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False idols

September 11 shook up how people thought about faith and politics. But now it’s time to think again

8 September 2012

8:00 AM

8 September 2012

8:00 AM

It is widely agreed that 9/11 had a silver lining: that frightening day prodded us into thinking about religion, into taking it seriously. It nudged us away from our embarrassed evasion and forced us to admit that religion is a huge cultural and political force, even in Britain. It helped to bury the myth that gradual secularisation was making religion less important each year, something that sophisticated people could safely ignore or sneer at. It led us to begin a loud, boisterous, but also serious and nuanced, debate on the place of religion in public life.

But did it? Is it true that we began to think more clearly about our complex religious inheritance? That we now honestly and intelligently grapple with the fundamental issues around religion’s relationship to politics?

I say no. There may have been more religion discussion over the past 11 years than in previous decades. But more does not mean better. In this case it tends to mean worse: the heightened emotion following 9/11 caused certain conceptual knees to jerk, simplifications to harden, and clichés to take root. And the particular complexities of our national religious tradition were forgotten.

This process began in the days immediately after 9/11. Our religious and political leaders began to insist that Islam was a religion of peace. I am not saying that this was the wrong thing to say; it was perhaps a diplomatic necessity. But it subtly affected the nature of subsequent debate. It implied that it was not quite legitimate to discriminate between religions, to treat them as discrete entities, so that one might be in favour of religion A but deeply wary of religion B. It implied that religion must be considered as a whole. Some might worship Christ in a church, others Allah in a mosque, but these are variations on a theme, different expressions of the same phenomenon. Of course there are different beliefs and practices involved, but all are equally rooted in humanity’s quest for God, and therefore equally legitimate. Religion is, politically speaking, one thing. And it is good.

Or, on the other hand, bad. For the new atheism that sprung up shared the assumption that all forms of religion should be treated together. The same political correctness took root here, in the anti-religion camp. Richard Dawkins swooped in with his version of inter-faith piety: despite superficial differences, all religion is united by its thirst for blood. This was echoed by more moderate atheists such as Ian McEwan and Matthew Parris. We should not be distracted by fuddy-duddy liberal Anglicanism from seeing that Christianity also knows how to launch jihad, wash brains, enslave women, promote unreason, and so on. The Christian-tinged aggression of George W. Bush’s regime strengthened the case somewhat. So did the deepening child-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

And so it emerged, in the wake of 9/11, that there was something called religion, and something else called secularism. The media naturally favoured a narrative so simple. So did the political class, understandably keen to defend the legitimacy of mainstream Islam. So did atheists, determined not to allow any nuance into the term ‘religion’. And, crucially, so did Christian leaders. In particular, it suited the Church of England to see secularism as a threat. It could now justify its established status in new terms: as a sign of the public legitimacy of faith in general. It could also justify its one remaining form of real cultural power; its presence in state education. Also, it could contest its old reputation for mushy liberalism, by talking tough against secular individualism — Rowan Williams had a practical outlet for the ‘postliberal’ theology he had been brewing up as a don.

Was it not ever thus — religion in one corner, secularism in the other? Well, no. In fact our national approach to religion used to be defined by the avoidance of any such crude clash. We used to know how to reconcile religion and liberalism, more or less. How did we do it? By daring to discriminate between different forms of religion — daring to say that one form of religion, Protestantism, was politically superior to the rest, on account of its promotion of liberty. Other religious traditions were seen as dangerously obstructive of liberty: Catholicism and Islam most obviously, but also Judaism.

Many will say that this narrative, of a special relationship between Protestantism and freedom, belongs to the past, for liberalism has long been an essentially secular cause. Those with a little learning will reach for the term ‘Whiggish myth’. There’s some truth in the objection: you clearly don’t have to be a Protestant to support human rights, or dislike theocratic regimes. It is also true that the most vocal form of Protestantism, American Evangelicalism, is dominated by an ugly illiberalism. But the fact remains that western liberalism has Protestant roots. In other words, there is one religious tradition that has a deep positive affinity with liberal values — indeed it gave rise to them. This is the basic fact that has been buried by all the febrile chat about religion versus secularism, and by the idea that all religion is equally valid.

My modest proposal is that we rediscover this compatibility of Christianity and liberalism. This entails a new will to discriminate between religions. Instead of saying that all religion is equally entitled to express itself in the public square, we should be honest. In reality, the liberal state will look more favourably on religion that likes the idea of the liberal state. It will treat Islam with wariness, knowing that most Muslim countries are about 300 years behind us on religious liberty. Prosecuting 11-year-old girls for blasphemy, as Pakistan thinks pious, is a pretty good definition of moral backwardness. As for Roman Catholicism, the jury is out: it has only half-repented of its grandiose illiberalism (only in 1965 did it accept that religious liberty was a good ideal, and it has struggled to act on the insight since). As for Eastern orthodoxy, look at the Russian church’s desire to get into bed with macho little Putin, scared of a few -punkettes.

Some of us liberal Protestant Christians are frankly sick of being associated with the illiberalism to which other religious traditions are prone. No, all religion is not deep down much the same. Nor, despite the self-serving posturings of bishops, is it united in its antipathy to ‘secularism’. One religious tradition — one alone — is sharply committed to freedom, and was the prime inventor of secular politics and culture. Here, I think, lies the possibility of a revival of British Christianity. A neo-Whiggish movement must announce that the post-9/11 consensus is bunk. All religions are not of equal political worth, though of course all are to be tolerated. One religious tradition is different. It loves freedom; it insists that God and freedom belong together, and must not be put asunder. It has long been out of intellectual and theological fashion. But it will rise again.

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