Christian Legal Activism in Contemporary England
- ISBN: 9780691193632
- Published By: Princeton University Press
- Published: October 2020
In Representing God: Christian Legal Activism in Contemporary England, an insightful book by Méadhbh McIvor, the author explores the attitudes and motivations underpinning Protestant Christian legal activism in England and examines the way this activism is perceived by members of the English conservative evangelical community. It is an ethnographic account based on McIvor’s fieldwork at Christian Concern/the Christian Legal Centre—a dual lobby group and legal aid centre at the forefront of Christian political and legal activism in England—and at a conservative evangelical Anglican church in Greater London, referred to pseudonymously as Christ Church. McIvor skilfully weaves together the insights gained through fieldwork with rich theory from the fields of anthropology, law, political science, religious studies, and theology, among others. It is a closely argued and nuanced work and is thoroughly recommended to readers with an interest in the intersection between law and religion, human rights, secularism, as well as the critical study of religion.
The legal cases discussed include complaints of discrimination by a Christian nurse who was prevented from wearing a crucifix necklace at work, a Christian couple whose unwillingness – or inability – to endorse LGBT lifestyles stood in the way of their approval as foster carers, and Christian anti-abortion activists who complained about restrictions on their freedom to protest. During her fieldwork, McIvor spoke to many of the complainants in these cases, as well as their legal advisors, to gain a deep appreciation of the way these protagonists felt that their Christian faith had been engaged. Throughout the book, McIvor approaches her interlocutors with empathy and lets their perspectives guide the discussion and the conclusions reached.
The central thesis of the book is that Christian legal activists’ attempts to use human rights law to assert the rights of Christians in England paradoxically contributes to the marginalisation of Christianity in the country. This is presented as connected to the passage into law of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA 1998), through which the law shifted from viewing freedom of religion as a negative right to protecting it as a positive human right.
According to this argument, whereas previously Christianity could be portrayed as the prevailing cultural norm and Christians enjoyed all the privileges associated with establishment, now the religious rights of Christians must compete with the religious rights of other communities, and protection against discrimination based on religion has to be weighed against protection against discrimination on the basis of other protected characteristics, such as sexuality. The rights claims of Christian activists further marginalise Christians as they become just one of many groups in society advocating for their rights, which – the author contends – contributes to the secularization of society. McIver’s argument is highly persuasive and succeeds in demonstrating the counter-productive nature of legal advocacy, while doing an excellent job of explaining why it is not seen this way by its advocates.
McIvor shows how, despite the Church of England being the established church that enjoys entrenched privilege in parliament and elsewhere, conservative evangelical Christians in England increasingly view themselves as existing within a “hostile world.” In response to what they experience as the increasing marginalization of Christianity in England, and the concomitant deterioration in the moral quality of society, abetted by the passing of ungodly, permissive legislation, Christian legal activists fight back. They use the courts to assert Christian rights but also to try to highlight the contradictions and failings of a human rights regime grounded in individualism, based on a competition between rights (in which the rights of Christians usually lose out), and lacking a conception of the common good. For these activists, souls are at stake and while Christians have been warned by Jesus to expect the world to turn against them, it still behoves them to resist laws which reject Christian Truth. Indeed, there can be moral victory even in legal defeat. As McIvor writes of the “urgent theology” of Christian Concern, “By rejecting the profane logic that measures achievement in courtroom wins, instead defining victory as the act of standing, it taps into a prophetic biblical tradition that reinterprets worldly failure as spiritual success” (47).
While McIvor’s interlocutors at Christ Church equally despair at the perceived de-Christianization of society, they have concerns with the activists’ strategy, according to the author. They worry that the strategy alienates many of those that might otherwise be converted and thus they prioritize relational evangelism over more adversarial activism. Another of their concerns is that taking cases to court concerning restrictions on what Christians can wear risks portraying Christianity as a religion of law rather than a religion of grace. On this subject, the book provides a useful commentary on the way material religion is encountered by Christians and by the English courts. Relatedly, the book shines a helpful light on the way the English courts, and European human rights law, privileges a Protestant/World Religions Paradigm conception of religion as revolving largely around the centrality of belief.
While the book is excellent, there are a few areas where I felt it could have been strengthened. McIvor brings to the fore changing perceptions of the place of Christianity in England, and the book is most illuminating on the doubts and tensions felt by evangelical Christians. To even better chart the changing place of public Christianity in England, the arguments of Christian activists about the erosion of England’s Christian foundation could have been subject to more scrutiny. While the privileges associated with Christian establishment are noted, I would have liked to see more authorial commentary on the extent to which the legal system really does penalize Christians, perhaps by referring to cases involving other religious groups.
McIvor describes the passing of the HRA 1998 as a “seismic shift in the state’s regulation of religion” (4) as it enshrined a positive right to religious freedom in domestic law for the first time. There is at least a debate around how dramatic a shift the HRA 1998 was because the United Kingdom has been a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, where the positive right derives from, since long before this. In any case, it would have been helpful to have some examples of what English law’s previous framing of religion as a negative liberty looked like in practice. I would also have appreciated at least a footnote on the status of the HRA 1998 because some readers may wonder about its future following Brexit and given the Conservative Party has said it would “update” the law.
Finally, given English Christian legal activism is presented as inspired by and linked to American Christian legal activism, it might have been useful to compare an English case study with a similar case from the United States to better illustrate how the practice compares and to further draw out what is unique about the English experience.
To conclude, Representing God is a valuable contribution to the scholarship on religion and law. It is superbly argued, rich in theory, and the focus on individual stories makes it a very engaging read.
Luca Farrow is a research analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.Luca FarrowDate Of Review:May 30, 2022