Andrew Brown

The theological illiteracy of Eric Pickles

The theological illiteracy of Eric Pickles
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It is worrying that Eric Pickles is in charge of religion for this government. I first came across his footprints in Bradford, where in the Eighties he was as much responsible as any other politician for the introduction of 'multicultural' policies into English cities. He understood that there were Pakistani Muslim votes at stake, and introduced policies to gratify their sensibilities, something conveniently forgotten once he moved down to Essex.

The central flaw in this policy was not that it encouraged Islam but that it locked Pakistani machine politics into the indigenous machine politics of local government. Labour turned out to be the main beneficiary of the process, though you can't fault Pickles's political astuteness in trying to make his own party benefit instead. But all in all, the identification of Islam with the power structures of rural Pakistan has been bad both for the religion and its neighbours. You can't, for example, understand George Galloway's victory in the Bradford West bye-election except as a reaction by young Muslims against the power of traditional networks, inside and outside the Labour Party.

His latest op-ed in the Telegraph is the usual mixture of exhortations to motherhood and apple piety but it contains one paragraph of really startling religious and historical illiteracy.

'Britain has a broad and generous vision of citizenship. It is important that we all take responsibility for defending it. The first is by standing up to the overt and noisy bullies. Second is constant vigilance against the sly pedlars of hatred whose crude prejudices masquerade as religious piety. Jesus recognised this risk when he warned us to 'watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.' One of the foundations of the Church of England was its 'via media' – or middle way between religious hotheads. These guiding principles of the English Reformation should help us as we grapple with the religious politics and tensions of the 21st century.'

This bears all the marks of something cobbled together by a spad googling for inspirational waffle. But the idea that the guiding principle of the English Reformation was religious moderation is dangerously absurd. I suppose you could claim that the Church of England is theologically moderate, in the sense that it rejected both the authority of the Pope and that of the unmediated scripture, though a historian would object that there have always been elements of the Church which embrace each of those authorities.

But the wide and more important mistake is to suppose that theological moderation has any necessary connection to religious moderation. Religion, in this sense, is what religious people do: theology is the stories they tell about why they do it. The distinction is important. In pursuit of theological moderation, the Reformers of the Church of England had no hesitation in burning, hanging, beheading, or crushing with stones anyone whom they judged theologically immoderate, whether as a papist or a puritan. We worry about cutting jihadi videos: they simply cropped the ears of dissident pamphleteers.

There is nothing moderate about a tolerant religion once you have passed the boundaries of toleration.

Conversely, the theologically extreme, or at least exclusive, who believe that almost everyone is going to hell can be remarkably tolerant of religious practice. It was in fact a puritan, Roger Williams, who more or less invented the idea of religious tolerance. There's no simple relationship between the two kinds of narrowness. Obviously, some believers are intolerant both theologically and religiously, like the puritans who hanged Quakers in Massachusetts, or the Saudis today who execute people for “sorcery”.But there is no simple route from one to the other.

If we're going to understand and deal with religious intolerance, it is desperately important to get our categories straight. The cruelties of the Reformation, and of the counter-Reformation, can't simply be understood theologically. Neither can the barbarities of some forms of Islam today. They have to be understood religiously as well, which is to say as social reactions to political and political pressures. The trouble for politicians like Pickles is that theological illiteracy makes religious pressures very much harder to understand and deal with.