled out.

The Christian Institute, in the UK, which always get involved in these cases, has come to the Baptist's defense claiming his rights as a Christian are being violated. Catholic conservative Cristina Odone made reference to "inquisitors" fuelled by "a vicious secularism that allows no tolerance for views based on Christian values." I guess as a Catholic she would be an expert on the Inquisition, after all, they invented it.

Make no mistake about it, I don't condone the arrest. It was wrong. But it is not an example of Christians being singled out for persecution, as they would have you believe.

The law is question is bad. Unlike all the Christians who have whinged about this case I actually support freedom of speech for everyone. None of them do. They are merely a special interest group wanting to protect their turf. They want the right to criticize and condemn others but equally wish to deny others the right to criticize or condemn Christianity.

Here is some evidence. While we all have read about the Baptist bigot who got arrested, how many heard about the atheist arrested on the exact same charge? His crime, however, was insulting Christians. According to the BBC, Harry Taylor, was "found guilty of causing religious aggravate intentional harassment, alarm or distress" because he left anti-religious leaflets in the Liverpool airport "prayer room." (Why do airports need prayer rooms but bus stations don't?)

These two incidents were only a few weeks apart. Yet the one got hardly any notice while the Christian Right has been bleating about the other endlessly.

Taylor had leaflets with cartoons. One showed Jesus on the cross smiling as he advertised "no nails" glue. Another showed Islamists at heaven's gate being told: "Stop, stop, we've run out of virgins." According to the BBC the chaplain at the airport was "severely distressed" by the cartoons. Really? What a wimp! Taylor was banned "from carrying religiously offensive material in a public place," and given a suspended six month jail term, 100 hours of unpaid work and a £250 fine.

Notice that Taylor was charged with precisely the same offense. But his punishment was far more severe than that inflicted on the Baptist. The Baptist stood on a step-ladder shouting at people. Taylor left leaflets sitting around. But I can't find any prominent right-wing columnist lamenting the death of free speech in Taylor's case. These right-wing hypocrites are selective advocates of freedom of speech. Their view is: "Free speech for me, censorship for thee."

What these cases show is the totalitarian nature of England's laws on speech. I've argued that before. It is not merely an attack on Christian values, as the Right wants to pretend. It is an attack on the most fundamental secular right of all—the right to express an opinion, even an offensive one. This is an assault on classical liberal values, not on Christian values. Christians don't value freedom of speech.

What is especially irksome in these hypocritical rants is that some of the same groups lobbied for legislation to prevent criticism of religion. The Vatican lobbied for laws restricting the right to criticize religion. When the controversy over the cartoons of the alleged Prophet Mohammad started in Denmark, Vatican officials were out in public demanding censorship and special laws restricting freedom of speech. Cardinal Ersilio Tonini said "Freedom of the press, including satire, must stop where religious belief begins." Cardinal Achille Silvestrini said: "Western culture must find a limit to its goal of making freedom an absolute. We too, here in Europe, should rebel against the idea of mocking religious symbols."

According to one Catholic site Cardinal Silestrini "said Christianity has similar sensitivities." Aldoo Giordano, general secretary of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences, said on Vatican radio that the satire used regarding Mohammad "goes against human rights" and that "the entire Christian world is very saddened and pained by satire of this type, aimed at the brothers of another religion."

Cristina Odone didn't utter a peep about that, but then it was the actual source of the Inquisition demanding the censorship, so she was fine.

The Vatican itself issued a statement regarding the cartoons that expressly said that censorship ought to be the law. "The right to freedom of thought and expression... cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers."

On the one hand we have Christians weeping and wailing when the law is used to silence their anti-gay sentiments. When the same law is used to silence an atheist not a single one of these Christians uttered a peep. And when the cartoons "insulted" the alleged prophet of Islam we saw religious leaders demanding censorship. They said the law should not allow people to cause distress to others. Unless, of course, those others are gay, then the law should support unlimited bigotry because that's what Jesus would do.

Once again we see the Religious Right refusing to support freedom as a principle. To them freedom of speech is a special privilege bestowed on them, but denied to others. Equality of rights, in their mind, is "special rights."

As a classical liberal or modern libertarian, I argue that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. The Baptist bigot should be allowed to shout until horse, if he wants. But the offensive atheist shouldn't be banned from handing out "offensive" leaflets either. These Christians need to be a little more honest and a little more rational—I know the latter request goes against everything they believe.

When they lobby for laws that ban speech for causing "distress," as they did during the Danish cartoon controversy, they have no right to complain when those laws bit them in the ass when they cause distress to gay people.

This is what really irks me about the Religious Right, they are totally Orwellian in the use of language. When the law censors critics of religion that is "respecting religious values." When the laws censors critics of homosexuality [which is as sensible as criticizing blue eyes] that is an assault on Western values. When gay people have the same rights as Christians that is "special rights" but when Christians have rights that gay people don't have, that is just peachy keen.

Rights are the same for everyone. So yes, the Baptist should be free to say all the silly things that Baptists are prone to say. They can't help it, it's in their nature. And critics of Islam or atheists with offensive leaflets, have the same rights as well. Gays can be called sinners and the Vatican can be ridiculed for all the various atrocities it has been involved with. Free speech is for everyone.

The same law in England was used against a Christian last week, and against an atheist a few weeks ago. The law was wrong both times. And while I condemn both applications of the law, the Christians who are now weeping about persecution, were silent when an atheist was the victim of the law. And just a couple of years ago these Christians were demanding legislation to protect people from the sorts of free speech they are now demanding.

Many years ago a minor figure in Christianity—after all he never became Pope or even a bishop—named Jesus said: "You hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the mote out of your brother's eye." Of course, as a libertarian I'd reply: "Hey dude, keep you damn fingers out of my eyes unless I ask you to help." But he was much closer to a reasonable view than these whinging Christians today.

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