Sunday, January 27, 2008

Protestants and liberals

I've just got back from a trip to Northern Ireland. As I was driving over the Glenshane Pass between Derry and Belfast, I was lucky to hear what was, for me, one of the most entertaining bits of radio in long time. It was a phone-in on RTE1 – one of the Republic's main stations – with one Wallace Thompson - a leading Evangelical from the North on the vexed question:

Should the Church of Ireland cathedral in Dublin sell rosary beads?

As an agnostic (I'm less religious than an atheist) I could be a disinterested spectator. Mick of Slugger has summarised it nicely here, but listening to it in full provided quite an insight into the different mindsets on the island of Ireland. It also highlighted a strand of thinking that is evident way beyond Our Occupied Six Counties / Our Wee Province (delete as applicable).

In summary, Wallace was a stout defender of the standard evangelical line: That religion is a business between God and man. That God's word can be found in a very comprehensive book that can be read by us poor sinners, and that anyone – particularly anyone in a funny hat – who attempts to provide you with an interpretation of God's word that isn't supported by a layman's reading of said book is to be actively distrusted.

It is a position that adopts a fairly rigid evidence-based approach to the big issues. Also, only a limited amount of evidence is admissible (one leather-bound volume). It prefers the cold rationality of The Word to the more ambiguous emotional fuzziness of idolatrous imagery. Of rosary beads. And 'prefers' doesn't go far enough. If you are in favour of The Word, then you must be against the beads. And not to be against the beads is to be a channel for blasphemy.

This is not an approach that wastes it's time with any considerations of light and shade. Yet Thompson's tone was superficially reasonable – his defence of being 'born again' demands it. And leaving aside the obvious flaws in his argument (the less-than-conclusive proof that God actually exists, and the slightly more manageable doubts about the reliability of the various biblical texts as a timely account of the matters that they purport to report), he made a few appealing points.

From the perspective of the individual worshipper (in the unlikely event that I were to become one), for instance, I agreed with his dismissal of Ecumenism.

And I particularly enjoyed the reaction of most of the callers to his well-argued deduction that The Pope is, in fact, the Antichrist. Admittedly, not a new position from a Paisleyite, but still refreshing to hear nonetheless.

Now, I'm not going to go much further on this aspect of the show. I'm no theologian, and I expect that there are plenty of readers who are a bit more patient with God-botherers than I am who can offer a more nuanced account of this than mine.

But the discussion did highlight an important issue about the impact of protestantism upon political debate. And the rejection of ecumenism provides a good jumping-off point.

There is no doubt that – from the point of view of the individual - ecumenism is very unattractive. If you believe in something, how can you justify the negation of that belief into a massive fudge of consensus? It's like the worst aspects of multiculturalism, moral relativism, and straightforward lazy thinking all rolled into one.

Yet, from the point of view of society as a whole, ecumenism is a valuable tool. It is a concept that would have passed the kind of moral tests that Machiavelli set for practitioners of statecraft. It creates the kind of space that the more responsible clerics can use to ensure that society isn't in a permanent state of civil war. This is useful when the likes of Wallace Thompson can go on the radio in a nominally catholic state and believe (as he evidently did) that it is perfectly reasonable to call the Pope 'The Antichrist' (Catholics being his disciples).

The wider population, the ones who are less interested in such theological conundrums, and more concerned with being able to get on with their lives without a fear of being burned for heresy, deserve some kind of cushion in such circumstances, and if ecumenism is it, then so be it.

The protestantism of the Free Presbytarians, among others, is a rejection of the aristocratic arrogance of Popery. But in rejecting that aristocracy, it replaces it with the rule of a many, all wielding 'a little learning'. A literal and legalistic interpretation replaces the prerogatives exercised by higher clerics. And in doing so, it revives Plato's fears about democracy. That it privileges opinion over knowledge.

This finds echoes in the tension between a rule by representatives, and one in which consitutional and legal protections are placed to the fore. In religious debate, as in the wider secular disputes, this robust individualism results in an entrenchment of class and cultural barriers, an inevitable acceptance of sub-optimal policy outcomes (a monopoly of 'available' evidence), and a rejection of everything that is tolerant in modern societies. Any extended dialogue with Wallace Thompson may have strayed way beyond rosary beads and into a condemnation of many other forms of ungodliness. If a set of beads form the pretext to call someone a disciple of the Antichrist, then what happens when the more expansive liberties – drinking, shagging, etc, raise their naughty little heads? An elective (and dismissable) aristocracy is, thankfully, likely to be a little fuzzier.

And there is a direct correlation here, I would argue, with the political tensions between liberals and democrats. Where the liberals demand constitutional defences for the rights of individuals and smaller prerogative powers for elected representatives, the consequences will always be the same. More lasting privilege. Poorer quality-standards of public policy. Less tolerance. Think of longer prison sentences, more executions, less redistributive taxes and a high burden of proof required to justify taxation, more vetoes, social censoriousness, more entrenched hereditary property rights and tougher immigration policies.

Think of the difference between most EU states and the US. Then think about the trajectory upon which we are headed. Open any liberal newspaper and see the handwringing about the decline of one kind of liberty alongside demands to increase the liberties that are the cause of that decline. The more liberties you demand for individuals, the less you get.

Where evangelicals prefer the unmediated message, there is an individualism that is implicit in many strands of liberalism – an individualism that will not accept any version of aristocratic governance – even it's most benign version – representative democracy. If I were forced to choose between high and low church, I'd go high every time. I am – and I believe that most of the political centre and left would agree with me here – a catholic rather than a protestant agnostic.

I just wish that most of the political centre and left could find the time to sit down and think through the consequences of their nominal preference for representative government, because at the moment, there's a hint of the 12th July in the air everywhere.


Harry Barnes said...

On your "As an Agnostic (I am less religious than an atheist)", I grant that numbers of Dawkin-style atheists exhibit the "religious" characteristics you criticise. But there are some atheists (and even some believers in religion?) who don't. I hope that I am an atheist in this camp. See -

Paulie said...

Hi Harry.

Long time, no wotsit. We met years ago at one of those Labour Conference dos that The Stickies used to put on.

The agnostic / aetheist quip was a bit of a throwaway really. I tend to like agnosticism in general rather than just agnosticism about religion.

If you don't know a lot about a subject, I generally urge people to either be conversational or keep quiet. Agnosticism works for me in that respect.

Harry Barnes said...

Paulie; Ann and I loved the evenings with the Stickies with (?) Lynch on the tin whistle and Dominic Behan leading us at the close with "The Red Flag" sung to its Irish tune.

On the atheist/agnostic thing; sorry I was just using your comment box to push some of my stuff. But there is a sense in which intellectually I am an agnostic, as God's non-existence can't be proven. It is just that I am not aware of any proposed proof of his existence which can't be overturned. That is enough to make me a non-believer, whilst recognising that some religious people also feel they can't offer "proofs" and they rest their case on their "faith". In the end I rest my case on my lack of faith and on the absence of hard evidence to the contrary. That is why I call myself an atheist, rather than an agnostic.

My atheism would suprise many of my former constituents, as I never peddled it. From my room I now look out on the Baptist Church next door where I have talked from the pulpit "On Making Poverty History". Our agreements on that topic are far more important to me than our religious differences.

Much more important - does anyone know how I get hold of any CDs of Dominic Behan?

Paulie said...


I had a (!) pint with Brian Lynch in Belfast last week and I'll probably have more in a few weeks again. I'm over there a fair bit at the moment.

I'll pass on your regards to him, and look into the Dominic Behan CDs. I had a vinyl LP years ago of him with a fairly bog-standard Irish pub-band doing Liverpool Lou and the usual standards, but it got liberated at some party or other I expect.

The only other thing I know about is 'The Singing Streets' - an old LP (Folkways?) that he did with Ewan MacColl in the early 1960s. It is largely spoken word, and it's about kids songs and other childhood recollections.

I saw it on a while ago, but my subs there have lapsed now, so I can't check it.

Harry Barnes said...

On Dominic Behan, I hold 2 CDs cut from LPs. But these are very poor quality. They are called "Down the Liffeyside" and "Rebellion".

The first visit Ann and I ever made to the island of Ireland was to Belfast's Europa Hotel (then the most bombed building in Europe) early in 1989 where I addressed a Conference of the NI section of the Workers' Party. Seamus Lynch (Brian's brother) took us round the City, moving in and out of the Catholic and Protestant areas. It was my links with the Worker's Party which stimulated my interest in the politics of the island, where I always took their type of line of neither green nor orange, but red.

Certainly give our best wishes to Brian. Are there any recordings of his music?

Paulie said...

I don't think so. He played a memorial event recently for David Ervine in Stormont, but I don't think he's ever recorded much.

Again, I'll ask.

Harry Barnes said...

Thanks. Loved "The House of the Rising Sun" video.