I know I’m not blogging much lately. Blame Twitter – it’s much more instant and much more of a dialogue. It’s made the whole election much more enjoyable, much more of a debate.
But sometimes it’s hard to think in 140 characters…
The top trending topic in the UK today is #philippastroud. For the uninitiated, she’s a Tory candidate whose husband is a church leader and who herself has been involved in active Christian ministry. This isn’t a secret – her website mentions her faith in many places. The reason she’s hit the headlines lately is that she has been involved in a ministry that seeks to ‘cure’ people of homosexuality, something that the Guardian has picked up on and has got a lot of people riled. There are lots of people talking about this being an example of the same old Tories being homophobic, people calling her a lunatic, a bigot and so on – but the issues are way more complicated than this.
Stroud is a member of the New Frontiers movement, a Christian movement I and many find a little ‘out there’ and distateful, not least with their views on marriage. However, the attitude that homosexuality can be cured somehow is not simply one consigned to the minority denominations – it’s relatively commonplace within charismatic streams (though more so in the US and parts of Africa than here). When I was a Christian, I knew some Christians, intelligent people in respectable professions, including doctors, who believed this. I never particularly bought into it, even at the point where I was most absorbed in religion, because there was no evidence for it. Even some of the more prominent ‘ex-gays’ in Christian celebrity land have had high-profile ‘relapses’ so you have to wonder where they get the idea it can happen from.
There is a weird obsession with sexuality in many churches, particularly charismatic or evangelical churches. In this country it usually manifests itself in an obsession with marrying young people off as soon as possible (I left the church in my mid-20s and was considered a freak for being unmarried and having no particular desires to marry, and this attitude is not consigned to a handful of churches, it’s pretty much the norm). This, despite the fact that the Bible teaches way more about things like money, pride, power and so on than it does about sex. And of course, we all know the Catholic stance on certain sex-related issues.
Anyway, back to the Stroud case. I am the least Tory person out there, and take great pleasure in ripping Cameron and the others to shreds as anyone who has spoken to me or read my Facebook or Twitter knows. I do think there are a lot of homophobic people in the Tories, but if you don’t think there are people like Stroud in the Lib Dems, Labour, Greens and other parties, Christians who believe homosexuality can be cured, then you’re a fool. I can’t believe I am vaguely sticking up for the Tories, but this isn’t about them, it’s about a stream, a very persuasive stream, of Christianity, here and overseas.
There are several questions raised by the Stroud case, none of which have easy answers:
1) Is it right for an MP to engage in such practices? MPs are meant to serve the public’s best interests but does that mean their private lives and their thinking have to be entirely neutral and entirely in the public good? Should we regulate what they do in their free time, or the way they practice their religion? What about doctors, teachers, social workers etc? I can tell you there are people who do all of those professions who think as Stroud does, or who have beliefs and practices many of us liberals would shudder at.
2) Is religion only OK if it is practiced in ways that are ‘socially acceptable’? This is a big theme in my PhD research and it’s something that comes up time and again in news stories about people from all faith backgrounds. It’s a nice point of view, but it’s unrealistic. How can you regulate the things people believe and the way they exercise those beliefs? But at the same time, how can you prevent people from using religion to harm people? Can you? As someone who was massively harmed by religion in the past I genuinely would like there to be a way, but I also think it’s impossible.
3) Should religion be a purely private matter? We like to think so but most religions are inherently communal, and some are very big on proselytising. After all, if you think you have the solution to life and the only way to be ‘saved’, if you believe everyone else is in peril, why wouldn’t you share that? Stroud’s religion is being made very public but could she argue that these things took place within her church and have no bearing on her professional life?
4) If Stroud becomes an MP and therefore doesn’t engage in such practices when she is one, should her past matter, given she wasn’t an MP when this took place (and isn’t one yet, of course)?
Now, let’s be clear. I don’t in any way think praying for people to be ‘cured’ of homosexuality is helpful. I don’t think New Frontiers is a great movement – but who’s to say a politician’s policies will necessarily follow their religious convictions? When I was a Christian I had the notion that if you were a believer you had to behave in a certain way, but I would never see that as the best way for everyone else who didn’t follow my religion, and that is the case for people of many religions – what they do and believe and how they practice their religion is between them and their religious community, not the world at large. There are a lot of religious people who agree with civil partnerships, abortion rights and so on as a god thing in wider society but would say they’re not the right thing for them as religious people (there are others who are very happy for people of their religious persuasion to take part in these things, and others who condemn them out of hand – there are so many streams of each faith with a wide range of perspectives on moral and social issues).
I think Stroud should be honest about how her faith, her doctrinal position and her morals (these three are not always the same thing) will affect her politics and policies. But to automatically dismiss her as a loon is unhelpful and might only serve to make her a martyr (and there’s nothing some Christians love more than feeling that they’re being persecuted). Don’t forget that Stroud would probably not see herself as homophobic. Many Christians who believe these things would say they love people but don’t think homosexuality is a natural or desirable condition, and that they want people to be ‘free’. Now I don’t agree with that position and there probably is some homophobia implicit in there, but it may well be a case of her believing she is acting in people’s best interests, and showing care for them. I’m not saying she showed that care in the best way, but that she probably believed she was doing so.
There is a serious need for leaders of all Christian denominations – and other faiths, for that matter – to consider the implications of their teachings and practices. They should be questioned by their membership, leadership and the world around them. Some church streams are pretty damn irresponsible, and Stroud’s stream is perhaps one of them – a lot of Catholicism is pretty irresponsible, too, though you would hardly want to stop most Catholics from being MPs and so on.
I don’t really know the answers to all of this. I think people are right to question Stroud’s actions, and the actions of religions in general. But I am a little uneasy about proscribing how people, even people in public office, should perform their religion. Question people’s beliefs and practices, by all means, but making rules about who can and can’t do what feels a little scary.
That said, if you live down there, don’t vote for her. She is a Tory, after all.
I also know I should be concentrating on what TV tells us about religion right now rather than debating this story, but hey, it’s vaguely on topic, so it doesn’t really count as procrastination, right?