Starting a debate (or not)
Very occasionally one comes across people who are so absorbed into their own worldview that they have long proven incapable of acknowledging much that would challenge it. They are usually found arguing that black is white, the better to uphold the truth not of reality but of their own worldview. Whenever a charge crops up that does not fit into this worldview, they can refute it by simply ignoring the context and substance of the original charge. Take the BBC, for example. People have long called it a lefty organisation. What they have nearly always meant by this, a la Andrew Marr, is that the BBC is an overwhelmingly liberal organisation, something which (much to the chagrin of some of us) has become synonymous with the term lefty. As such, when the BBC comes up with anything even mildly supportive of the government position on the budget deficit, for example, characters like James Macintyre will pop their heads up, roll their eyes and with raised eyebrows mutter knowingly (as if they have penetrated the heart of a mass fraud): ‘…and they say the BBC is left-wing, do they?’ Cue mass retweets and digital-rage as legions of Twitter fans queue up to completely miss the point. Which is that the BBC, quite simply, is drenched in a metropolitan liberalism that unthinkingly sneers at and censors mainstream small c conservative positions as if they are extreme. That is the substance of the charge; that is the thorn in the flesh of those who despair of BBC ‘bias’; that is where the debate must be held if we are to make anything like a useful contribution on the issue.
Why bring this up? Well, because I have been reading this new report by Demos on faith and citizenship and I think it is guilty of using much the same sleight of hand to sustain itself. In so doing it misses the central points it ought really to be addressing. Either blinded by the narrow culture of which it is part, or else lacking the courage to penetrate into the real heart of the matter, the report simply uses old tropes to move the debate on to a ground upon which would have undoubtedly suited the socio-political paradigms of the early noughties, but which seems amusingly dated now.
As such, it is no accident that the report is couched in some very tired language. Words like ‘progressive’ and ‘faith communities’ really are the shell-suits and brut aquatonic of modern political discourse. Indeed, the whole thing reads like a Citizenship teacher’s wet dream. This is not incidental – as we see from the foreword onward, the normative presumptions of early Blairite Britain ate the normative prusumptions and prejudices upon which the report builds.
The document starts off with a foreword by Stephen Timms, steeped in the ‘progressive’ mantras of the Blairite era from which he is a remnant, seeking to reconcile the progressive cause with religion on the basis that there is quite a lot within the worldview of the religious with which a ‘progressive’ might happily find common cause, such as ‘human rights’ and ‘equality’. So far, so bleedin’ obvious.
But there is a big huge elephant in the room here, which demonstrates a failure to visualise such key concepts from intellectual paradigms outwith the metropolitan, secularised bubble from which they emanate: whilst many Christians are strong supporters of human rights and equality, lots of what seriously antagonised religious folk under the Labour government was couched precisely in talk of ‘Human Rights’ and ‘Equality’.
I, for example, am a Roman Catholic and believe wholeheartedly in the centrality of both human rights and equality in building both a personal and social ethic – after all, we pionerred such ideas in the first place. But the ways those terms are configured to uphold the primacy of a rationalistic, immanentised ethic is something that I find deeply problematic, as do many people of faith (and many without, too). After all, it was this version of ‘Equality’ that guided Labour’s decision to ban Catholic adoption agencies from finding loving families for orphans, just as it is this version of ‘Human Rights’ that seeks to make an absurdly illiberal hash of the institution of marriage. Polling has demonstrated that David Cameron’s move to pursue ‘same-sex marriage’, for example, brings nothing but very bad news from religious voters – yet these are the same sorts of people that Demos can happily profess hold ‘progressive’ views on things like ‘equality’. Similar issues arise with ‘women’s rights’ and attitudes to abortion.
Clearly there is something going on here that merits exploration, though whilst Timms acknowledged this as an historic issue, one which the Tories ‘exploited’ for political purpose, he nonetheless completely fails to critique it, or ask serious, searching questions in light of it. This is perhaps no surprise: Christianity within New Labour was only really welcome if it was of the ‘social gospel’ variety, promoting a lovely, fluffy message on social justice whilst abandoning to ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘bigots’ all those aspects of mainstream orthodoxy distasteful to the instinctively secular metropolitan hegemony: what Archibishop Fulton Sheen called ‘Christ without the Cross’. But there is a disconnect here, a genuinely antagonistic rendering of terms so central to both sides of the debate, such that robust exploration of this critical distance is an absolute necessity if any meaningful analysis is to be offered. The last fifteen years did happen – they must be taken account of.
Keep in touch, yah?
One way of finding out whether or not someone really knows what they are talking about is by measuring their amount of surprise to aspects of reality that everyone else on the ground thought perfectly normal and obvious. If, for example, an individual walked round the saucier ends of Salford and found to his astonishment that there are many people there who can read and who actually work for a living, then you can reasonably guess that such a person does not go to the saucier ends of Salford all that very often. They exist within their own bubble, with its own presuppositions and prejudices, and in so doing report mundane instances of everyday life as great discoveries central to our understanding of mankind.
I mention this because it is an impulse that occurs time and again throughout this report. Indeed, the subject matter itself, being confined to explaining to Progressives how ‘progressive’ religious folk can be, smacks of the very same detachment. It reminds me of a time when I pointed out to someone that Pope Benedict was really quite far to the ‘left’ – on economics to ecology, capitalism to climate – as indeed is the Roman Catholic Church generally (if such paradigms are appropriate). To which the response was: ‘nah, he’s a massive right-wing bigot.’ And yet Pope Benedict is, by many of the terms identified, a ‘progressive’ (though we could just call him a Catholic) – any serious or sustained effort to engage with his message, and that of the Roman Catholic Church, reveals as such.
So when it is announced that religious folk are often politically and civically engaged, sharing certain outlooks with their ‘progressive’ counterparts, I fail to be all that awestruck. However, the very existence of surprise, the need to point this out and publicise it, merely suggests a religious illiteracy incapable of reconciling what it thought were two disparate threads, but which in reality always were mutualistic sides of the very same coin.
Take for example this passage:
Indeed, despite religion’s adherence to fundamental core values that tend to be considered conservative, religion has also been the impetus for revolutionary social change, including the abolition of slavery and civil rights movement
What does it say? Well, that despite the conservative core values, religious folk do some good stuff too. Which apart from being mind-blowingly arrogant, also sells down the intellectual river the very movement within which most ‘progressives’ feel themselves most at home. In short, these positive achievements can happily proceed from conservatism; there is no reason whatever to believe they happen accidentally in spite of it. Just as Labour attacks capitalism (or used to) from a conservative viewpoint, in defence of the individual and the family and the community, so do Pope Benedict XVI and other religious folk pursue ‘progressive’ policies as a consequence of their orthodox commitment to faith. Whilst this might not be the settled view of the esteemed voices within the culture industry, who merely articulate what everyone within that same culture already assumes to be true, it is nonetheless true in the real world of lived relationships. To fail to understand this is to retreat into a culture war narrative that fundamentally misunderstands religion, and indeed politics – the inability of the ‘progressives’ to comprehend David Cameron being both a Tory and One-Of-Them speaks of the same naivety. As such, any report that can say ‘However, perhaps surprisingly, religious exclusivists are also likely to hold progressive political views,’ reveals only its fundamental ignorance of that which it seeks to analyse.
‘Christians are Christian! Who knew?’
Examples of this apparent inability to get into the real flesh and guts of the religio-political debate abound, such that it often reads more like a British view of a caricatured American religio-political landscape imported back into a British context for the opportunity of writing a report on it. As such, more specific examples of religious illiteracy can be found, with comments connecting religious folk and opposition to ‘homosexuality’ for example (which, if that comment was supposed to include Catholicism, is ignorant of Catholic teaching.) The other end of this scale is the satisfaction on display when, like a small boy discovering a wonderful fossil inside what he thought was a plain old rock, it is pointed out that religious folk can hold some ‘progressive’ opinions, too.
We hear with apparent surprise, for example, that religious folk can be remarkably ‘progressive’ with regards immigration and immigrants, and we are (I think) to be impressed by that, as though this were some great paradox antithetical to being religious in the first place (though by framing that debate into a depersonalised issue about numbers rather than about the effects on community, solidary and reciprocity, the ideological narrowness of yesteryear that cost Labour so dear at previous elections is merely reconstituted).
We also hear that ‘some faith groups are still very much involved in areas of countering extremism and fostering cohesion’, as if community cohesion doesn’t flow like water from a spring directly from the Gospel and that anybody taking the message of Jesus seriously could really do much else. Indeed, recent studies have suggested that the challenge of today is countering intolerance from those without a faith upbringing, or in the words of Professor Leslie Francis: ‘the challenge facing schools today is to enable those young people who do not come from a religious background themselves to gain insight into how their peers from religious homes feel about things’ – tired old caricatures about religion and social divisiveness withered long ago.
No, if any of these things are news at all, then it is only news to a small and highly ignorant clique, probably hanging around LiberalConspiracy or CiF – the bigger issue, and the one pretty much ignored, is instead the views that the ‘progressives’ don’t gyrate about but pursue and seek to destroy.
Faith is a foreign country; they do things differently there
In sum, this report offers little to suggest that those on the centre-left have progressed in understanding the newly energised religio-political dynamic weaving its way through the British political scene. Whilst political engagement by those of an orthodox Christian bent (be they religious or not) is becoming an ever more significant feature in British politics, and ‘values voters’ are an increasingly important constituency on the Excel spreadsheets of hotshot psephologists, it seems that some are determined to (mis-)understand this in a manner that disregards the ways in which society and attitudes have changed since the downfall of New Labour: the report seems to say, in effect, ‘hey look, these religious types are more like us than we thought, maybe we should talk to them too.’ As far as reflective thought goes, that doesn’t rate highly; if, as the Goodharts and Glasmans of this world contend, we have reached the post-liberal moment, then the left’s views on the interplay between religion and politics need updating too – and it goes much further than some ‘progressives’ condescending to work with those they might have once chosen to ignore. The game has changed; increasingly, so have the rules. This means looking at the relationship from within the new context, and not through the very lens that has already been so resoundingly rejected.
As the report itself acknowledged, ‘we analysed responses to a range of value-based questions that tap into the heart of the left–right political divide. The results were mixed.’ One would have hoped that this might have set off a great big warning siren as to the appropriateness of using the old dichotomy to analyse the new settlement. Or in other words, the left-right divide is obsolete in this field: orthodox Catholics can be (and historically have often been) lefties; just as social liberals can (and increasingly are) Tories. More, for some it is their Catholicism that leads them to the left, just as for some it is their social liberalism (a staple of ‘progressive’ thinking) that leads them to the Tories. The old dichotomy is dead – real life has destroyed it.
Or to end with a quote from the report:
Clearly, the more you get to know people who may be different from you, the more you begin to see them as fellow human beings, and less as stereotypes or misconceptions perpetuated by media and popular culture
This was being aimed at Christians and their irrational fears over folk who are different, in itself an offensive reductionism. Alas, perhaps such a comment might better sum up the key weakness of this report – as well offer a waymarker on how to improve it.