We live in a society with a tendency towards liberal intolerance, in which the fury of the mob turns on anyone who dares hold a different belief to the mainstream particularly if they are from an unpopular group such as conservative Christians. But we also live in a society where some people who hold non-mainstream beliefs don’t feel they really have to think them through.
Last week, I wrote about the difference between directing scorn at Jacob Rees-Mogg for holding unpopular beliefs which he is happy to justify, and directing scorn at those who hold unpopular beliefs which they aren’t prepared to debate in public, possibly because those beliefs are in fact half-baked. A truly liberal society that is secure in its liberalism should find the half-baked argument far more distasteful than the unpopular argument which has been thought through. Insecure liberals are the ones who do not have enough confidence in their own arguments that they know they can prove why the person they are arguing with is wrong.
A convenient example of a half-baked argument cropped up this week in the form of Nigel and Sally Rowe, a Christian couple from the Isle of Wight who have removed their children from a Church of England school because another pupil wants to wear a dress and be accepted as transgender. Their six year old boy had come home from school saying he was ‘confused’ and had started feeling sick before going to school. So they decided to remove him and school him at home with his older brother. They are also suing the school for discriminating against them on the basis of their Christian faith.
Now, a child announcing he wants to be a she might well confuse other pupils. But then so might a child who is brought to school by his two mummies. Or indeed a student who tells her classmates that she is a lesbian. It isn’t just about sexuality and gender: children are confused by all sorts of things, which is why they go through phases of asking ‘why?’ repeatedly. The world is a big and confusing place, and parents have to do a lot of explaining, even of things that the parents themselves don’t fully understand, from why people have to die to why some people don’t like chocolate ice cream. Presumably the Rowes are aware of this, given that their Christian beliefs will involve them telling their children that Jesus rose again from the dead.
The world to a child is full of endless possibilities. Why can’t two men marry each other? If a parent answers that they can’t because it’s wrong then the child agrees with that. Why can’t a child change from boy to girl? Most children go through phases of wanting to change into a unicorn, and only drop the expectation that this could happen when reality intervenes. If a child changes gender, then that is reality, and like other slightly confusing aspects of reality, it’s down to a parent to stop this being too confusing to bear.
The Rowes undoubtedly love their children very much and like all good parents, cannot bear to see their child distressed. But in all their broadcast interviews, they were unable to explain what it was that was particularly distressing about accepting another child who was different. ‘For such young children, we feel it isn’t right,’ Mrs Rowe told ITV’s This Morning. Her husband argued on the Today programme that ‘we have a social understanding that we have boys and we have girls’. This doesn’t address why a boy might want to become a girl. It also doesn’t address why it is ‘wrong’ for that boy to become a girl. Or indeed why it should be so upsetting for another child who just happens to be in the same class as a boy who wants to become a girl, or who wants to wear clothing that is traditionally considered feminine.
There is a very important debate about when a child is old enough to have gender reassignment surgery, and whether a person can legally change their sex before having completed that treatment. But while the Rowes claimed that ’98 per cent of people who felt like that when they were younger, turn out not to be like that at all’, they were mostly concerned with the welfare of their own child, perhaps because the transgender pupil in the classroom might ‘turn’ their child transgender too.
Where have we heard these arguments before? When MPs debated the repeal of Section 28, people protested that teachers talking about homosexual relationships in classrooms might ‘confuse’ children who weren’t ready to understand these things. Children might be misled into thinking that they too were gay, as though being misled into such a thought which they then change their mind about when they hit puberty and realise who they’re attracted to would be a terribly bad thing. Puberty is a pretty hideous time for most teenagers. Knowing about the existence of gay people doesn’t make life harder for the heterosexual kids as their hormones start raging: it just gives the ones who are realising they are attracted to the same sex an understanding that they are entirely normal.
Christianity isn’t about the people who adhere to it but what scripture says about God, which is fortunate as this couple offer a poor advert for their faith. There is a saying amongst Christians that Christianity without Christ is just ‘ianity’, which is cheesy, but it’s helpful to remember when a pair of people who define ‘ianity’ so well pop up in the media. It is also a belief about man’s relationship with God, not an excuse for people who just don’t like those who are different to them to indulge their prejudices amongst others who at least pretend to conform.
The most half-baked aspect of the Rowes’ attitude, though, is their assumption that society should accommodate their beliefs, but not those of others. Christians need the liberal society they so often rail against: it is what protects them from persecution for believing that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23) and that the Christian god is the only God and that only those who believe in Jesus’ death on the cross as their salvation will go to heaven. Those beliefs, which are core tenets of the Christian faith, are deeply ‘offensive’ to many other people. A liberal society accepts that people might still hold these offensive beliefs. It also accepts that individuals might believe that gay sex is wrong (Tim Farron has done well to make it this far without a mention) and that they have a right to hold that belief, even if they are totally wrong. The Rowes are as protected by this liberalism as someone who feels very strongly and painfully that they have been born in the wrong body and that they need corrective surgery. They find a transgender pupil offensive to the extent that they want the school to stop a boy wearing a dress, yet expect others to put up with their own beliefs.
We don’t persecute people we disagree with: we use our arguments to explain why we think they are wrong. The Rowes can’t offer a why: they just ‘feel’ that a transgender child is wrong and want a debate about the ‘political agenda’ of the school they’ve removed their children from, yet they expect society to protect their Christian beliefs and not demand any ‘whys’ for those beliefs. That attitude certainly doesn’t benefit genuinely confused children who are distressed, whether temporarily or permanently, about their gender. But it also doesn’t benefit conservative Christians, who need the protection of a confident liberal society as much as the next minority group.