“The recent promotion of the idea that Western societies must permanently downplay and apologise for their Christian culture while promoting that of the incomers has widened the gulf between elite and popular opinion in many Western countries. That has been further exacerbated by the recent promotion by left-leaning Western elites of mass open borders immigration.”
Address Given to the Budapest Forum for Christian Communicators Conference, 6 September 2019
I will start with a story which illustrates today’s tortured relationship between Western cultures and non-Christians in our midst. About eleven years ago, serving as a diplomat in London, I attended a conference organised by the British Foreign Office on Indonesia. The organisers had scored a coup in having attracted as the senior Indonesian representative Jakarta’s ambassador to the United Nations, who was later to become the country’s foreign minister. He had studied at Cambridge, was an Anglophile and volunteered over drinks the first evening of the conference that one of the reasons he had accepted the invitation was that he was a big fan of the cooked English breakfast, which he described as Britain’s great gift to the world. Like the rest of Indonesia’s diplomats, who unlike most representatives of other Islamic countries serve alcohol at their receptions, he was clearly a relaxed Muslim when it came to dietary rules.
But he had not counted on the Foreign Office’s fiercely strict diversity sensitivity rules, which decreed that, at an event attended by Muslims, no food must be offered which might be unacceptable to them – even though here we were, deep in the English countryside. Bacon or pork sausages were deemed so fundamental to the English cooked breakfast that the conference managers decided that out of cultural sensitivity it must be dispensed with entirely. Indonesia’s man at the UN seemed a bit grumpy, as were some of us Westerners, when the most exciting offering at breakfast the following morning was porridge.
The incident highlights how far elite opinion has travelled in Western societies on relations with non-Christians.
Christendom in its early days was characterised by much hostility towards those of other faiths, as shown in the Crusades and in the long, dark history of European anti-Semitism. In some parts of Europe, these tensions are still raw. In the Balkans there are still deep tensions between Christians and Muslims. Violence and intolerance were also characteristic of much of the history of relations among the Christian sects – Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox – especially during the counter-reformation, but also in the cases of Ireland and, again, in the Balkans, including in our times.
And yet at the same time Christianity, as the basis of Western civilisation, provided much of the impetus for equality, human rights, tolerance, hospitality and charity. Though unevenly, in recent centuries and especially since the Second World War, these positive elements of Christianity have predominated in Christians’ attitudes to those who do not share their faith.
In the seven decades since the last war, the historically Christian West – Western Europe, North America and Australasia – has, for the first time in its history, accepted significant numbers of immigrants from non-Christian cultures. And over this time there have been dramatic shifts in elite opinion on relations with the many non-Westerners who have immigrated into our societies.
At first, the attitude was one of tolerance of religious difference combined with a continued self-confidence that the receiving society remained essentially Judeo-Christian, and should not apologise for being so. We still wished each other a Merry Christmas, our social security agencies would baulk at any suggestion that we would recognise polygamy by paying for the welfare of multiple wives and a planning permit for a mosque from which all locals would hear the call for prayer was unlikely to receive approval.
“Multiculturalism” in this earlier phase of the encounter between the Christian West and non-Western immigrants meant freedom for the incomers to continue living according to their religions and cultural practices so long as these were consistent with those of the host nation and so long as the incomers mastered the language and ways of the receiving country.
But in recent decades there has been a major shift in the Zeitgeist. Just as Christianity has dramatically retreated in Western countries, we have moved from tolerating non-Christian minorities to the interpretation of multiculturalism by today’s liberal establishment whereby not to respect a migrant’s more or less entire cultural baggage risks being condemned as the worst sin in our contemporary culture, racism. Exceptions in theory of course are made for practices which outrage traditional Western values such as so-called honour killings, forced marriages, polygamy and genital mutilation. But those responsible for enforcing the law generally tread warily with such issues, aware that the greater evil in the eyes of today’s establishment is to be accused of being a racist or Islamophobe. The key overriding principle is that ethnic diversity is to be “celebrated” as it allegedly “enriches” and “strengthens” our societies.
It has gradually dawned on many of us that the terms “multicultural” and “diverse” mean “less white” and “less Christian”. This is not to say that there has not been pushback against contemporary multicultural orthodoxy in parts of the West.
Face-covering garments have been banned in a growing number of European countries and Switzerland has made the building of minarets illegal. Our host Hungary of course has bravely stood out against contemporary pieties in insisting that Christian civilisation is a good which needs to be defended.
But the overall Western trend has been towards elites feeling we need to apologise for and be embarrassed about the majority Christian culture. So it is that they worry we will give offence to minority religions if we wish people “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy holidays”; unless we ban children in government schools from singing Christmas carols; and unless we rename what used to be called “Christmas Markets”, “Winter Markets” or some such alternative name that Communist functionaries might have dreamed up. It is not surprising that the European Union rejected requests by the Vatican that its constitution mention the continent’s Christian heritage.
Discrimination in Western societies against Christianity has become increasingly blatant. British Airways and the BBC have forbidden staff from wearing the Christian cross, while allowing the hijab. In Australia, a proposal to establish a university centre for the study of Western Civilisation was shouted down as backward-looking and reactionary – even though our tertiary institutions are full of centres devoted to studying the world’s other cultures.
All the while our elites are susceptible to pressure as never before to celebrate and accommodate minority cultural practices. The Archbishop of Canterbury suggests that the adoption of elements of sharia law in the UK “seems inevitable”; the British Foreign Office encourages its female staff occasionally to wear the veil in solidarity with Muslim women; and state institutions go along with Islamist pressure for gender segregation and the universalisation of Islamic food practices.
The recent promotion of the idea that Western societies must permanently downplay and apologise for their Christian culture while promoting that of the incomers has widened the gulf between elite and popular opinion in many Western countries. That has been further exacerbated by the recent promotion by left-leaning Western elites of mass open borders immigration.
Ordinary indigenous Europeans worry deeply about the chaotic and criminally-supported arrival of huge numbers of people over their borders, many of whom hold views incompatible with Western values and some of whom will turn out to be terrorists. These worries are further exacerbated by the clear signs that in many parts of the continent the original Europeans are becoming a minority. It is no wonder that anti-immigration sentiment in Europe is strong and growing.
The sad truth is that these factors have meant that relations between Christians and immigrant communities, especially Muslims, have come under severe strain in recent times. But is mistrust of the incomers inevitable? In the circumstances I have just described, I fear yes.
People often adopt a fatalistic view that it is pointless for Europe to try to stop the tide of Third World humanity which wants to immigrate. The numbers are too great, they are too determined and the jumping-off points in the Middle East and Africa are too close to Europe. Resistance is futile.
But Italy until recently showed that the flow of illegal immigration can be stopped, as have Hungary and Australia. All three have agreed that our nations are entitled to maintain their culture and character and that we have to match the sense of entitlement of those demanding entry with the conviction that we have a right to say “no”.
Australia is tough on illegal immigration but is different from Europe in that we are a country built on migration — we are after all a country with a population of 25 million on a land mass the size of Europe. So most Australians welcome migration as long as it is carefully managed both in terms of the numbers and the types of migrants we welcome. Australians insist newcomers must be able to make a contribution to our society and are willing to “join the team”, as our former Prime Minister Tony Abbott says. Australia also is one of the few countries which re-settles considerable numbers of genuine refugees.
Australia has shown that through strong borders and putting people-smugglers out of business, ordinary voters will be reassured and accept carefully managed immigration. And it is only in those circumstances that we can hope that the culturally Christian majorities of Western countries can again live in relations of trust and solidarity with non-Western newcomers in our midst.