Dame Helen Ghosh is an honourable person who seems to attract religious trouble. As Permanent Secretary of a Department of State she was responsible for the first Papal State Visit to Britain during which time a few young officials caused a global media storm, and a diplomatic incident, by suggesting the Pontiff launch a brand of condoms and an abortion clinic while on UK soil. The other day, now as Director - General of the National Trust (NT), she was under fire again for seemingly having dithered as to whether the NT could associate its Spring Bank Holiday activities for children with the word ‘Easter’. By the time the Prime Minister had lampooned this indecision and the national press had noted that while supermarkets promote chocolate eggs as for ‘Easter’ they then strip the word from 80% of their stocked product, a Ghosh related religious row was back it seemed. But in reality the argument was far more important than that.
The instinct to remove religious words and imagery from the public square reflects a foundational strand of some liberal thought and an aspiration to secure a kind of civic neutrality between competing conceptions of value. In Belgium it is currently causing the government to suggest going further than even French laicite in its attempts to restrict religion to the private sphere. In Switzerland it leads to an absence of planning permission for Mosques or elsewhere a politely vicious metropolitan disdain of communities in national life who still bother, even vaguely, with God or behaviours such as those that followed the death of Lady Diana Spencer. Its flipside is what David Cameron once called ‘muscular liberalism’ with its attempts to ‘modernise’ certain ways of life by, to use an example from the Department of Communities and Local Government under Ruth Kelly and Hazel Blears, launching units within the state to trigger a ‘Muslim Reformation’, allocate resources to mitigate an ‘Islamist threat’ calculated by local a Muslim headcount, or raise up councils of Sufi Muslims as ‘better’ followers of ‘the Prophet’ than the rest.
Religious illiteracy and a lack of confidence in the public realm often drives the reach for such modes of response. But relaxing about Easter, or for that matter about Vaisakhi, Eid or Trafalgar Day provides space for common conversations between our overlapping approaches to flourishing. Indeed, rather than provoke division it has been hard to grasp why many racial equality councils and others concerned about the rise of social alienation have been so keen – and found it so helpful - to support the celebration of St George’s Day festivals across the UK not as statements of fear but as vehicles to promote participation across boundaries, neighbourhoods and fashion collaboration.
The evidence seems to suggest that hollowing out the public sphere and privatising that which makes many British lives secure a core purpose does nothing more than breed leaping resentment - whether that be in the grievances felt by communities that drew solace from UKIP’s statement of ‘Christian values’ , the new wave of churches that take Easter more seriously than ever , or young –especially men – who find public conversation so stripped of all they find dear that it becomes one more nudge in their radicalisation.
When Easter or any other public festival is commodified beyond recognition, or denied out of a sense of misguided concern, what is then left in public is emptiness. And so what is at stake this Easter is not Dame Helen Ghosh’s personal views on how best to ‘do God’ without incident, but just what our appetite as a society is for social risk?