The bench of bishops debating in the House of Lords, from The Illustrated London News, volume LIV, June 26, 1869

Not doing God

The political perils of secularisation

Artillery Row

What did William Gladstone, Lord Salisbury and Keir Hardie — the three leading figures of respectively the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party and the Labour movement of the 1890s — have in common? They were all extremely serious men of God.

Gladstone and Salisbury were both children of the Oxford Movement, devout High Churchmen, and Keir Hardie was an evangelical lay preacher. One can hardly think of three mainstream political figures in modern British history with more divergent political views — one a free-trading small-state liberal; one a rigid and unbending illiberal Tory; the other a passionate supporter of socialism, women’s rights and pacifism. 

Their forms of Christianity were very different too: although Gladstone and Salisbury were both Tractarians, one became a great ally of Dissent and gradually eased his traditionalist Anglican view of Church and State; the other was an unbending defender of Anglican supremacy. Hardie was a dyed-in-the wool Dissenter totally opposed to Anglican establishment. Despite their yawning differences of opinion, they all breathed the same ethical, spiritual and cultural air.

Fast forward to contemporary British politics. Boris Johnson was happy enough, courtesy of the abstruse eccentricities of canon law, to be married in a Roman Catholic Church, but it seems fair to say that one would struggle to discern any significant Christian influence on his life. Rishi Sunak is a Hindu of unknown devotional commitment. Liz Truss keeps any religious faith she may or may not possess very close to her chest. Keir Starmer is an atheist. There is the occasional devout MP — Stephen Timms, say, or Danny Kruger — but British politicians in the modern era are famously reluctant to “do God”. 

Overall, the vast majority of British politicians tend to fall into a few categories. More than a few are outright atheists or agnostics. Many might, when pushed, profess some very vague and probably nominal allegiance to a faith, usually Christianity. A few are genuinely, albeit quietly, devout. The number who are both serious, practising adherents of a religion and who would put their faith unapologetically at the centre of their public career and politics, is infinitesimal.

This is not surprising, for the problem is not fundamentally with the individuals who constitute our political class. The few politicians who are clearly committed to sincerely practising their religion might be forgiven for being very quiet about it. The example of Tim Farron probably gives any ambitious politician pause for thought before talking seriously about their faith: despite trying to place a firewall between his personal faith and liberal political views, he found himself viciously attacked for his evangelical Christian beliefs. 

They enjoy fantasising they still live in a theocratic mediaeval state

The problem is far wider: a culture and society which has not just been thoroughly secularised, but has become increasingly indifferent or hostile to traditional religion, especially if it dares attempt to apply its spiritual insights to matters of public or political concern.

This, of course, does not stop the paranoid cultists of organisations such as Humanists UK and the National Secular Society from railing against any hint of Christian influence on public life. Despite the fact that they won the battle long ago, what meagre crumbs of consolatory meaning they find in their spiritually barren lives is clearly linked to conducting a never-ending, faintly absurd crusade against the tiny cultural, political and social influence — usually of the purely nominal kind — that still accrues in the public sphere to Christians. (Rarely do we hear these secular warriors, these lions of laïcité, talk very much about the public role of Islam, which one likes to think is an absent-minded oversight on their part.) 

They enjoy fantasising that they still live in some theocratic mediaeval state, tilting against the very forlorn windmills that are the Lords Spiritual as if they were ruthless Iranian ayatollahs or latter-day Wolseys rather than semi-agnostic liberal humanists themselves. This is unintentionally comic Atheist LARPing of the most absurd and bathetic kind. They are like a British Army regiment in Africa in the 19th century who spend 5 minutes machine gunning down a few natives armed with wooden sticks before claiming a daring and courageous military triumph against the odds. 

Oddly enough, this comes at a time when a new kind of religious authoritarianism is very much on the rise. For the first time since the 19th century, we have new religious tests and blasphemy laws encroaching on many areas of private and public life. The new framework of spiritual authority has in its sights, among other things, the rights of adherents of traditional religions to express their own (rather more longstanding) beliefs. 

This is, of course, the new established religion of intersectional progressivism, which has replaced the Test Acts and Occasional Conformity of old with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies. Thousands now mouth the right answers to the new priesthood, the HR officers, in their compulsory diversity training modules, while quietly resenting the whole farrago. That this is faith-based, with its creeds, sacraments and harsh punishments for blasphemers, is a point too trite and well-established to dwell on.

The rise of a new public faith is inevitable though. All politics has a theology and those most insistently hostile to the idea of theology are usually the most intolerant Inquisitors of all. A public sphere and political life without some commonly-approved substantive vision of the common good is at best a passing phenomenon, an accidental product of a spiritual and political interregnum of the kind that emerged in the 20th century, and fundamentally an impossibility. We should not be surprised that new theologies lay in wait to fill the void created by (nominal) secularisation.

The new creed is an elite creation enforced on the population without consent

The problem is that this new creed is different. It is purely an elite creation enforced on a generally recalcitrant or shoulder-shrugging populace without their consent. Although that was initially true of many historical faiths, this one contains little to appeal to or comfort its reluctant new subscribers. It is not a religion of the poor, preaching forgiveness and the remission of sins, bringing spiritual sustenance and moral nourishment to the masses, giving them the dignity of being all equally children of God. The new progressives very much are “respecters of person”. The old Pauline dictum that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” is, in their dogmatic framework, “colour blind racism”, a monstrous ideological veil drawn over the realities of privilege and oppression. Theirs is not a religion that has experienced a reformation or come to appreciate the benefits of toleration, of not “making windows into men’s souls”. 

Abandoning hegemonic Christianity is like the funeral of a kindly grandmother. You neglected her in her lifetime and found visiting her a faff. You might have made ungallant jokes about her moustache and her jaw-breaking rock buns. But you miss her now she’s gone. The fact is that a sturdy undergirding of Christian belief provided — ironically, given the wailing of the so-called humanists — a humane moral, spiritual and cultural hull that was sturdy enough to keep the ship of state afloat but not so heavy as to sink it. By the age of Gladstone, Salisbury and Hardie, it underpinned a strong — albeit not absolutely rigid — sense of our overarching moral duties and rights, a multi-faceted but still common vision of the good, one that allowed sensible, humane versions of liberalism, conservatism and socialism to flourish, that allowed a characteristically British marriage of liberty and order to prevail. 

In the past sixty or seventy years a visionless, secularised, materialistic moral desert posing as a public philosophy, has emerged and become dominant. It has led to the rise of an ethically thin form of technocratic managerialism based on bloodless calculation, cost-benefit utilitarianism and disenchanted, Godless amorality. Bereft of any sense of moral purpose, stripped of romance, substance or dignity, such a status quo constituted a spiritual void. The chasm created by that process has to be filled, and the relentless attack on traditional Christianity — the only likely competitor — has left the field open for something far worse. In the age of Starmer, Sunak and Truss, the common social and moral glue of Christianity will only come to seem more and more attractive. Sooner or later, even dyed in the wool atheists might soon come to realise that, for all their wailing, they miss it now it’s gone.

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