Up against the Wall: WHEN SECULARISM INFRINGES ON RELIGIOUS RIGHTS AROUND THE WORLD

By Olulode, Kunle | Conscience, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Up against the Wall: WHEN SECULARISM INFRINGES ON RELIGIOUS RIGHTS AROUND THE WORLD


Olulode, Kunle, Conscience


Secularism, despite popular belief, is neither atheism nor a nonreligious belief system like humanism. It is a political movement that seeks the separation of religion and government and the elimination of discrimination on the basis of religion. This is said to contribute to democracy by protecting the rights of religious minorities. Secularism refrains from favoring one religion over another, or atheism over religious belief. It is a political principle that aims at guaranteeing the largest possible coexistence of various freedoms.

In Africa, despite the formal recognition and existence of a host of secular states, it is nearly impossible for any political-social movement to grow without engaging the influence of religious institutions, whether rooted in Judaism, Christianity, Islam or traditional beliefs.

Echoing that point, the South African political activist Steve Biko said that religion in Africa was not a specialized function observed only on one day a week in a special building, but rather it featured in our wars, our beer drinking, our dances and our customs in general.

What is distinctive about the West today is that it demonstrates the other side of the secularist narrative: attempts by the state to influence the content of religious practice. It is the separation of the secular state from religion and not the other way around that militates against a secular outlook across civil society.

Tim Farron, an evangelical Christian who served as the Liberal Democratic leader in the United Kingdom from 2015 to 2017, was criticized for failing to answer questions about his personal views on homosexuality during the general election, despite making it clear that he supported equal marriage and LGBT rights. He was harangued until he stepped down in July 2017, effectively for not giving the state-sponsored line. He put forth in his capitulation that it would be "impossible" for him to be Liberal Democrat leader and "remain faithful to Christ." He added:

   From the very first day of my leadership,
   I have faced questions about my Christian
   faith. I've tried to answer with grace and
   patience. Sometimes my answers could
   have been wiser.... The consequences of
   the focus on my faith is that I have found
   myself torn between living as a faithful
   Christian and serving as a political leader.
   ... To be a political leader--especially of a
   progressive, liberal party in 2017--and to
   live as a committed Christian, to hold
   faithfully to the Bible's teaching, has felt
   impossible for me.

Farron's resignation was no victory for the LGBT community. This is a man who voted for equal marriage, opposed blood-donation bans predicated on sexual orientation and supported the posthumous pardoning of thousands of gay men convicted of gross indecency prior to 1968 when homosexuality was illegal.

Whatever else you might say about Farron, it is clear that his faith has not prevented him from toeing the party line. He is, in a sense, the epitome of what a secularist politician should be--quite simply, someone able to separate out the perspectives of their faith from public policy. Despite this, he was hounded out of office for not saying what other people wanted to hear.

Liberal intelligentsia viewed this out come as progressive. From the perspective of secularism, however, it is a political disaster and a step backwards. There were barely any defenders of his position from the left or the right, or indeed, even from religious institutions.

One of the few was Benjamin Mercer in an opinion for The National Student. A publication not well known for its support of religious figures, Mercer had this to say:

   Faith must be divorced from matters of
   state, and Mr. Farron has sought to
   maintain the divide. One needs only to look
   at his voting record to see how successful he
   has been: he has consistently voted in
   favour laws and legislation which protect
   and expand the rights of women and
   minorities. … 

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