Isabel Hardman

Can leading politicians get away with opposing abortion and gay marriage?

Can leading politicians get away with opposing abortion and gay marriage?
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What can politicians with socially conservative beliefs expect from public life? Is there now a faith glass ceiling under which lurks would-be party leaders whose views on abortion and homosexuality are just too unpalatable for voters? If there is one, Jacob Rees-Mogg might have a good chance of telling us where it is located. The alleged contender for the Tory leadership told Good Morning Britain today that abortion was ‘morally indefensible’ in any circumstances and that he opposed same-sex marriage because ‘marriage is a sacrament and the decision of what is a sacrament lies with the Church not with Parliament’.

William Hill has already cut the North East Somerset MP’s odds from 5/1 to 7/1. Of course, we already know what happens to people who hold conservative Christian views and aspire to lead their parties: Tim Farron stood down from the Lib Dem leadership after the snap election, complaining bitterly about the ‘suspicion’ that was directed at him during that campaign. In his resignation statement, Farron said ‘to be a political leader - especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 - and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me’.

Farron and Rees-Mogg’s situations are somewhat different, though. Farron complained about ‘suspicion’, which was largely aroused by his refusal to answer questions about what he thought. He dodged here and there from arguing that as a liberal his personal beliefs weren’t relevant to his politics, through side-stepping the issue by saying that we are ‘all sinners’, before nimbly tip-toeing around it again by saying that being gay wasn’t a sin, which still didn’t answer the question of whether he thought that someone who was gay would be sinning if they had gay sex. In fact, he was still refusing to confront this question yesterday in an interview with ITV. Farron may have left his party’s leadership, but he now seems stuck in a Hades-style punishment in which he is eternally asked to articulate what he believes about gay sex.

Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, has answered the question, and made clear that while he doesn’t want to judge other people, he holds the Catholic church in higher esteem than political debate. There is no need for ‘suspicion’ about what he thinks: he’s just said it because he believes it to be the truth and is comfortable with saying what he believes to be the truth. Freddy argues here that surely this sincerity will earn him the respect of the public.

But the reason Farron didn’t want to be sincere was that he feared the reaction of an illiberal society - and more precisely an illiberal political world - to his beliefs. His method for dealing with that fear was obviously flawed, but it is the case that religious beliefs which are stronger than the ‘Magic FM in the Chilterns’ that David Cameron described are considered at best a bit of an oddity.

Now, while it isn’t acceptable to hound people who think differently out of public life, there is nothing wrong with looking at a politician’s worldview and thinking ‘no, thanks’ about voting for them. You might think that opposing abortion in all circumstances, even when it is a conscience issue that you cannot whip your party on, is an unacceptable approach to women’s basic rights. It’s just that the religious politicians are always required to explain the detail of their worldview to an extent that those who profess liberal beliefs are not.

Rees-Mogg was able to articulate that he believes what he does because of the moral teachings of the Catholic church, which he believes hold the truth about life. He might hold unpalatable views, but he’s worked out why he holds them and how to conduct himself with respect to others as he does so, even if the fact that he holds those beliefs offends people. Some might argue that he is behaving like an unthinking sheep in meekly following a church rather than making up his own mind. But I would wager that there are many more politicians who hold liberal views on conscience issues for the very simple reason that this is what everyone else believes, and potentially because expressing a different view would expose you to the fury of the mob. Surely that, too, is meekly following the views of a powerful group?

All politicians who have had to vote on abortion legislation or on the laws allowing equal marriage reached some kind of verdict about what they thought was right. Some of those verdicts hadn’t even reached the stage at which a kitchen could reasonably deem something half-baked, such as the argument that heterosexual couples would feel their marriages had been undermined because gay people could get married too (a more creative reason to put to the divorce court than 'my wife doesn't understand me'). The basic argument behind ‘don’t upset straight people’ was ‘I can’t support gay marriage because it’s wrong’ without much explanation about why it was wrong. But how many of those who supported gay marriage were probed on whether their arguments were also rubbish? The answer that they didn’t need to be interrogated because they were right is not the sign of a liberal society but of one that has made up its mind and doesn’t want to go to the bother of even proving that it’s right through argument.

Tim Farron found it ‘impossible’ to be a leader and a Christian, partly because he didn’t feel confident enough about articulating what he believed in public. It isn’t quite right to say he was persecuted for his Christian beliefs, because he didn’t go around articulating them in public for people to react to. Instead, he left them to react to their suspicion about his beliefs, rather than being honest that he held them and giving a cogent argument for why he did. If Rees-Mogg is persecuted for his beliefs - if we can really use that word given the treatment of Christians in other countries - it will be because he told us what they were and was happy to do so because he believes they are beliefs worth believing.

It would surely be better if we had a society that, if it really fancied being intolerant or at least a little grouchy, chose to be so towards those people who are either too lazy or circumspect to set out their beliefs and stand by them, even when some people find them unattractive. That at least would make the glass ceiling of belief rather more democratic.