We are drifting back to the era of the Test Acts. For those who don’t know, the Test Acts were a series of laws which set a religious test on holding public office. In effect, nonconformists and others were banned from a number of roles in society — simply because they were not Anglicans.
Unless you were taking communion in the Church of England, you were deemed unfit for public employment. Also, you could not be enrolled at Oxford University and you could not graduate from Cambridge. Similar laws applied in Scotland and Ireland.
Unless you subscribed to the beliefs of those in power, you were considered a threat to the established order. To be fair, some of these laws were enacted during a time when religion and politics was an explosive cocktail, and the country had not long emerged from a bloody civil war.
However, make no doubt about it, there were those who wanted to suppress the beliefs of others — and were prepared to use the force of law to do so.
As the country embraced more freedoms and toleration for dissenting opinions the Test Acts were eventually repealed in the nineteenth century — which is not that long ago in historical terms.
Yet it is self-evident that we are drifting again to a situation where a person is deemed not fit for prominent roles in public life unless they share the views and opinions of the powerful elite.
Consider the hounding of Tim Farron when he was leader of the Liberal Democrats. Okay, so he himself admits, he didn’t handle it very well. Nevertheless, the underlying message is clear: an evangelical who holds to the Bible’s teaching on sexual morality is not fit to lead a modern political party.
Or look at what happened when pro-life MP Maria Caulfield was appointed to be the Conservative Party’s vice chair for women. Abortionists were outraged and called for her to be removed. They said the role should be given to someone who had a record of supporting abortion.
Do you remember the storm of criticism when Dan Walker was named as one of the presenters for BBC Breakfast? Many in the progressive elite were aghast at the idea of an evangelical Christian reading the news to them in the morning. He’s probably one of those crazy creationists, they sneered.
It’s not just people in prominent roles that receive this sort of contempt. It’s happening in ordinary public employment too. Nurses are told they can’t offer to pray for patients. School teachers are told they must promote alternative families. Police officers are told they must celebrate gay pride — or face the consequences.
Universities are also becoming places where anyone who dissents from the prevailing political correctness is shut down. Christian unions are thrown off campus and Christian speakers are ‘de-platformed’ (not given time or space to speak).
None of this is embedded in legislation as such, at least not yet. But recent legislation has certainly not helped the situation. Equality laws have been far too strident and have failed to do enough to protect liberty of conscience and freedom of speech.
Whilst not embedded in legislation, a ‘political correctness test’ is embedded in the psyche of the social elites. They really do think the beliefs of evangelical Christians are so abhorrent that they disqualify us from a range of public roles.
This will inevitably have an impact on our freedoms to share the gospel. As we become more marginalised, so our faith becomes more easily side-lined. It’s easier to lock up the street evangelist. It’s easier to label biblical preaching as ‘radicalisation’. It’s easier to float the idea of regulating Sunday schools.
This will also have a profound pastoral impact. There will be more and more believers in our churches who will need wise counsel and support as they face ever more challenging circumstances in the workplace.
There may be an increasing range of professions that become off-limits for faithful believers. That’s a form of economic persecution. So too is the assault on businesses that are run by Christians (printers, bakers, guesthouses).
And there will — sadly — be those who capitulate to the culture. They will see which way the wind is blowing and take the easy way out. They will say evangelicalism must change with the times or become irrelevant.
But the Lord says: ‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you’ (Matthew 5:11-12).
Mike Judge was previously head of communications at the Christian Institute and is pastor of Chorlton Evangelical Church. He is a director and co-editor of Evangelical Times.