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The Pope is right about the threat to freedom

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There are times when human rights become human wrongs. This happens when rights become more than a defence of human dignity, which is their proper sphere, and become instead a political ideology, relentlessly trampling down everything in their path. This is happening increasingly in Britain, and it is why the Pope’s protest against the Equality Bill, whether we agree with it or not, should be taken seriously.

Let me make it clear that I believe homosexuals have rights that need defending. Like Jews, they have been a persecuted minority for far too long. They too, like Jews, were victims of the Holocaust. They have a case that should be heard.

I believe, too, that religious beliefs have no privileged status in a democratic society. Religions should have influence, not power. I do not believe that the religious convictions of some should be imposed on all by force of law. In a free society, the religious voice should persuade, not compel.

We all have an interest in freedom, the freedom to act differently from others. Indeed, at the core of human rights is a religious proposition: that we are all, regardless of colour, creed or culture, in the image of God. That religious vision burned brightly in the minds of those such as John Locke, who first formulated the idea of rights in the 17th century.

It was integral to the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” John F. Kennedy made a similar statement in his great inaugural address: “The rights of Man come not from the generosity of the State, but from the hand of God.”

That is why using the ideology of human rights to assault religion risks undermining the very foundation of human rights themselves. When a Christian airport worker is banned from wearing a cross, when a nurse is sacked after a role-play exercise in which he suggested that patients pray, when Roman Catholic adoption agencies are forced to close because they do not place children for adoption with same-sex couples and when a Jewish school is told that its religious admissions policy is, not in intent but in effect, racist, we are in dangerous territory indeed.

My argument has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with liberty. One of the great defenders of liberty, Friedrich Hayek, drew a distinction between the English and French approaches to freedom. The English approach was gradual, evolutionary, mindful of history and respectful of tradition. The French approach was perfectionist, philosophical, even messianic in a secular way.

For the French revolutionaries there is an ideal template of society that can be realised by the application of politics to all spheres of life. Liberty is to be achieved by a vast extension of the powers of the State. If necessary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, we must “force men to be free”. The English, by contrast, knew “How small of all that human hearts endure/ That part which laws or kings can cause or cure”. They knew that we must always be on guard against what John Stuart Mill called the tyranny of the majority.

This led to two quite different concepts of human rights. The English version saw rights as defining the space in which governments may not intervene. In the social contract, we hand over some of our liberties to government for the sake of law and order and defence against foreign powers. But there are certain rights — such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — that are inalienable, meaning that we do not and cannot sign them away. They define an area of freedom by setting limits to the power of the State.

The French approach was to see rights as an ideal description of humanity that it is the task of politics to enforce. Politics is about the transformation of society by the force of law. English liberty sets limits to the State. French liberty is imposed by the State. That is the difference.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman impressed by American democracy, said that in America (and England), religion and liberty are friends; in France they were enemies. He was writing in 1832, but what he said still holds true today. Religion in Britain is part of the ecology of freedom because it supports families, communities, charities, voluntary associations, active citizenship and concern for the common good.

It is a key contributor to civil society, which is what holds us together without the coercive power of law. Without it we will depend entirely on the State, and when that happens we risk what J. L. Talmon called totalitarian democracy, which is what revolutionary France eventually became.

Hayek, writing in 1959, prophetically saw that the French tradition was everywhere displacing the English one. In some of its provisions, that is where the Equality Bill seems to be heading. Its intentions are noble, but this is not the British way.

When Christians, Jews and others feel that the ideology of human rights is threatening their freedoms of association and religious practice, a tension is set in motion that is not healthy for society, freedom or Britain. Rather than regard the Pope’s remarks as an inappropriate intervention, we should use them to launch an honest debate on where to draw the line between our freedom as individuals and our freedom as members of communities of faith. One should not be purchased at the cost of the other.

(First published in The Times)