Christopher Smith wonders where certain people should be focusing their attention

Politics has continued to hold the nation’s interest even after May’s general election. Even in the depths of what journalists like to call the ‘silly season’ (August to you and me), there was enough to capture the imagination of those with only a lukewarm interest in the subject. Perhaps this is because the election generated some unexpected consequences. In March, the Prime Minister let slip to an interviewer that he did not intend to stay in the job beyond this second term. At some point, the media will go into overdrive over that, but at the moment, it is the opposition’s leadership which is subject to scrutiny. There is quite a battle going on over the future direction of the Labour party. Less commented upon, however, was the election in July of a new leader of the Liberal Democrat party; it was Tim Farron who emerged as chief.

I mention this because a certain to-do arose over his religious observance. He is, we now know, a practising Christian. Indeed, he is a Church of England churchman of Evangelical persuasion. This seems to throw the modern media into paroxysms of excitement, a state they first achieved when some smart interviewer asked Tony Blair if he prayed together with the then president of the United States, George W. Bush. No doubt that question was thought terribly amusing by whoever wrote it, but suddenly, apparently, voters have a ‘right’ to know about the religious views of their potential leaders. The Prime Minister is possessed of an Anglicanism that comes and goes ‘like Magic FM in the Chilterns’. Personally, I find the implication that any person in high office should listen to Magic FM faintly disturbing, but that rather vague degree of religious affiliation is deemed acceptable by the modern opinion-forming classes. They only smell blood if it looks as though a politician’s religious affiliation might somehow have an effect on the way he might live his life.

You and I would say that there is no point in professing religious affiliation if it is not going to have an effect on one’s life. Yet gone is the assumption that being a practising Christian is likely to make a person ‘better’. Indeed, relativism is so much to the fore that religion has become a problem because it trespasses on people’s ‘right’ to do what they like. So the question is no longer predicated on the positive contribution that a politician’s Christianity might have on his decision-making, but on whether his being a Christian will make him somehow unacceptable to certain favoured groups.

So John Humphrys had a go at Mr Farron on the Today programme in a manner which was, as Giles Fraser put it, ‘a form of sneering’. Now I don’t often agree with Canon Fraser, but he was right to suggest that the interviewer’s questions ‘appeared to stem from the presumption that religious people are not to be trusted’ and ‘can’t think properly’.

Here is the reaction of a commentator in the Guardian newspaper to Mr Farron’s election: ‘Everyone agrees that, when it might affect their objectivity, MPs must declare an interest. It seems only fair to ask that, when ethics are debated, they disclose which supernatural affiliation has dictated their response, along with any penalties for disobedience.’ In other words, if you take a line on, say, abortion or assisted suicide that is born out of your belief that life is sacred because it is God-given, you must say so, in order that the ‘rationalist’ can dismiss it as irrational.

And the commentator, whose name is Catherine Bennett, expresses astonishment that Mr Farron might believe that the Christian faith is actually true, rather than, perhaps, a mere cultural manifestation: ‘As president of the Liberal Democrats and vice chairman of Christians in Parliament he made this arresting statement at the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in 2013…: ‘Christianity, I am convinced, is not ‘a bit’ true. It is either not true, or it is so compellingly utterly true, that almost nothing else matters… There is no middle way.’ Note the use of the word ‘arresting’ to mock Mr Farron’s faithfulness.

Now I know that one should never scroll down to the readers’ comments underneath an article published on the internet, but I was taken aback by what Ms Bennett unleashed. Here is one of the more positive contributions: ‘I can’t help feeling that some sort of sufficiently neutered god is the least worst option’. How generous. Rather less so was this: ‘We should continue to point and laugh, and continue making [Christianity] socially unacceptable’. And when somebody ventured that they were inclined to ‘admire anyone brave enough to say they believe in God in today’s bland secular culture’, the response was less than charming: ‘Do you also admire anyone brave enough to say they believe in leprechauns? You know, when they aren’t actually joking..’.

That is what we’re up against, and yet, within our tiny part of Christendom that is the Church of England, in a country that is perhaps one of the most godless in the world, people’s energy is still devoted to internal persecution rather than outward mission. The first task given to the Independent Reviewer under the House of Bishops’ Declaration was to adjudicate in a complaint over our Chrism Masses. Why? Why bother? Why not direct some of that energy towards debating with people who think our belief in God is like belief in leprechauns? Or is that actually too difficult? Easier by far to have a go at a group who feel a bit vulnerable, but who had hoped that there was a new and irenic spirit abroad? Maybe the idea was to get in quick before any idea of peaceful coexistence could take hold.

Still, the Independent Reviewer did not find in favour of those who wanted to take away our Chrism Masses. We must not stoop to their level. ND