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Which politician of the last century, or longer, has been the most unfairly tarnished in the history books and public consciousness? On the Left you could argue Michael Foot, or Jim Callaghan, or even Jimmy Carter, who maybe don't entirely deserve all the stick they get; those of us on the Right can argue for Margaret Thatcher, who gets blamed for nearly everything even when it happened before she took office, and George W Bush, who was actually far smarter than he seemed. Those feeling brave and controversial may argue for Enoch Powell, that he was wrong on his career defining topic but very misrepresented.

Each of these can stake a claim to that title, the general perception of them being some distance from reality, yet the award – in my opinion anyway – has to go to Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican candidate for President trounced in the polls by Lyndon B Johnson. Goldwater, portrayed by Democrats as a racist, was anything but: he had ended racial segregation in his family department stores, in Phoenix schools, restaurants and in the Arizona National Guard, but he objected to the 1964 Civil Rights Act – arguing that it was unconstitutional in its regulation of private business choices – an argument easily lost in the campaign. "You cannot pass a law that will make me like you or you like me," Goldwater told the US. "That is something that can only happen in our hearts."

I was reminded of Goldwater recently by the outburst of Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, that Christians who want to be exempt from equality legislation are like Muslims trying to impose sharia on Britain. "You can’t say because we decide we’re different then we need a different set of laws…Why not then say sharia can be applied to different parts of the country? It doesn’t work."


As an example of the war on freedom by the equalities lobby, within which the war on Christianity is just a small battle, it's a fairly good one: there's the belief in the all-mighty state, which is deemed always a good thing; there's the accusation of extremism, linking the desire for religious freedom to sharia; and most important of all, underlying everything, is the misconception of what liberty is and the demarcation it draws between public and private.

Phillips, like many, cannot see the difference between self-imposed governance enforced only by the individual – that is the principles and ways we decide to live by, and which we decide to run organisations we have ownership of, principles which may or may not be religious in origin – and enforced law, which individuals are bound to within a geographical area. Quite bluntly, Phillips and his ilk don't understand the difference between not wishing to do something – say, entertain certain guests at your B&B or place children with certain couples – and wanting to stone your neighbour's wife to death because she's had an affair. There's quite a difference.

Now on one point Phillips is right: you cannot go around making laws that differ between groups, whether religious or otherwise, as a basic feature of all good legal systems is that the law applies equally and unto all. Simply on a practical level it would be impossible to agree which exemptions and which religions qualify, indeed where does the line fall between religion and personal belief? Can an individual start a religion and get the same exemption consideration? And it would be very wrong, disastrously wrong, to enforce a separate religious legal system in certain areas or on certain people. Where Mr Phillips and a great many others are misguided however is in their solution: they believe the answer is to ignore objections, "like it or lump it" style, whereas the real solution is fewer laws, less control and greater freedom. It's fairly simple: If you don't make laws that restrict people, except to physically protect others from their actions, then you won't need exemptions.

Such a concept however is largely lost. The Daily Telegraph's poll that accompanied the article in which Phillips's view was quoted asked whether religion should have a say over public law, offering only the following options: "No, religion should 'stop at the door of the temple' and give way to public law", "Yes, but as a Christian country only the Christian faith should shape the law", and the rather scary "All religions should have a say over public law". There wasn't an option for limiting our legislation to matters that only harm others, thereby avoiding both offending personal belief and calls for exemptions. The majority of negative responses to Trevor Phillip's comments were of the special interest defence type, that Christianity's unique position in our heritage warrants engagement and influence, rather than of the liberating less government argument.

Yet at the root of this debate lies that philosophical battle. The proponents of "equalities" and what are laughably called "human rights" – but are in fact "positive rights" or "entitlements", for they only exist if someone else meets that obligation – have been waging war with freedom for decades, and winning. Our true human right, our liberty – technically passive or negative rights in human rights speak – our freedom to live how we choose providing we do not harm others, has been sacrificed time and time again in favour of these "positive rights". Often it has been sacrificed to advance a view we find preferable, restricting that which we have disdain for – excluding certain people from your establishment, for example – but the real core is not about the issue but rather about the principle.

It's not about Christian B&B owners, or gay adoption, but about legal compulsion; it's not about one right verses another, as if they were both the same, nor religious rights against gay rights, but rather about whether we are willing to sacrifice our liberties to create entitlements, our passive rights – such as freedom of speech, association and press – for these new positive rights and entitlements. Are we willing to cast aside liberty – "I don't defend what you do but I defend your right to do it" – for a State mandated code of practice? I hope not, but I fear we are.

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