“Bigot-gate” the media dubbed it. The moment when Gordon Brown learned to his cost that what you think and say in private is just as important as what you say in public.
He’s exhausted, yes. It’s been a long and stressful campaign, yes. He thought no-one could hear, yes. But had his character not been such that he was likely to sound-off about faithful Labour voters when he thought no-one was listening, the enduring image of his campaign would not have been this:
“Shouldn’t he be allowed to say what he thinks when he’s on his own?” a reporter asked someone on the streets of Rochdale later this afternoon. “Not at all,” came the reply, “How do we know if he’s telling the truth if he’s going to say something else in private?”
Yet ironically, in the debate about religious liberties, many of the same people who say ‘who you are in public should be who you are in private’ will not extend this to expressing your faith. In that case, who you are in private is fine, as long as you keep it well and truly separate from who you are in public.
Nurses offering to pray for their patients are considered intrusive, if not in actual breach of the Human Rights act. People talking amicably with colleagues and explaining their views in response to direct questioning are ‘homophobic’ and can’t be trusted to treat others with respect. Prime Ministers feel constrained to hide their faith for fear of being considered ‘a nutter’. Who these people are in private, it is thought, should very much be kept under wraps.
To be fair, the people who hold the above view don’t just apply it to people of faith, they also say people of faith should apply it to them. As I wrote in one of my early posts, I recently heard Andrew Copson use precisely this point to argue that religious organisations should not be allowed a loophole in the equalities legislation enabling them to discriminate on the grounds of faith when hiring staff:
“If your female youth worker does an excellent job in her working hours, what does it matter if she goes home and sleeps with her lesbian partner in her spare time?”
Would he be willing today to say ‘If Gordon Brown is friendly and polite to people on the streets, what does it matter if he gets in the car and insults them behind their backs?’? I’m guessing not.
Gordon apologised profusely. He rearranged what I’m sure must be a busy schedule to return to Mrs Duffy’s home and apologise in person. He owned up to his mistake (though he did say he had misunderstood her words, presumably meaning there were some circumstances under which it would have been OK to say the encounter was a disaster and she was ‘a bigotted woman’!), he said sorry and he has, hopefully, learned his lesson.
I hope I have learned his lesson, too.
His big mistake was not getting caught, but making the comment in the first place. It is so easy for us to talk behind people’s backs, to joke about them, or even to deliberately insult, belittle and demean them. I do it. I do it most days, and the more I do it, the easier it gets. Why? Because for a moment it makes me feel that I’m better than them. By laughing at their faults, I draw others’ attention to them, because the more I make other people look bad, the better I feel about myself.
If I feel I came off poorly in the encounter, I can shrug it off by mocking the person’s appearance, or attitude, or outfit, or hairstyle or accent or any tiny fault I can find in them.
If I heard all my words from yesterday replayed on national TV, how embarrassed would I be? If all the emails I wrote yesterday were printed in the newspapers, how many people would I have to apologise to?
Who I am behind my mask matters. I want to transform our culture so that no-one ever again buys the line that who you are in private can be separated from who you are in public, but I need to start with me. I need a character-check, to make sure my unguarded comments are so filled with God’s grace and love that I’d be happy for the world to hear them.
Will you join me?
Update: I wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph along the same lines, and it was printed on Friday! To read it, click here and scroll down.