Theo Hobson

Liberals should stop patronising believers

Liberals should stop patronising believers
(Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
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An editorial in the Guardian on Friday suggests that this year may be a good one for liberal Christians, and gives them a little pat on the back. 

The suggestion is based on four things: the churches have shown their social relevance during the pandemic; the incoming American president is a liberal Catholic; in his latest book Pope Francis has called for a ‘new humanism’; the leader of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I, has spoken in favour of social justice. It also notes that illiberal Christianity is going strong, citing Poland’s illiberalism on abortion, and Trump’s recent support from evangelicals, but it opts for optimism: liberal Christians have a vital role to play in creating 'a less polarised, more fraternal public square'.

This sums up the liberal view of religion: some of it is surprisingly acceptable! Maybe we should not assume that religion is intrinsically backward, for it sometimes contributes to progressive political goals, and when it does so we should be welcoming rather than accusing it of being the nice face of bigotry. Instead we should be encouraging: if only liberal believers could find a bit more courage and stand up to the bigots they could be a real help to the true cause of liberal progress, a game-changer. The same sort of editorial was probably written when Tony Blair became Prime Minister, and when Obama became president, for liberal Christianity was central to the idealism of both.

This whole approach is patronising and lacking in self-knowledge. Liberalism thinks itself the wiser, cooler sibling of religion, nobly helping its embarrassing brother to be a bit less awful. In fact it is religion’s self-righteous little sister, lacking in self-knowledge.

It would be nice to see a liberal pundit asking this sort of question: why is it that liberal idealism has been kept alive by Christian politicians, even as society becomes more secular? Why is it that a non-religious humanism has failed to gain coherence? Why is that secular progressive politics is so prone to vitriol and tribalism? What is the progressive vision, but a recycling of liberal Christian assumptions?