American evangelist Billy Graham speaks to a crowd of intent listeners packing London's Trafalgar Square in 1956
Artillery Row

Cancelling Christians

Billy Graham wouldn’t be welcomed into Britain today

Fifty years ago in the UK, there was widespread public support for Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades and his “Festivals of Hope”. The American preacher, known for his enthusiasm in proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ, drew thronging crowds of over 2 million eager listeners in 1954 at the Harringay Arena in London. 2.6 million people came to Glasgow the following year, and thousands more flocked to public venues until his last British crusade in 1989. He was famously invited for a private audience with the Queen and the media endorsed his mission favourably.

If Billy was alive today, it seems unlikely that he would have the same opportunities. The courting of cancel-culture across the UK is now rapidly denying Christian preachers the opportunity to preach on the streets, make bookings at privately rented venues, and even be indirectly advertised in public. We’re not just facing a free speech crisis. We’re cancelling Christians.

The popular Christian network, Destiny Ministries, has experienced this head on. Last year, they had their three-day venue booking in Glasgow axed by the City of Edinburgh Council, which they intended to use for a summer conference. Larry Stockstill, a Louisiana-based preacher who held orthodox views on marriage, was due to be flying over for it until the Council made the executive decision that he was “too offensive” and that the Ministries should not be allowed to rent their venue space. Larry was well known to promote a traditional view of sexual ethics — a hermeneutically literal interpretation of the Biblical passages on marriage. But, these views were no longer acceptable to the Council and their public services and facilities — they did not “promote equality”. It did not even matter that Larry was not due to be speaking about marriage at the conference.

Christian beliefs are not new in this country and are certainly not on the retreat

This week, but only after over a year of legal negotiations and the situation being raised in the Scottish Parliament as a matter of concern, a financial settlement was reached and the Council admitted that its decision to cancel the booking had been unlawful. They should have honoured the Ministry and Larry’s freedom of expression, and they should not have themselves discriminated against Christian belief. Their censorship was wrong.

But this is not the first time a Council has stopped Christians based on some people not liking them. In March, a judgment was handed down by Manchester County Court about Blackpool Borough Council and Transport Services’ decision in 2018 to use assumed censorial prerogative to ban bus advertisements for a Christian conference. When the words “Time for Hope” emerged on the sides of some buses, the Council said the slogan was discriminatory and did not promote equality. The keynote speaker of the conference was Franklin Graham — son of Billy — invited to speak about growing the church. Knowing that he held conservative views on marriage, the public authorities removed all ads, not wanting to be seen to “endorse” a controversial speaker.

After pursuing litigation, the judge ruled that the Council had failed to appreciate that their action to remove the ads were discriminatory to the organisers of the conference because of Graham’s beliefs. By simply pandering to the perceived offence of some people who saw the advert, the Council had neglected to consider the general discrimination caused to Christians who hold the same beliefs. Also, there was no way that the Council’s restrictions on freedom of expression — a fundamental human right — were proportionate or necessary. The decision to remove the ads was unlawful.

While sense was restored in both of these situations, the outcomes cannot restore the damage caused to the organisers of both conferences and the reach of the message of hope. So what went so wrong? Why did the public authorities in Scotland and England have the audacity to wholesale disregard Christians’ free expression and cancel their bookings or advertisements?

This is not the first time a Council has stopped Christians based on some people not liking them

For one thing, they held that the right not to be offended was more important than the right to speak. This is a misguided attempt to establish a hierarchy of rights — even worse, it involves putting an imaginary “right” above a very real and legally enshrined human right. We may all get offended from time to time, but there has certainly never been a “right” not to be. Such a biased and vague concept would elicit abuse of powers and censorship to the extreme.

But also, importantly, the authorities thoroughly misunderstood the protections that everyone has to share their beliefs. Christian beliefs — and the offence they may cause to some — are not new in this country and are certainly not on the retreat. By blacklisting them, the Councils discriminated against the millions of people who still hold them to be true today — the same people who would flock to hear Billy if he gave his message today. Religious freedom underpins our society, and religious pluralism produces tolerance.

Authorities providing public services in the UK need to re-recognise the value that a message of hope brings to so many. Christianity has had too long a positive influence in our land for us to let it be unlawfully cancelled by people who take offence or simply dislike it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover