The Pope and the Baroness

Glen Newey

Yesterday’s meeting between Benedict XVI and Baroness Warsi in Rome was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the pontiff to meet a great spiritual leader of our time, for which he seems to have been grateful. (At least Ratzo was elected. In the Tory chair’s one face-down with the electorate, in Dewsbury in 2005, she managed to bump up Labour’s majority against the national swing.) Meanwhile, back in Britain, another unelected leader has weighed into the church-and-state debate: the queen delivered a paean to the ‘under-appreciated’ Church of England in front of representatives of what the newspaper write-ups, dutifully following the church’s press release, called ‘the eight non-Christian religions’.

The pope may have been rude about Islam in his notorious Regensburg address of 2006, which hailed the Muslim-bashing Byzantine emperor Manuel II, but blessed are the ecumenicals, as the Roman church has always said in its strenuous efforts to square the crescent with the cross. The expense-account junket offered a triple-A freebie for the baroness, plus a mere six coalition ministers and the ministerial baggage train. You might cavil that the point could have been made by a photo-op with the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose palace handily lies just across Westminster Bridge from Parliament – but the queen had landed that one for her multi-faith address.

Warsi is a Cameronian’s dream tick-box Tory, an Asian Muslim woman who is in other respects indistinguishable from her predecessor Eric Pickles, now the local government minister. He, too, thinks that there’s not enough God in politics these days, and last week rapped Mr Justice Ouseley for stopping Bideford councillors from saying their prayers. Pickles should know all about the non-separation of church and state. In 2004, the local Conservative party in his Brentwood and Ongar constituency was infiltrated by devotees from the Peniel Pentecostal Church, whose ‘charismatic’ minister Michael Reid later resigned over – what else – a sex scandal. Peniel also managed to get its front organisation, the Christian Congress for Traditional Values, into trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority for homophobic propaganda in 2008 (‘Gay aim: abolish the family’).

Warsi’s reception by the Vatican has been described as ‘rapturous’. She joined the Vatican in bemoaning the European constitution’s failure to mention God – one of this sprawling document’s few and happy omissions, and one of the few happy respects in which it follows the US Constitution. But apparently any God is better than none. Not the Aztecs’ big pecorino maybe, but let’s face it, Jah, Allah, Elohim, Thor, that Hindu one, are all basically the same dude, and we need Him to stem the tide of militant secularism, whose intolerance shows up so glaringly beside their god-fearing brethren’s record of crusades, autos da fé, jihad, ritual genital mutilation and witch-burning.

Admittedly Richard Dawkins and other dog-collar atheists set themselves up for mockery by god-fearers eager to equate scientific rationalism with banana-worship. A nimbler response to religiosity is not an equal and opposite Schwärmerei, but boredom. The Today programme’s ‘thought for the day’ soapbox, often derided by atheists, is welcome precisely because of its power to reduce even fervid zealots to drooling ennui. At my school, where vanilla Anglicanism ruled, the head would intone St Patrick’s breastplate or the creed with all the fervour of an in-flight safety demo. It wasn’t so much that we didn’t believe in God. We just couldn’t see the point of him. We need more of that apathy today.


  • 19 February 2012 at 1:14pm
    Higgs Boatswain says:
    Almighty God seems to have been especially unlucky in His choice of spokesmen this week: Cardinal Ratzinger, Eric Pickles, Baroness Warsi, Lord Carey of Clifton, and a pair of homo-hatin' bed-'n'-breakfast owners are not exactly on par with His usual run of prophetic mouthpieces. Which is to say it has actually been quite a good week for the godless, despite the growing air of persecution some are managing to nurse. Only Her Maj managed to put up a reasonably solid defence of the C of E, the outfit of which she is technically CEO.

    There is much that a more detached and neutral observer than Newey could say about the revival of the religious wars in Britain: how they arise not from a revival of Christian fundamentalism or the threatening spectre of British Islam, but rather from the diminishing confidence of humanists that 'Enlightenment values' inspire common consent and are destined inevitably to supplant superstition. It is not the persistence of religious faith but the failure of 'rationalism' that is the arresting narrative here.

    It's regrettable that public discourse about religion in this country is increasingly in the hands of the cynically opportunistic (Pickles, Warsi), the frothingly reactionary (Carey, Razzo), or the fanatical and self-aggrandising (Dawkins). It's regrettable too that the news-media seems to have lapped up a pretty superficial narrative about the face-off between secularism and faith. None of this has anything to do with the experience of living faithfully in contemporary Britain, nor does it tell us much about the complex negotiations that will certainly be demanded of a culture that is now not only post-Christian, but also post-secular.