Monday, 20 July 2015

Piercing the Secular Veil

There is an episode of the American Presidential drama, The West Wing, called "In God We Trust". It follows the challenges of Arnold Vinick, a liberal Republican, who finds himself in hot water with the religious right of his party, particularly on the question of his stance on abortion. Arnie's religiosity had very noticeably faded with the passing years, but just as in the real world of American politics, the role religion had in public life remained every bit as potent. It emerges, when Reverend Butler, one of his Republican primary candidates invites him to come to his church to pray for divine wisdom, that Vinick had not attended church for quite some time.

Facing down the pressures from within his own party, Vinick eventually provides a robust, if unpopular, response to the media storm that ensues. Responding to those that seek to shoehorn religious debate into politics, he ends a press interview with the totemic rebuke:
"I don't see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government.

So every day until the end of this campaign, I will answer any question on government. But if you have a question on religion, then please, go to church."

As a secular liberal, I have a significant and instinctive affinity with Vinick's sentiment. It feels right that religion should, for the most part, be a private matter, and not something that the state is concerned with. I am also weary of any person or group which seeks to use organised religion for explicitly political purposes.

The American experience is, in many respects, the total reverse of the British one. Despite lacking a separation of church and state, there is a much more limited role for religion in political life. Far from being an electoral asset, publicly professing religious belief is arguably a hindrance to politicians on left and right alike. When Alastair Campbell said of the Blair government that "we don't do God" it was a reflection of British public life. Religion is seen as an unwelcome distraction from broader social issues which transcend the theistic loyalties of the people on this island.

It is against that culture that the storm in the Liberal teacup brewed this week. Tim Farron, the new party leader, is openly a committed, born-again, evangelical Christian, and has been since early on in his adult life. Against a tide of increasing irreligion, and in a political environment where religion is increasingly seen as the preserve of the conservative right, this makes him markedly atypical.

Any secular liberal would see no problem with Tim being a Christian and the leader of a Liberal party. Both of my parents, who are Church of Scotland Ministers, recently joined the Liberal Democrats. The late Charles Kennedy was Catholic. Christianity and Liberalism are not incompatible. The two can exist perfectly constructively. Anyone who suggests otherwise probably doesn't understand secularism or liberalism, and the toleration that binds them together.

There ought not even to be a problem with Tim being an evangelical Christian. Certainly it is easier to reconcile theological liberalism with political liberalism, reading religious texts more as historical documents reflective of the morality of their time than purely and unwaveringly the universal diktats of the relevant deity. Evangelical, or more literalist scriptural interpretation, is more hard-edged in its implications for personal morality, but crucially it does not, in and of itself, necessitate the imposition of one's personal morality upon others. An evangelical Christian might insist on abstinence before marriage, and might privately disapprove of those who do not, but few would call for criminalisation or insist that the rest of society ought in some other way to be held to that moral standard.

Secular liberalism does provide a firewall, or a demarcation, that makes it possible hold yourself to what you see as a "higher" moral standard than you do others. Views can be held privately, and are not "illiberal" except insofar as they impinge upon the freedom of others to do the same. It's harm principle 101.

Where things get difficult is when this firewall breaks-down. Many liberals would like to think that this firewall is impregnable. If people who believe same sex relations are sinful or immoral nonetheless treat those in those relationships equally with others, the argument goes, their liberal credentials are unscathed.

The reality is somewhat more complicated. Religion does not manifest itself as a purely private endeavour. The nature of organised religion, in particular, means that theological views gain a social power. It is this social power that often facilitates, even if unintentionally, the stigma and otherisation and discrimination against certain minority groups, including the LGBT+ community. It also does a great deal of good. Much of th einfrastructure of philanthropy and charitable work is sustained and supported by religious groups, as is the cause of vulnerable and persecuted groups across the world, who get precious little attention elsewhere. The social power of religion and faith is not only negative, but those invoking it have to be mindful that it is a double-edged sword and that scrutiny of it is both expected and necessary in a free society.

Religion is not unique in this respect. Private moral beliefs, when shared or expressed in a community, do carry social power, and serve to "enslave by conformity" to use the traditional Liberal lingo. Organised religion is merely the most potent example of this social power in respect of these kinds of issue. The social effect of knowing or believing that others in your community, be it a political one, a religious one, a sporting one or something else, thinks that acting upon your sexuality is sinful, is significant, especially for young people who are coming to terms with it. They inhabit a world where the historical legacy of parts of organised religion, both in its teachings and its soft power, has shaped a world in which sexual and gender minorities are seen on some level as abnormalities or immoral.

This is why I found it so depressing to see some Liberal Democrats dismiss the concerns of other members as a zealous obsession with gay rights. The cause of liberalism requires us to be a lot more demanding as to what a secular liberal society really is. It's not just about toleration and rights. It is also about parity of esteem. It's not enough simply to be against the gay blood ban and for the legalisation of same sex marriage for liberalism to triumph. We also need individuals to feel empowered in the parts of their lives that legislation cannot touch. Until homosexual relationships are responded to with an indifferent shrug, there remains work to do. When someone says, or implies, that they think that by acting on your sexuality you are in some sense sinful, that makes them feel unwelcome and unnatural. That sets back their liberation and, even if unintentionally, pressures them to conform with traditional gender and sexuality roles.

For what it's worth, I think Tim is conscious of the need for wider social acceptance and I have no doubt that in his personal dealings with members of the LGBT+ community he has been supportive and inclusive in emotional and practical ways. Aspects of his voting record on some social issues remain to be fully explained and might reasonably give people cause for caution as to whether his private views have influenced his public actions, be they his interviews, writings or Parliamentary record. On same sex marriage, we can extend benefit of the doubt given his support at second reading.

But his handling of the God question has been poor, and has upset and alienated a lot of people who feel vulnerable in our society: tolerated but not accepted. There were two options open to him. If he does not believe that homosexual relationships are sinful, he could have just said so. If he does believe it, though, the secular liberal firewall needs to be all the stronger. Talking about everyone being sinners is profoundly unhelpful and did nothing to close off the concerns that his private morality seeps into his public and that there is a tension between what his God demands and what liberalism demands. If the firewall were to hold, his answer needed to be in the spirit of Arnold Vinick:
"Every day I am the leader of this party, I will answer any question on government. But if you have a question on religion, then please, go to church."

Full Disclosure: I self-describe as agnostic, believing the existence of God to be unknown and unknowable and seeing no reason why a deity would be so narcissitic as to demand or expect my loyalty. I was brought up a Christian as the son of two theologically liberal Church of Scotland ministers. I sometimes go to church, out of ties to family and friends and sometimes out of a need for self-exploration. I voted for Norman Lamb, but Tim's religiosity had no bearing on that decision.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article; deserves to be wider read

    ReplyDelete