‘They will hate you because of who I am,’ Jesus says in the Gospels. He forgot to add: ‘And the ones who don’t have a clue will point and laugh.’ It’s a lesson Carol Monaghan has learned abruptly.
Monaghan is MP for Glasgow North West and a member of the Scottish National Party. A former science teacher, it’s fair to say she hasn’t grabbed the media spotlight in the way some of her colleagues have since entering Parliament in 2015. Still, she’s gone about her duties as an MP, seeing to the needs of her constituents, and serving on the Commons science and technology committee.
This week, the TV cameras finally found her. On Wednesday, Monaghan turned up to her committee and was met by a colleague’s question. What was that on her forehead?
Monaghan is a practising Catholic and had been to Mass that morning for the dispensation of ashes. For Catholics, and other denominations, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and a period of fasting, self-denial and reflection. Ashes are applied to the forehead, with the priestly reminder: “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return”. This ceremony prepares Catholics for six weeks of contrition leading up to Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
Monaghan explained to her fellow MP and was met with a blunt response: ‘But this is going to be broadcast’.
To her credit, she kept her ashes intact, explaining: “I think they just thought I didn’t want to be embarrassed – but I was not going to rub it off. Many religions have visible symbols and Christians should not feel any embarrassment in either practising their religion or in the public display of religious symbols.”
Had the matter ended there, we might lament the discourtesy shown to the Glasgow MP and move on. Instead, the BBC ran a story about Monaghan’s forehead on its website under the breathless headline: ‘MP Carol Monaghan “not embarrassed” about display of Christian faith’. The BBC Politics Facebook page posted a picture of Monaghan wearing her ashes and asked its followers: ‘Was it appropriate for this MP to go to work with a cross on her forehead?’
The cock having crowed twice, Monaghan still wouldn’t resile, telling BBC News: ‘I have to be open about it – for me it would be wrong to hide something which is important to me.’
It’s understandable that Monaghan’s colleague and the BBC were concerned. This sort of thing, left unchecked, can only lead to theocracy. At this rate, we’ll be under the yoke of Rome by Good Friday.
This is all depressingly familiar. Nowadays, everyone expects the Secular Inquisition. The freedom of religious conscience, once a foundation stone of liberalism, has fallen out of favour with many who consider themselves progressives. (Much the same fate has been accorded to free expression.) The retreat of liberalism into identity politics has necessitated the purging of religion from the public square. Religion says ‘you must’ in a time when ‘I am’ is all the rage and if you’re unwilling to join in with the politics of self-affirmation, you must be mocked or cajoled into denying what you believe, and conforming.
This week, it was Carol Monaghan. In October, it was Ashers Bakery. The Christian-owned firm lost its appeal against a ruling that it could not refuse to bake a ‘Support Gay Marriage’ cake ordered by an LGBT rights activist. The campaigner’s money was returned and he was able to able to secure such a cake elsewhere but the bakery found itself accused of discrimination. (As a gay Catholic, I think Ashers should have baked the cake out of good manners and dedication to customer service. That the law would compel them to do so is obnoxious.)
The bewildered hysteria that has greeted Monaghan’s small gesture of faith will not have gone unnoticed by Catholics. It will only confirm their worse fears: That such is the hostility towards their religion that even an MP faces ridicule and condescension should she let slip her unsavoury affiliations.
Progressives may long for the day when our quirky superstitions are wholly a matter for the private sphere. If they ever succeed, it will be a bitter victory indeed. If you drive Catholics from the public square, you drive away the Church’s social teaching on the death penalty, Trident, welfare brutality, and economic injustice. The moral authority of the Church is not something that can be tucked away, where it won’t distress anyone, until it is needed for the next CND march.
Christians are not being silenced in Britain and they’re not being persecuted. Their African brothers and sisters in Christ know what real oppression is. But in the UK, and across the secular West, we are being gradually edged out of the public forum; told we are offensive and hateful; urged to live and let live by the very people who seek to close our children’s schools, micromanage our businesses, and assume responsibility for raising our families.
Tolerance is demanded of us but seldom returned in kind. That’s why so many of us will have taken heart from Carol Monaghan’s example. In her penitence, we took pride; from her act of obedience, a lesson in defiance.
Stephen Daisley is a blogger for Coffee House and a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail.