Tom Hatton argues that even if we disagree with Rees-Mogg, faith-based politics needs defending
As someone of a centrist political persuasion, I take The Times. Or at least I did until they published a cartoon of Jacob Rees-Mogg depicted as a foetus worthy of abortion for holding mainstream Roman Catholic views on sex and the beginning of life (The Times, 7 September 2017). How low of The Times, I thought, to treat the issue of abortion as trivially as this, and how distasteful to treat Catholics in this country with such contempt.
The background to this of course is that Jacob Rees-Mogg recently appeared on ITV’s Good Morning Britain and declared abortion to be ‘morally indefensible’ and gay marriage as incompatible with the teaching of the Catholic church. ‘I am a Catholic,’ Rees-Mogg declared to mid-morning Britain, and cries of ‘Shame!’ and ‘Bigot!’ rang out from the Twitterati and the media. Clearly Rees-Mogg had failed the 21st century’s secular and relativist Test Act!
Significantly, Mr Rees-Mogg is not just a member of the public; he is a Conservative Member of Parliament, and this year’s silly season’s Tory leadership tip. The controversy therefore is not that a man with six children and a solid Catholic pedigree holds Catholic views, but whether such views can be held by a serious politician. This is a question which all Christians, from the left and the right, need to engage with. If Christian politicians cannot hold orthodox views publicly, what does that say about the health of our democracy, or our ability to respond to contemporary challenges in a Christian way?
At the recent session of the General Synod, Catholic Group members Emma Forward and Rosemary Lyons asked exactly that of the House of Bishops. Responding, the Archbishop of York stated that ‘there is an unambiguous connection between religion and politics. Those who would sever it are relegating their Creator to the spectator’s gallery.’ Good stuff. However, the experience of Christians in UK politics has often proved to be painful, particularly when those politicians are taking counter-cultural positions. The Tim Farron saga is a case in point: although actually he didn’t express an orthodox position in the end, the mere whiff of the Christian about him ensured he was a gonner. He eventually admitted that ‘I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.’ Secularism makes no distinction between the Tory and the Liberal.
What then is the place of faith in politics? Unfortunately, Christianity does not have a fully-costed manifesto which addresses the pressing socio-economic problems afflicting the UK. It does not prescribe an ideal tax regime. Nor does it tell us which trading bloc we should join or leave. What it does do, though, is place on Christians an obligation to engage positively with our neighbours and our society. Christianity challenges us to challenge the way things are, and to work towards an improvement in our common situation. Christians respond in a number of ways to this obligation, often contradictory ways (I am thinking particularly of areas like public spending). Nonetheless, we share a faith which inspires our actions, and we should defend our ability to state that motivation publicly, proudly, and politically.
Given Rees-Mogg’s peculiar public image, it is easy to see this as an isolated incident which need not worry Christians generally. Rees-Mogg did, after all, appear on an infamously shallow daytime programme, interviewed by that titan of serious cross-examination Piers Morgan. What did he think he was going to be asked about—the conjugation of Latin verbs? Perhaps he deserved what he got.
I think, however, that ‘Mogggate’ is indicative of a political zeitgeist which is increasingly intolerant of faith-based politics. It is important for our politics that we do not let an angry and anti-theist media play divide and rule with Christians. Yes, some Christians will find Rees-Mogg’s views abhorrent. Yes, some Christians would disagree on how we organize the economy. But we must recognize that we share a common well-spring of inspiration: Jesus Christ and his Good News. If we allow that inspiration, common to all Christians, to be seen as shameful, backward, irrational, then faith will play no role in politics; our national polity will merely be a reflection of an angry and outraged Twittersphere, that’s insights into human nature, the sanctity of life, and our socio-economic condition will only ever be one tweet deep. That is a Test Act I do not want to pass.
Tom Hatton is a member of the House of Laity of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Southwark and is a member of the Catholic Group