We are coming to the end of our sermon series here on Christian Living in a Secular Society. I’ve enjoyed working on this series immensely, partly because it has enabled me to use one of my favourite words- nuance. The sermon I preached on 1 Corinthians 5 was probably the most important example of this. The church is to resist the spirit of the age and live firmly by its principles (e.g. on same sex marriage) whilst not judging the world. It is possible to stand by biblical principles whilst not necessarily believing it is the role of the church to lecture the world on morality. And that doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world. As you look at the rest of the New Testament the church is to influence the world not primarily through petitions and campaigns on moral issues so much as by individual Christians living good lives in their communities and testifying, even in weakness, to Christ crucified.
The one area I have not touched on specifically is that of so-called political correctness. It is the phrase that newspapers like the Mail love to use to describe anything they don’t particularly like. Google “Daily Mail Political Correctness Gone Mad” for the gist of this. However, Christians may feel some sympathy with the critique for, under the guise of what may be termed political correctness, various Christian moral positions have been set aside. Moreover, many are pondering whether 2016 represents the defeat of political correctness for the victories of Brexit and Trump represented triumph for the politically incorrect options. So what are we to make of this? My answer, whilst not breaking any new ground, is nuanced.
1. Political Correctness inadvertently stumbled across a vital Christian principle.
Political correctness is a vast concept but in its initial and best form it is essentially a campaign to ensure that minorities are treated with respect. It was a reaction to a history of oppression and mistreatment of certain groups. It would include additional rights for gay people, better treatment for women at work, employment protection for disabled people and the criminalisation of racist conduct.
As I look back over the last few years it is a sadness to me that the church has not been at the forefront of some of this. The underlying philosophy is that of human rights- which, in part at least, draws on a Judaeo-Christian worldview that sees all human beings as worthy of dignity. Of course, Christians believe that male and female, black and white, gay and straight, disabled or non-disabled or any definition people might want to use are both worthy of respect and dignity. As I look back half a century ago to some of the early battles with racism it is a tragedy that the church was not a leader in that.
That is why I wince slightly when I hear Christian decrying political correctness. Do we really want to go back to a position where it was acceptable to pay men and women differently for doing the same job? Do we want to return to the time when racism was deemed appropriate? These issues matter in 2016. Of course there were all kinds of reasons why people voted for Brexit. But there has been a rise of ugly attitudes expressed towards immigrants at which all people, especially Christians, should be horrified. And we should be appalled by the accession to power of President Trump whose approach to foreigners and women shouts loudly of a lack of respect.
More than that, Christians need to be asking which group in society is treated with least respect today and then be proactive in affirming their dignity. It is what the church should have been doing for black people fifty years ago. Perhaps in 2016 Britain it is the immigrant or possibly the elderly person struggling with dementia. We need to be the people who are offering hospitality, forming friendships and so on with the most marginalised.
However, there is more to say. Political correctness has inadvertently hit on a Christian principle but it didn’t come because of reflection on how God made the world. Therefore, it has gone well beyond helpful parameters.
2. Political correctness has wrongly asserted people’s right to behave as they like without critique.
The biblical picture is of humans living dignified lives as those made in God’s image under His authority. The great problem with political correctness is that it seeks to deny that anybody- especially those traditionally marginalised- has to live under any authority. Dignity has been taken to imply a freedom to do anything and anybody who criticises that is now landed with opprobrium.
Abortion would be a particularly clear example of this. I absolutely want to affirm the equal dignity and worth of women. I am all in favour of what the suffragettes achieved! But I don’t believe that gives women the right to destroy a human life growing within them.
I absolutely affirm the dignity of gay people and transgender people. I argued strongly on Sunday evening that individuals who have changed their physical sex should not be the object of mocking or ridicule. However, I don’t believe that to label same sex relationships as marriage is appropriate or that children should be encouraged to change their sex at a young age. And I want to reserve the right to be able to say that even if it offends politically correct standards.
Christians end up in a nuanced position again. We want to treat people with dignity whilst reserving our right respectfully to disagree with them and hold firm to our standards.
That is why I would have been appalled had Hilary Clinton become President. Her victory would have meant a galloping advancement for various causes inimical to what it is to be truly human in God’s image. And yes I know that means I wanted both main candidates to lose! I am sure the Presidential election result had a variety of causes but it is not a major surprise to me that a backlash against political correctness has happened. In overreaching itself the movement that sought to release certain groups from oppression has ended up oppressing others.
It has been interesting to see the support, even amongst non-Christians, that has been given to Daniel McArthur of Ashers’ Bakers after the gay cake fiasco. When political correctness means that gay marriage cannot be critiqued then people are beginning to recognise that this is a movement that has gone too far.
Our graphic for this series has featured a goldfish swimming against the tide. Christians are to be different. The more I have reflected on it the more I have realised that Christians have to swim against two tides. On the one hand you have newspapers shrieking against political correctness and wanting to turn Britain back to the 1950s. On the other hand you have a liberal elite wanting to change the very nature of what it is to be a human as it pushes abortion, gay marriage and a transgender ethos with abuse aimed at those who disagree. The reality is that we belong to neither group. We pursue our agenda- marked by respect for all human beings whilst insisting that we are accountable to God.