Monday, February 05, 2018

I Might Be In The Swamp

"What are your politics?"
"Well, I am afraid really I have none. I am a Liberal."
"Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate."
The Importance of Being Earnest


An American once asked me if Tony Benn was a liberal.

“On the contrary," I replied  "He was on the left of the Labour party.”

To which the American riposted  “Oh, I thought he supported high taxation, socialized medicine, trade unions and fairly generous welfare spending and opposed the death penalty and nuclear weapons.”

“Yes,” said I “That’s what I mean by ‘on the the left of the Labour Party’”.

“Oh,” the fictitious American retorted “But that’s what I mean by ‘liberal.”



On November 18th, the Guardian published a short essay by the former leader of the British Liberal Democrats, under the headline “Liberalism has eaten itself — it isn’t very liberal any more.” 


Any fool can type “Christ was not a Christian” or “Marx was no Marxist”. It’s just a smart-arse way of saying “I don’t think that Jesus would have agreed with some of the doctrines which the Christian church now subscribes to” or “Present day leftists haven’t properly understood Karl Marx’s political ideas.” If Tim Farron had said that the Green party was no longer green, the Conservative Party was not interested in conserving things or that the Worker’s Revolutionary Party was neither Holy, Roman nor an Empire, we would all have understood perfectly well what he meant. 

But when Tim Farron types that liberalism is no longer “very” liberal he doesn’t mean that his party, the Liberal Democrats, has drifted away from the political ideas which it was founded to promote. What he appears to be saying is that there is a thing called liberalism, which is distinct from the liberal party. When this thing called liberalism exists in conjunction with Christianity it has a desirable quality which he calls…liberalism. But when Christianity is removed from that thing called liberalism, that quality called liberalism is lost. However, Christianity and liberalism are not the same thing.

The Athanasian Creed seems positively straightforward by comparison. 

Let us try to unpack the argument as best we can.



I: The Liberal party was founded by Christians - it grew out of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Protestant Non-Conformist movement

"British liberalism is founded in the battle for religious liberty. The nonconformist, evangelical Christian groups that were persecuted by a society that favoured adherence only to the established church built a liberal movement that championed much wider liberty, for women, for other religious minorities, nonreligious minorities, for cultural and regional minorities, for the poor and vulnerable."

A lot of the great liberals of the past were definitely Church of Wales, Unitarian or Methodist. And so were a lot of the great socialists and the great Tories. Tony Benn was fond of saying that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than to Marx; Mrs Thatcher’s dad was a Methodist local preacher. Was there a special link between the liberals and the Non-Conformists? Or would it be more accurate to say that the Non-Conformists were more inclined than the Established Church to think it their Christian duty to change the world through secular, political action?

Tim is trying to make the point that there is no necessary contradiction between being an evangelical Christian and being a liberal. I am not sure how far claiming that the movement's origins were Christian (even if that is true) supports his case. Most people have a perception that evangelical Christians want laws against blasphemy and obscenity, whereas liberals are against censorship. They think that evangelicals want abortion and euthanasia to be against the law, but that liberals think that people should be free to make their own choices. They think that evangelicals believe that God gave men and women different roles whereas the liberals support the equality of the sexes. This is why they are “surprised and confused” when a liberal such as Tim Farron says that he is also an evangelical Christian. If this is a misconception, Tim could very easily have typed “That may have been true at one time, but evangelicalism has moved on: most of us are much more progressive on those kinds of issues than we used to be.”

But he doesn’t

II: Although the Liberal Party has lost the election, a separate thing called liberalism has “comprehensively triumphed” everywhere else. 

"Liberalism has apparently won. Even members of the Conservative and Labour parties call themselves liberals today. Let’s be honest, you can’t work in the media without being a liberal. Even most of the journalists who write for the rightwing press are in truth liberals."

"Despite my best efforts, the Liberal Democrats have not won. But irrespective of my efforts, liberalism has." 

Is it true that we are all liberals now? Many people would agree with Tim that you can’t work in the media without being a liberal. Many people would agree that liberals run even the so-called right-wing press. And many people do indeed believe in something they call the Liberal Elite.

But the people who talk about the liberal elite aren’t talking about an elite made up of members of the Liberal Democrats. They certainly aren’t saying that in order to work at the Daily Telegraph you have to believe in 200% council tax surcharges on second homes. Liberal, in this sense, simply means “of the left”. And it is almost always used in a pejorative sense. Indeed, most people who think that you have to be a liberal to work in the media (hello, Richard Littlejohn! can you hear me, Kathy Hopkins?) subscribe to a conspiracy theory in which the media is controlled by a secret society known as the SJW or the Cultural Marxists.

Liberal, in this pejorative, American sense doesn’t imply beliefs which are particularly left-wing by British standards. A liberal, in this sense, believes that women should be paid the same as men, that evolution and climate change are real things, and that everyone should be allowed to go to the doctor if they get sick. The far right call this “leftie” or “PC” or “liberal” or “SJW”. The rest of us call it "what everyone believes in nowadays."

If Tim wants to adopt this usage, then he is free to do so. If we define “liberalism” as “views which are not on the extreme right” then it is certainly true that everyone except the extreme right is now a liberal. 

3: However, there is some analogy between this triumph of liberalism and the conversion of Rome to Christianity in 313 AD, which Tim takes for granted was a Bad Thing.

“Yet its triumph is hollow, just as Christianity’s apparent triumph was hollow when it became the state religion of the Roman empire.”

“My experience is that although liberalism has won, it is now behaving like the established church of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. It has gained ascendancy and lost itself in the process.”

This is a very odd thing for a self-proclaimed Bible believing Christian to say. I understand why a conspiracy theorist like Dan Brown might think that Jesus was just a new age hippy mystic until Nasty Constantine deified him in order to sell his new faith to the pagans. I understand why a, er, liberal theologian like Giles Fraser would think that the historical Jesus was basically a Corbynite social reformer and that the doctrines of the Atonement and the Resurrection are part of a vicious death-cult invented by Wicked Constantine in 325. But why should an evangelical think that the conversion of Rome was a disaster? Surely it was the post 313 Church that established the text and canon of the Bible they hold so dear? And surely it was the post 313 church that formalized the doctrines and creeds that they are so committed to?

Would Tim Farron rather we were all Arians?

I fear that there is a very dodgy sectarian undercurrent to this. I am very much afraid that evangelicals identify the ancient Roman church with the present day Roman Catholic church, and believe that Roman Catholics are “not Christian” or at any rate “not very Christian”. I fear that they believe that the Protestant Reformation — specifically, whatever sect they happen to belong to — restored the primitive apostolic faith. And I suppose that Tim Farron wants to wrest primitive liberalism back from these nasty fake liberals with their newspapers and their temples and their idolatry. 

IV: Because many liberals are not Christians, liberalism has lost a quality which it once had. This quality Tim calls "liberalism". 

"In discarding Christianity, we kick away the foundations of liberalism and democracy and so we cannot then be surprised when what we call liberalism stops being liberal."


"My experience is that although liberalism has won, it is now behaving like the established church of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. It has gained ascendancy and lost itself in the process. It isn’t very liberal any more."


I am pretty sure what Tim Farron is not saying here. He is not saying that the liberals (in the first sense, the Liberal Democrat Party) have ceased to believe in raising income tax by 1p to pay for the health service. He is not even saying that liberalism (in the second sense, the near universal progressive consensus) has ceased to believe in progressive values. He is claiming that liberalism has lost one specific defining liberal characteristic. The salt has lost its savour and Tim Farron knoweth wherewith it can be salted. 


I will accept for the sake of argument that liberalism emerged from the eighteenth and nineteenth century Non-Conformist movement; I will allow him to conflate Non-Conformism with evangelicalism, and I will even swallow the implication that the fourth century Roman Church and the nineteenth century Church of England are "establishment" Churches in a somehow analogous way. 


What I will not accept is that because liberalism was originally Christian, it follows that liberalism is irreducibly Christian. It certainly doesn’t follow that if you “discard” Christianity -- if some liberals are also catholics or atheists -- that you “kick away the foundations” of liberalism. You might as well say that because the Freemasons were originally a guild who built Cathedrals then building Cathedrals is what Freemasonry is all about and your local lodge is no longer very masonic. 


I think that what is happening here is simple metaphor-abuse. I am reminded of the pundits who argued that since marriage is the foundation of our society, allowing lesbians to get married will cause society to fall down. 


It might be that liberalism has some hidden premise that only works if you believe in sola scripture and baptism by total immersion. But Tim would need to demonstrate this. He isn't allowed to take it for granted.


So what is this quality called liberalism which is present when Christianity is present, but absent when Christianity is absent?

Ladies and gentlemen, the true definition of liberalism is…

(loud fanfare and drum roll) 

….freedom of speech. 

“What is at the heart of a liberal society? It is to uphold that we have a right to offend and a duty to tolerate offense. George Orwell said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.””

Is that truly what he believes? Is that the one quality which makes liberalism liberal, which modern liberalism has lost? Is that the quality which disappears from liberalism when the majority of liberals stop being Methodists? And indeed, is there the slightest evidence that evangelical Christians are any more inclined than anyone else to say that they don’t agree with Jerry Springer the Opera or Monty Python’s Life of Brian but they will defend to the death those works right to be heard?

Oh, and did you spot the way that when George Orwell said "liberty" Tim Farron heard "liberalism"?

I don’t know if freedom of speech is at the heart of a liberal society, because I don’t really know what “at the heart of...” means. It is a classic preacher’s cliche. Clergymen are always telling us that improved street lighting on the Putney High Street should be right at the heart of our Christmas celebrations and that the problem of drug misuse in the under twelves is at the very heart of our Christian witness.

If free speech is at the heart of a liberal society, does that mean that it is the most important thing: that we should be prepared to sacrifice other things in order to secure it? Or does it mean that free speech is the good thing on which all other good things depend — that unless you secure free speech you will never secure any other reform?

I think that freedom of speech is one of a number of Good Things which need to be balanced against each other. I don’t think that freedom of speech is more important than universal enfranchisement. I would never have said “Well, it’s a shame that women are still not allowed to vote, but at least they are allowed to say offensively nasty things about men.” I don’t think that freedom of speech is the freedom from which all other freedoms derive. I don’t think that you have to fight for the right of offensively bigoted people to say offensively bigoted things before you can start to work towards racial equality.

Both ideas sound like nonsense to me. But perhaps they don’t sound like nonsense to Tim Farron. Perhaps that is why I am a Corbyn-supporting reformist and he is a Liberal Democrat. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats are and always have been the Freedom Of Speech Party.


In what way has this freedom to be offensive, this right to tell people things they do not want to hear, been withdrawn?

Tim cites two pieces of evidence.

First, social media. "Liberalism has eaten itself" turns out to mean “some people on Twitter can sometimes be a bit awful.”

“Five minutes on social media will give you a window into a society that condemns and judges, that leaps to take offence and pounces to cause it – liberals condemning those who don’t conform as nasty and hateful, the right condemning liberals as fragile snowflakes.”

I invite the reader to examine this claim very closely indeed. Note that Tim again adopts the American usage where liberal is the opposite of the right and the right is the opposite of liberal. Even granted this usage, you would expect him to say "the right condemns liberals and liberals condemn the right”. Instead, while we are all looking the other way, he performs his rhetorical masterstroke.  “The right condemns liberals and liberals condemn those who don’t conform.

Those who don’t conform.

It isn’t that liberals say that white supremacists and rape apologists and people who think that wheelchair users should be barred from going to school are nasty and hateful because nasty and hateful is what they in fact are. Liberals are calling them bad names because liberals don’t like people who won’t conform.

Note the subtle way he brings everything back to non-conformism, which is where we started. The true liberals, refusing to conform to the liberal consensus on the internet, are like the Anabaptists, refusing to conform to the protestant consensus in the Church of England. The liberals on the internet, shocked when someone says that secondary modern students are little different from cavemen, are like the fake Christians who made a pact with Caesar. Any one who deviates from received opinion is a non-conformist, and every non-conformist is a liberal. So the brave soul who is prepared to come right out and call a spade a nigg-nogg is the true liberal and the person who tells him that we don’t want that kind of language round here is not a liberal at all.

(There is also a sort of a pun going on around the dual meaning of "non-conformist". Non-Conformist has a specific religious meaning; but it can also just mean "anyone who won't fit in".  Not all non-conformists are Non-Conformists. And most Non-Conformists were rather conventional folk.)

Then we get an odd digression on “shared values”. 

“People talk about shared values today – I’ve done it myself. But when they do, what they mean is: “These are my values – and I am going to act as though they are also yours, and will demonstrate contempt for you if you depart from them"…..The cultural leaders of our day have made the arrogant and fatal assumption that we have these shared liberal values, and have sought to enforce them via John Stuart Mill’s hated tyranny of opinion.”

Is this true? Is this what people mean when they say “shared values”? Is this what Tim meant? Did he truthfully declare some idiosyncratic private belief of his own  to be a value that everyone shared and then try to enforce it? Are consensus progressive values merely the personal whims of a handful of individuals which have been forced on the majority by the minority? Is it really so arrogant of me to assume that everyone round the table agrees that black people and white people should have the same civil rights? Wouldn’t showing my contempt be the very mildest possible reaction if it turned out that someone at the table supported slavery or didn't think that Muslims should have freedom of worship?

But this is the claim. The people in charge -- the Establishment, the Emperor, Twitter -- have a set of rules, and if you deviate from those rules you risk of.....being disapproved of and called bad names.

And the people at risk from this terrible fate are....people who aren’t sufficiently liberal.

Don’t believe anything you may have read about Gamergate and the Puppies issuing rape and death threats to what-they-call SJWs and what-they-call feminazis. What we need to fear is the baying mob of consensus progressives.



And that, of course, is what this is all about.

There was once a  politician -- let's call him "Tim" -- who was also, confusingly and surprisingly, an evangelical Christian. And he dissented from the consensus by saying that he thought that it was a sin to be gay. And everyone in the liberal media judged the poor politician. They condemned him and demonstrated contempt for him. He was despised and rejected of Twitter, a man of sorrow and acquainted with John Humphries.

So he went home, and tried to come up with a way of defining the word liberal such that the people who said that gay sex was forbidden by God were the liberal ones, and the people who said that it was fine to be gay were not true liberals.

So he decided that judge not lest thee be judged was the whole of the law. And so it turned out if the liberals had really been liberals they would have tolerated his intolerance and not said that he was hateful and nasty for thinking that a whole section of the population were going to hell.

Because if liberalism doesn’t mean the right to call one lot of people sinners without another lot of people looking down on you then it doesn’t mean anything at all.




36 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

I do agree that Farron's article is a bit of a muddle. But I think a lot of the holes you poke in it are not really valid.

But why should an evangelical think that the conversion of Rome was a disaster? Surely it was the post 313 Church that established the text and canon of the Bible they hold so dear? And surely it was the post 313 church that formalized the doctrines and creeds that they are so committed to?

I think Farron's position on this is completely comprehensible. The doctrines and creeds -- at least, those favoured by evangelicals, so not counting Catholic "innovation" doctrines such as the Assumption of Mary -- are distillations of what was already in the New Testament. And while the NT was not formalised until the Council of Rome in 382, that council was largely rubber stamping what had long been a de-facto canon. In other words, such elements of the church that people like Tim Farron approve of were doing perfectly well long before Constantine came along.

Meanwhile, it's undeniable that the officialisation of Christianity under Constantine led to a formalisation that completely changed the character of what was labelled "Christianity", ultimately resulting in militarisation and the Crusades. You can think that was a bad thing without sacrificing your right to call yourself a Christian, or indeed an evangelical.

I am very much afraid that evangelicals identify the ancient Roman church with the present day Roman Catholic church, and believe that Roman Catholics are “not Christian” or at any rate “not very Christian”.

I would have said the exact opposite: that most evangelicals would consider the modern Catholic church to be much closer to Biblical Christianity than the pre-Luther Medieval church was. Really, you can't look into the causes of the Reformation for long before coming to that conclusion: see Johann Tetzel for example.

[Farron] is claiming that liberalism has lost one specific defining liberal characteristic.

In the end, I think Farron's real point is that the party called the Liberal Democrats have lost that element of liberalism that consists of respecting the freedom of others to believe different things from you -- that they have acquired an element of thought-policing. And I think it's difficult to deny that. But Farron makes his point in such a roundabout way that one can hardly blame people for not discerning what it is. I notice that a footnote say "This is an edited version of the Theos Annual Lecture 2017, which [was] delivered on Tuesday 28 November at the Law Society". I wonder if the editing process chopped out much of the linking logic?

--

It turns out that, for some reason, Blogger rejects comments of more than 4096 characters (about 700 words), so I will have to reach my conclusion in a separate comment, to follow this one.

Mike Taylor said...

The conclusion to my previous comment now follows.

--

The underlying confusion here arises from the problem that "liberal" has at least three completely different and pretty much contradictory meanings.

1. Liberalism is the doctrine that one must begin by respecting the freedom of others so long as it does no harm to third parties: the kind of Liberalism that says heroin may be a very bad thing, but it's the right of individuals to decide to use it or not. This is, broadly speaking, the foundation of the old Liberal Party and the more recent Liberal Democrats. (And it's the reason that Farron, while personally disapproving of homosexuality, consistently voted for gay rights in Parliament, as his voting record shows.)

2. Liberalism is the leftist tendency to prefer higher spending (and correspondingly higher taxation) over lower taxation (and consequently lower spending) on the basis that it's more important to provide universal education and health-care than for rich people to be allowed to keep all their money. This is, broadly speaking, the characteristic attitude of the Labour party.

3. Liberalism is the economic doctrine that markets should be left to find their own level, that individuals should be left to decide how to spend their own money, and generally that governments should interfere as little as possible in the running of the state. This is, broadly speaking, the characteristic attitude of the Conservative party.

Given that "Liberalism" in these three very different interpretations is foundational to all three of the UK's significant political parties, we have a choice of two conclusions, I think:

A. Tim Farron is right, and "Liberalism" has one.
B. "Liberalism" is such a hopelessly confused concept that we really need to abandon it.

And my own feeling is that option B is the right one. You will note that "Liberal" in sense 3 above is precisely the position of Republicans in the USA, and they hate liberals. Once you reach that level of confusion, the only sensible thing to do is redefine your terms.

Andrew Rilstone said...

In the end, I think Farron's real point is that the party called the Liberal Democrats have lost that element of liberalism that consists of respecting the freedom of others to believe different things from you -- that they have acquired an element of thought-policing.

But this is not what he said. He quite specifically says that something-called-liberalism, which is distinct from the Liberal Democrats now controls all the newspapers and the media, all the major political parties, and Twitter, and that this thing-called-liberalism is "not liberal".

And I think it's difficult to deny that.

I deny it.

There, that wasn't particularly difficult.

There is surely a distinction to be drawn between

a: Whether the Liberal Democrats believe that a person has a right to hold intolerant views

b: Whether the Liberal Democrats believe that a person has a right to hold intolerant views and remain a member of the Liberal Democrats and

c: Whether the Liberal Democrats believe that person who holds intolerant views ought to be leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Granted that "freedom to say incredibly offensive things" and "tolerating all points of view, even intolerant ones" is not one of the things which a Liberal Democrat believes in, but the defining characteristic of Liberalism, I see no sign that the Liberal Democrats have lost touch with this basic truth. I don't see them calling for Jacob Rees Mogg to be sent to jail, or that portions of the Daily Telegraph should be redacted. I don't think that the Liberal Democrats irreducible commitment to not agreeing with what I say but defending to the death my rate to say it means that they have to allow their foreign affairs spokesman to be a holocaust denier or appoint a Spokesman For Repealing Women's Suffrage.

No-one, has in fact, attempted to silence Tim Farron. His resignation speech, "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" and all was covered on all the main channels, and all the news outlets reported what he said on Premier Christian Radio. And he's still, er, a member of Parliament. What happened was that he thought that some people in his party thought that some of his views were not compatible with being leader of his party. If I said that I thought that everyone should vote Tory, I would be kicked out of the Labour Party. It doesn't follow from that the Labour Party don't believe in free elections; only that support for another party if incompatible with Labour Party membership.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Meanwhile, it's undeniable that the officialisation of Christianity under Constantine led to a formalisation that completely changed the character of what was labelled "Christianity", ultimately resulting in militarisation and the Crusades. You can think that was a bad thing without sacrificing your right to call yourself a Christian, or indeed an evangelical.

This is a huge question.

Perhaps that is another way in which I differ from Mr Farron: without being a Catholic I have a reasonable trust in Tradition. I think that what we call Christianity is the end result of a series of contingent historical events. But obviously, if you believe in the Church, then it is dangerous to say "the Church did X, but obviously, God really intended for it to do Y."

I don't think it means anything to imagine some different and better historical path in which no-one in the eleventh century cared who controlled Jerusalem. No one is ever told what would have happened. I certainly can't convince myself that God made a boo-boo when he decided that all the Bishops should get together and define what it meant for God to be both Three and One in philosophical language. (Is the idea that we would have been true to the Original spirit of Christianity if we'd carry on saying "Well, us in this Catacomb, we think that God the Father turned into a human and vacated heaven for a bit, but them that Catacomb think that he just pretended to be human, and they over there still hold that John the Baptist was the Messiah...")

I would have said the exact opposite: that most evangelicals would consider the modern Catholic church to be much closer to Biblical Christianity than the pre-Luther Medieval church was.

Perhaps I am out of date here: certainly when I was in the Christian Union we were instructed on dealing with members of "cults" such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishna and Roman Catholicism.

Farron certainly told Christian Radio that he was the only Christian working for the Liberal Democrats, which suggests a very narrow definition of Christianity.

What is interesting to me for the purposes of the essay is the idea that there was an old, pure form (of Christianity or Liberalism) a long Dark Age in which the True Faith compromised with the Dark Side, and then a Restoration when True Worship will be restored.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Given that "Liberalism" in these three very different interpretations is foundational to all three of the UK's significant political parties, we have a choice of two conclusions, I think:

A. Tim Farron is right, and "Liberalism" has won
B. "Liberalism" is such a hopelessly confused concept that we really need to abandon it.


I fully agree that "Liberal" has multiple meanings. That is why I kicked off the essay with a possible confusion between the American usage ("anything vaguely progressive") and the British usage ("centrist").

My whole contention is that Farron uses the term in three different ways:

I: The Liberal Democrat Party
II: Consensus progressive values
III: Belief in absolute freedom of speech, including, especially, the tolerance of intolerant positions.

My contention is that either he deliberately mixes up these terms, hoping to bamboozle the reader; or else he is confused himself and doesn't quite realize what he is doing. What really interests me is the ease with which someone who is obviously himself a progressive (except with regard to teh queerz) adopts the mythos of the very far right. (A sinister liberal "them" who controls the meejah and won't let people like "us" deviate from their orthodoxy.)

Mike Taylor said...

In your first comment you make an excellent point regarding the distinction between the LibDems upholding someone's right to a belief, and their retaining a person with an unapproved belief as leader.

On the contingent nature of church history: I don't think one needs to be a dyed-in-the-wool evangelical to think that the established church before the time of Luther was a little bit off the rails. All the wars between competing self-appointed Popes and what-not can hardly be argued to adhere closely to the Gospel of Christ. Like you I have some trust in tradition; but ultimately the reason a concept like the Trinity has stuck is not because a council said it must be so, but because giving that concept a name not found in the Bible has proven a useful was of helping to grasp a concept that is in the Bible but not by that name. In other words, a tradition has value if it proves helpful, rather than having inherent authority just because it was a thing decided long ago.

If Farron really said that he was the only Christian working for the Liberal Democrats, I imagine it would have come as something of a surprise to the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum.

You are right that Farron's article seems to either be confused about, or possibly taking advantage of, the conflation of several very different ideas under the heading of "Liberal". (Though don't overlook the possibility that we're getting an incoherent or inadequate redaction of the original speech.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

The two possible Bad Things about Roman Christianity were

a: Everything got written down and codified: you went from having "this pile of scrolls that most of us agree we should read" to THE BIBLE, from saying "we agree that Jesus was the Son of God, but there is quite a lot of variation as to what we mean by "son" and indeed "god"" to "Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly"

b: People stated to think in terms of Christian Kings, Christian Empires, Christian States, Christian Judges, Christian Soldier and Christian Hangmen. But the whole idea of a Christian state is a contradiction in terms. Christianity is by definition a counter cultural movement which governments don't like. (This would seem to be implicit in the idea that the Crusades were an irreducibly Bad Thing and Constantine's fault. Once you have a thing called "Christendom", then the conceptual possibility exists that you may have to go to war to defend it, particularly if you have another thing called "Islam" on its borders. If there are sixteen of you meeting in secret and being fed to lions then the question "shall we raise an army and free the the Lord's tomb from the Turk" doesn't really arise.)

Now, both of these seem to be quite frankly extreme claims. (Are we being asked to envisage a Middle Ages where the King of England was a Wotanist, and where Christians were a persecuted minority, like the witches? And are we confident that the Wotanists wouldn't have ended up in wars with Islam, granted that Islam would have arisen in the same form if there had been no Christendom?)

But lets suppose that Tim Farron believes something like that. There definitely are Christians, especially in the House Churches and the charismatic movement, who believe that THEY have the same kinds of guitars and the same kinds of overhead projectors that Peter and James would have used on the day of Pentecost, and pretty much every one else has deviated or fallen away from that pure apostolic idea. Where is the analogy with the liberal party?

He isn't saying "the whole idea of liberals trying to get into parliament was a mistake". He isn't saying "the whole idea of writing down what it is that liberals believe in" was a mistake. All he is a saying is that there is a general consensus of public opinion that liberals (sense II) are right; and that if you say something illiberal (in sense II) public opinion will disprove of you. How is that like the Church of Rome? Does he think it would be better if these progressive ideas were only held by a lunatic fringe, and that public opinion was still fine with Clause 28 and the Black and White Minstrel Show? Where is this modern liberal equivalent to the sack of Constantinople?

Mike Taylor said...

I think it's pretty obvious that I think A was largely good (though no doubt with flaws) while B was largely bad (though no doubt with some positive aspects).

You can have a state where most people, or even all of them, are Christians, without it being a Christian State. The choice is not a binary one between "persecuted minority" and "empire".

As for an analogy with the Liberal party (or indeed the Liberal Democrat party) -- I thought we'd left that part of the discussion behind long ago. For what it's worth, I don't see a strong analogy, or maybe even any analogy at all.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Doesn't that require me to believe that nearly every Christian from St Augustine onwards has been fundamentally wrong about what Christianity actually means for approximately fifteen hundred years?

Mike Taylor said...

It requires you to think that nearly every Christian from St Augustine onwards has been mistaken about aspects of what Christianity. But since it seems pretty obvious that was also true of nearly every Christian before Augustine and after Luther, I'm not sure why that would be surprising.

SK said...

You can have a state where most people, or even all of them, are Christians, without it being a Christian State

Can you? What would such a thing look like? What would be taught in the schools (both generally, and in RE lessons)? What prayers, if any, would be said at the opening of its Parliament? Are there any historical or contemporary examples you can think of for either of these?

SK said...

By your definition, is the UK today a Christian State? What about the UK in, say, 1950? What about England in 1601? In 1650?

It seems to me that if most people in a state are Christians then they are going to want the state to be governed along Christian lines, the education to be broadly Christian, to pray for their leaders and representatives to have the wisdom to make decisions that are in accordance with God's will, etc etc. How is this distinguishable from a Christian State?

Mike Taylor said...

By a "Christian state" I mean one that has Christianity (or at least something of that name) enshrined in the constitution and laws. So the UK is a "Christian state", specifically a C. of E. state; and the USA is not (despite the much greater political influence of "Christians" there).

SK said...

Right. So, if a majority of people in the state are Christians, are they not going to want laws made according to Christian values and principles? And therefore is a state with a majority of Christians not destined to turn into a Christian State?

I suppose you could claim the USA as a counter-example, but only reason the USA didn't turn into an explicitly Christian state was due to the clause in its constitution prohibiting establishment of a religion, and that was only there because of the very peculiar historical circumstances of it being formed out of a federation of communities a lot of which had fled from Europe because they weren't allowed to establish their own religion, so they wanted a guarantee in the federal constitution that the federal government wouldn't establish a religion or stop them from establishing the one they wanted.

So (a) the USA is, in this sense, an aberration rather than something which could ever be a general rule; and (b) in a sense it even proves that when you have a 'state' (like the states which originally made up the federation) which is mostly Christian, they will want to turn it into a Christian State (and, moreover, their particular version of a Christian State, as they weren't so much worried about having Islam imposed on them as some slightly-different form of Christianity or a non-Christian but Christian-derived religion such as Quakerism), even to the extent of putting clauses in their agreements with other states intended to stop the other states from stopping them establishing their own Christian State (or Christian Sub-State).

Mike Taylor said...

I don't know what a majority of people in such a state would want, but I can tell you one Christian who wouldn't support such laws. Two, I imagine, if Andrew is in agreement.

Don't forget that the clause in its constitution prohibiting establishment of a religion was written primarily by Christians.

SK said...

Right, but it was written by Christians who wanted to establish Christian States, and were afraid that if they entered a federation, the federal government would stop them from doing that. So they made sure to include a clause that said the federal government had to be religiously neutral, so that it couldn't interfere with each state setting up a Christian State.

The idea that the US constitution requires all levels of government to be totally areligious is really quite modern and quite far from what was intended, which was for the federal government ot be religiously neutral in order that each individual component could set up its own state which could be religious, or not, as it chose.

You really wouldn't want the government to pass laws that were in accordance with (your view of) God's will? You honestly wouldn't, for example, vote against capital punishment because you don't think that it is consistent with what God would want? And that if a majority of the population were also Christians, and voted the same way, for the same reason, that would be an example of enshrining a Christian principle in laws? (Yes, it's possible to argue for the same result from different, non-Christian premises; but that is always true about every vote, there are multiple ways to get to the conclusion. If most people are voting for a law because they are Christians and think it is the Christian thing to do then I don't see how that isn't Christianity being enshrined in the law, even if the secular state next door might have a majority of its population voting for the same law out of totally different motives).

Or if it comes to education; there's no such thing as a 'neutral' educational syllabus. You wouldn't vote for an education system that wasn't anti-Christian? That's certainly an example of Christianity informing laws, and presumably one that would be passed if there were a majority of Christians, and therefore, again, an example of Christianity being enshrined in laws.

I assume you don't think being a Christian State just means Test Acts?

Mike Taylor said...

You really wouldn't want the government to pass laws that were in accordance with (your view of) God's will?

Yes, but only with caveats. Those caveats include (A) that my view of God's will is not infallible, (B) Christians often disagree on matters of law such as capital punishment, (C) many things that I think are wrong, such as adultery, I do not think should be actually illegal, (D) laws in accordance with Christian views are not at all the same thing as making Christianity the state religion, and (E) no doubt a bunch of others that have not come to mind right now.

Andrew Stevens said...

Not exactly right, SK, in that it's not nearly as modern as you seem to suppose. Thomas Jefferson came down pretty firmly against even state governments establishing religion in 1802 at the urging and behest of the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists who were not in any way trying to make Connecticut a Baptist state (a hopeless task at the time since almost everybody else in Connecticut was a Puritan), but rather to preserve their own religious liberties. It was at this point that then-President Jefferson wrote his letter declaring his understanding that the First Amendment built a "wall of separation between church and state."

It is true though that this didn't really become an accepted part of Constitutional law (via the Supreme Court) to be applied to the states until the 20th century so in that sense it is fairly modern.

SK said...

Okay, the idea is older than I supposed, but I will maintain that it only became the single uncontested interpretation recently (well, relatively recently, of course everything in American history is technically recent).

laws in accordance with Christian views are not at all the same thing as making Christianity the state religion

This is the bit I was getting at. I think that having laws in accordance with Christian views would make Christianity the de facto state religion; you seem to be hung up on whether it is the de jure state religion, which seems to me exactly the wrong way around. For example you use modern Britain as an example of a Christian State; well, de jure it is but de facto it is most certainly the opposite.

Why do you think the de jure position is the only one that matters here? I would say that a state where public debate is conducted in terms of trying to find God's will on the questions that come up, with those on the two sides making points by referring to the Bible and to theologians, but where Christianity was not the state religion, would be far better described as a Christian State than one where for historical reasons a church happens to have a ceremonial constitutional rĂ´le, but religious talk is banned form the public sphere, any politicians who profess any Christianity but the most wishy-washy Milquetoast Anglicanism are vilified, and PMs especially 'Don't Do God'.

Mike Taylor said...

Why do you think the de jure position is the only one that matters here?

Only because it's what we were talking about -- the kind of "Christian state" instituted by Constantine as either a supposed means to supernatural military conquest or a clever political move, depending on which version of history you find most credible.

SK said...

Okay. And what is wrong with that kind of 'Christian State'? Is this a strict Ghibelline kind of position where temporal and spiritual authority must always be kept separate?

Mike Taylor said...

By this stage, I am well out of my depth both historically and sociologically. My feeling is that a "Christian state" tends always to go wrong -- you need only look at "Christian" politicians in the USA to see what I mean -- yielding both a poorly run state and a corrupted Christianity. But if you know of any counter-examples I'd be interested to hear about them.

SK said...

you need only look at "Christian" politicians in the USA to see what I mean

But earlier you used the USA as an example of how you could have a majority-Christian state that wasn't a Christian State (by your definition) because it has no state religion!

(Above: 'So the UK is a "Christian state", specifically a C. of E. state; and the USA is not (despite the much greater political influence of "Christians" there).')

Now you're using it as an example of how Christian States can go wrong? When according to you it isn't a Christian State? Surely this confusion is an indication of an argument that has gone off the rails somewhere.

States always go wrong in general because, hey, fallen world, but what I'm trying to get you to see is that whatever particular failure mode you are thinking of, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for a state to have Christianity as the de jure state religion to fall into it; clearly it's not necessary if you think that the USA, which is not a Christian State by your own claim, has nevertheless fallen into it, and as for sufficient, well, given we've already broken the one-to-one relationship between the two I think the onus is on you to show how it that one single factor will always lead to the state you have in mind.

And this then loops back to my original question, which was questioning the distinction you drew between 'a state where most people, or even all of them, are Christians' and 'a Christian State'. Given we've already I think established, by the fact you have tried to include the USA in the two different categories, that de jure recognition of Christianity as a state religion is not the bright dividing line you initially presented it as, I put it to you that the term 'Christian State' would be more properly applied to a state which is de facto Christian, say by virtue of nearly all the population being Christians*, because that would be more likely to have an effect on said state's behaviour and failure modes, than would a de jure recognition of Christianity in the constitution which could easily become a dead letter, as it has in modern Britain, which I contend is not a Christian State in any way, shape or form.


* Of course then we get into defining 'Christian' and whether people who have never actually set foot in a church, or have done who only for christening, actually count, but let's leave that for now

Mike Taylor said...

Now you're using it as an example of how Christian States can go wrong?

No; I am using it as an example of how "Christian" politicians in my experience quickly wind up advocating not Christian policies but whatever will reinforce their own power. I suspect (though I cannot know for sure) that the things we dislike about the USA would be much worse if "Christianity" was the official state religion.

whatever particular failure mode you are thinking of, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for a state to have Christianity as the de jure state religion to fall into it.

I agree it's not necessary; I don't think we have any evidence that it's not sufficient -- unless you know different, and can point me to a Christian state that has not degenerated into something unChristian. The addition problem with "Christian" states in particular (for me, as a Christian) is that their corruption also gives people a corrupt perception of Christianity.

I think the onus is on you to show how it that one single factor will always lead to the state you have in mind

Maybe it doesn't. I just don't know of any counter-examples.

Anyway, you are quite free to use the term "Christian state" in whichever way you wish. Just so long as you're clear, when using it in a way other than the standard one, then we'll be able to have meaningful conversations about it.

SK said...

I don't think we have any evidence that it's not sufficient -- unless you know different, and can point me to a Christian state that has not degenerated into something unChristian

Obviously I can't do that, because all states degenerate into 'something unchristian' because that is an inevitability in a fallen world: everything becomes corrupted eventually. So the issue can only be whether this specific feature will always lead to this specific failure mode, and that I think is something which you haven't shown.

SK said...

P.S. something being on Wikipedia does not make it 'the standard definition'!

Mike Taylor said...

Fine. Your definition is standard, then.

SK said...

The point is there is no 'standard definition' (I note Wikipedia's reference for its definition is some random book about Kierkegaard from OUP, which hardly sounds very 'standard').

It's one of those terms where if you use it you have to make it clear what you mean because it means different things to different people; and my point was that the way you were using it was actively incoherent with regards to your thesis, as (as we've seen by the way you twist and turn about which side of the line the USA is to be used as an example for) the definition you were using is not consistent with the distinction you were trying to make.

Mike Taylor said...

That's fine. You may consider yourself the winner of this discussion.

SK said...

Oh, I already did.

Andrew Rilstone said...

So, Tim Farron, er?

Mike Taylor said...

I know, right?

SK said...

I wrote a whole thing responding to the Tim Farron point and then I thought 'you know, I'm not going to go there, it's not worth the hassle' and deleted it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The Tim Farron point, as in, the thing my article was abouf?

Exit blogger in search of brick wall to bang head against.

g said...

You can find a recording and transcript of Farron's Theos lecture on the Theos website. There's a lot more in it than in the article. Whether it's any better argued is another question entirely. I think Farron overstates the importance of Christianity to liberalism every bit as much in the lecture as he does in the article.

As regards his own fate, though, I think he's at least partly right. He does, no doubt, think gay people are sinners. (He might insist that it's "practising homosexuals" or something of the sort rather than gay people as such; the replies and counter-replies and counter-counter-replies are familiar enough that I don't propose to get into them here.) But so far as I can tell his actual voting behaviour has been consistently liberal in this respect, and he has conspicuously avoided telling gay people what sinners they are, and it doesn't seem like (as Andrew puts it) "the right to call one lot of people sinners without another lot of people looking down on you" is what he is most upset about; he wants the right to think one lot of people are sinners without another lot looking down on him.

I will vigorously defend anyone's right to choose how they vote on any basis at all, including candidates' religious affiliations. But I do think anyone unwilling to vote for Tim Farron, or the Lib Dems under his leadership, for fear that he would persecute gay people, was making a mistake.

Having said which, I confess that reading the article and lecture we're discussing now has made me less confident about that, because generally "oh woe is us, Christians are being persecuted because some people criticize what we say about gay people" goes along with enthusiastic persecution of gay people and other groups traditionally ill-treated by Christians, and Farron's eagerness to jump on that bandwagon is not encouraging.

Finally: I don't want to reopen SK's can of worms but I will remark that although these days I'm a godless heathen, when I was a Christian (as I was for many years) I was another who, like Mike and probably Andrew, did not have any wish for Christian ideas or values to be made into law. More generally, I thought -- and continue to think -- that the law should generally not compel or forbid things merely because a majority approves (respectively, disapproves) of them. So, e.g., when SK asks what schools would teach if most people were Christians but the state wasn't "a Christian state", I say that probably they would teach that some people are Christians, others atheists, others Muslisms, etc., and let children make up their own minds -- just as they mostly do at present. That's what I want schools to do; it's what I would want schools to do if I were a Christian (or at any rate it's what I did want schools to do when I was one); and I would want the same whether 10%, 50%, or 90% of the population held the same (ir)religious position as I do. So that's three people just in this discussion who appear to take this sort of position, and Farron himself appears to be another; if SK tells us that if given the power then he would impose Christianity on everyone then I will certainly believe him, but I think he may overestimate how many others would do the same.

Gaius said...

Only because it's what we were talking about -- the kind of "Christian state" instituted by Constantine as either a supposed means to supernatural military conquest or a clever political move, depending on which version of history you find most credible.

Constantine didn't make Rome a de jure Christian state. That development had to wait until the reign of Theodosius, half a century later.