Return of the moral minority
Fire-and-brimstone evangelists are usually associated with the US. But turn to the BBC at the weekend and you’ll see they’re enjoying a revival on these shores, says Francis Beckett
“You’re trying to force non-judgementalism on us,” said Nick Seaton, who runs something that calls itself the Campaign for Real Education, on live television one Sunday morning. I had spoken up for sex education in schools, and he was opposing this on the grounds that it might come without Christian value judgements.
Forcing non-judgementalism on people sounds like a rather serious accusation – almost as bad as if I’d been caught ramming fairness down their throats, or infecting the young with open-mindedness. If people like me had our way, we’d be putting people in dungeons and torturing them until they agreed to be given the vote.
Mr Seaton is the sort of person you meet when you start doing Sunday morning television. I’ve been a panellist on the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live a few times now. Mr Seaton, who fears that sex education teachers may omit to mention that homosexuality rots the soul, is not the worst bigot I’ve met there.
He’s pretty gross, of course. You might have thought something that calls itself the Campaign for Real Education would be about how children learn, instead of being a front for Christian intolerance. Their website reveals that they claim those paedophile priests in America got that way because, a quarter of a century ago, they made the mistake of listening to some liberal, humanist psychologists. Honestly.
In the same debate, it emerged that Mrs Lynette Burrows thinks paedophilia is caused by teachers of sex education. Parents should be able “to protect their children from this sort of education which is so unhelpfully obsessed with destroying childhood innocence, in a way that’s reminiscent of paedophilia”. She’s a Catholic, and these days one might have thought Catholics would hesitate before accusing others of paedophilia. She would, she said, go to prison for her right to withdraw her children from such classes.
Mrs Burrows is the sister of Victoria Gillick, who campaigned against under-16s being allowed contraception without their parents’ permission. They make an unsavoury pair. Mrs Burrows has campaigned for corporal punishment to be reintroduced in schools, and has some sort of bee in her bonnet about the phrase “children’s rights”. Apparently all the people who campaign for children’s rights are part of a liberal conspiracy, and she’s managed to get a whole book out of this theory, in which there are two detailed appendices which “help to give a clear picture of how a handful of individuals between them are founders, directors or advisers to all of the organisations”. She thinks this conspiracy is destroying the family; and I suppose it is, if you want to beat your children and keep them ignorant of sex. The book also, apparently, explains that social workers are all Marxist feminists. Mrs Burrows has six children, and Mrs Gillick has ten.
I sat beside Mrs Burrows throughout the hour-long programme. She’s unpleasant and charmless, and wears a permanent expression of disapproval.
Not so the Reverend George Hargreaves, with whom I shared the Sunday Morning Live studio a few weeks earlier. Rev Hargreaves is a black evangelical pastor in Tottenham, and seems far, far saner than Mrs Burrows (not a high bar to jump). He’s fluent, clever, quick, charming and handsome, with huge energy. We had breakfast together before the programme, and he stopped speaking for just a moment to say grace, then put away a massive breakfast, and after the programme sat down to an even bigger lunch, yet he remains slim and elegant in his 50s. He smiles a lot, even at me. He’s very hard to dislike. But it’s worth making the effort.
Rev Hargreaves campaigns against what he calls “gay activism”, which means he thinks gay people should keep their shameful secret to themselves. He’s a fan of erstwhile US Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain, because Cain believes in a very low flat rate of tax, allowing the rich to keep much more of what they have. There’s no logical reason why evangelical Christianity should go with extreme right-wing politics, but it often seems to.
He and I were on the show the morning after the Tottenham riots, and he said he knew for certain that Mark Duggan, the man killed by a police bullet, had been firing at the police. He added that Mr Duggan was no saint, but a “tearaway”, that there was a lot more he could say about Mr Duggan were it not for a police investigation, and that there could be no possible criticism of the police.
We have since learned, of course, that it is not clear that Mr Duggan shot at the police. Unfortunately, he is also dead, and cannot sue for defamation. Rev Hargreaves is still in demand as a media expert on Tottenham, and still advises the Metropolitan Police.
Rev Hargreaves also believes in casting out devils. He sat on my right, and on my left was another black evangelical pastor, Reverend Betty King. Miracles happen through Rev King’s intercession, apparently. She said: “The devil is real but God has given me the grace to cast out evil. I have dealt with men and women who have come to me filled with the spirit of lust.” She swishes around in long robes, and speaks with the heartfelt throb in the voice of the religious demagogue. Before the programme, she told me proudly about her one meeting with Richard Dawkins, in another television studio. Apparently she reduced him to ashamed silence with some magisterial putdown.
To the believer she must be terrifying. To the non-believer she sounds like a fruitcake. But when Rev Hargreaves adds his apparently entirely rational voice to this mumbo jumbo, it becomes almost believable. So persuasive is the man that he later had me travelling to the outer reaches of South London to appear for an hour with him and two other religious folk on a discussion programme on something called Revelation TV. He made a short film in which I gave my views on faith schools, and he showed it in full on the programme and then put it up on YouTube.
These are all, even the personable, intelligent Rev Hargreaves, the voices of extreme religious intolerance, and their presence on Sunday morning television symbolises its revival.