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.