Well meaning people in Ireland often like to claim that politics and religion are separate and that religion is all about love, reconciliation and goodness. We know what they mean but of course they’re wrong. From time immemorial politics has been about power and religion about controlling people’s minds, “the opium of the masses” But Marx’s line underestimated the powers of its ideas to create an alternative social bond against an oppressive state and finally an identity. And so religion moved with the times and survived.
Catholics fought Catholics and even the Pope in the name of the same religion but under different Catholic kings. In our islands when the Reformation broke up the Catholic monopoly the attempt of English monarchs to create a universal state church in England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland failed disastrously. The differences between peoples were expressed in different ideas about what was nominally the same religion.
The wars of religion in C17 were indeed about power but also about ideas. These ideas varied from new views of freedom to a belief that Judgement Day or the Second Coming was nigh, each fraction insisting they held the monopoly of truth and the right to pass ultimate judgement on all others. The clashes between them were lethal, claiming perhaps as many as 16 million lives in a European population about a tenth the size of what it is today.
The 18 C Enlightenment confronted religion with new challenges of enquiry, scepticism and rationality. To which religion often replied with terror and oppression. We can see the theorem at work. The more a belief defies rationality, the greater the passion with which it held and the hostility shown to those who deny.
Where are we today with all this? I suggest three major developments.
First, in our home islands the huge decline in religious observance has been matched indeed by a tentative growth of a religion of love and goodness. Take the latest jaw dropping development in Ireland in the wake of the abuse scandals.
Demands by Irish Catholics for major change in the church’s attitude to women, LGBTI+ people, those who are divorced or remarried, and single parents have been sent to Rome. They have also urged the removal of the mandatory celibacy rule for priests.
The (National Synthesis) document…called for “fresh models of responsibility and leadership which will especially recognise and facilitate the role of women, as well as men.
Former president Mary McAleese on Tuesday night described the document as “explosive, life altering, dogma altering, church altering”.
One Irish obstacle to a civilised life is well under way to removal even if the end game is not yet in sight.
But secondly ying is so often answered by yang. Islamist extremism has assumed the militant character of the Christian wars of religion of the 17th century. And in America cross-denominational fundamentalism has merged with politics to create a fantasy world that denies evidence based rationality. In response – you can decide for yourself which is the reaction and which the revolution – a hard left of” woke” condemns the civil rights achievements of the past 80 years and the nostrums of what we still like to call western civilisation. Doctrines of post feminism, gender identity and racial awareness brook no contradiction. The clash of both extremes with the rational order is creating an American every bit as segregated as the old deep south, but now spread throughout the land.
In the FT the historian Simon Schama’s essay links the murderous attack on the novelist Salman Rushdie not only with Islamist terrorism but to a home – grown contraction of freedom.
Is nothing sacred? Yes, the right to irreverence. The health of a free, democratic society can be measured by its protection of disrespect, so long as the right to offensiveness does not extend to the threat, much less the enactment, of physical harm. My friend Salman Rushdie has long been one of the modern world’s freest writers: his imaginative expression supercharged; the weighty things his books invite us to ponder defying gravity by the tumbling acrobatics of his wordplay. You read Salman and, as you think, you laugh.
.A Pew Research Center survey in 2019 found that 79 countries — or 40 per cent of the 198 studied, including 18 in the Middle East and north Africa alone — have blasphemy laws on their books prosecuting anything thought to slight religion. Sometimes those laws have had murderous consequences.
The populist discovery of the low boiling point of crowds, easy to stoke into verbal or actual violence by the demonisation of anyone thought to disrespect the homeland, has not helped the defence of scepticism.
It is in the US that the streams of piety and patriotism have flowed into each other with such populist force that Christianity and American history are taken on the Trumpian right of politics to be indistinguishable, and any vocal scepticism about one or the other becomes tantamount to treason. All six of the current justices of the Supreme Court that ended Roe vs Wade and permitted a high-school football coach to conduct public prayers after games had a Catholic education, and made decisions that were surely informed by the convictions of their faith. The First Amendment to the Constitution enjoins Congress to “make no law respecting the establishment of religion” but it also forbids anything that could restrain its free exercise.
Jefferson was a deist, and the book he wrote on The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was constructed by literally pasting sections from the New Testament with razor and glue. Anything Jefferson thought an affront to reason and a distraction from Jesus’s proper standing as ethical teacher was sliced away. Snip went the Virgin Birth, any mention of Jesus’s divinity, miracles, the resurrection and the doctrine of the Trinity. What was left was essentially Jesus as good egg, morally upstanding and righteously compassionate. Amazingly, a copy of what has been called “The Jefferson Bible” was presented to members of Congress from 1904 until well into the 1950s. These days, should anyone actually read it, the book would likely bring down on its author’s head a Christian fatwa from the holiest rollers of the Republican right. All this is no light matter. At stake is the whole relationship of American citizenship to institutionalised religion. For the one side, national salvation depends on them being brought together; for the other, the integrity of democracy presupposes keeping them strictly apart.
Thirdly, what I think we are also seeing is politics as new religions. We see it in a punitive left over the impeccable causes of climate change and the jagged edges of the politics of equality demanding superior entitlement for minorities. On the right, it is about the denial of rational thought, as often with conviction as with cynicism. Fierce battles are waged on social media, and death threats are almost routine.
One small consolation for me is that in Ireland north and south our culture wars no longer enjoy the respect of universal ratification. Maybe – just maybe – we are coming out the other side, just when so many elsewhere are getting stuck in. There is certainly one helluva difference in scale.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London