Can a Catholic hold high office?

Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg MP

In the BBC’s Daily Politics broadcast on 22 May, presenter Jo Coburn asked the show’s guest for the day Jacob Rees-Mogg MP whether his well-known religious beliefs were “a problem” and a bar to his holding high office. Are politics and the media simply becoming intolerant of Christianity?

You can find the programme on the BBC iPlayer here, available for the next 13 days (until 21 June).

The key section of the programme is from 17’40” up to 32’10”. In this section, the Daily Politics plays a short video, “Who is Jacob Rees-Mogg?”, showing his involvement in politics from an early age (there is even a Radio 4 clip of him commenting on economics aged twelve!), his part in the legal challenge to the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, and the rise in his media profile over the last few years.

The video clip ends with a number of comments from serving MP’s within his own Conservative party. There are complimentary words from Nadine Dorries MP who hails Rees-Mogg for his ‘posh-boy politeness.’ But there are less complimentary words from Justine Greening MP who, asked whether she could envisage being in a party led by Rees-Mogg, replied, “That might be a bit of a stretch”; and from Anna Soubry MP, who described Rees-Mogg and his fellow Conservative Boris Johnson as “not proper Conservatives.”

The implication made was that Greening and Soubry’s views about Rees-Mogg were over a range of issues on which they passionately disagreed with him. However, with some people touting Rees-Mogg as a possible future leader of the Conservative party, Jo Coburn then went on (@ 24’30”) to address this specifically in relation to Ress-Mogg’s well-publicized views on abortion and same-sex marriage:—

“But it does raise this issue… you are the bookies’ favourite to be the next Tory leader… You’ve agreed that much of what you think personally may be out of step with modern Britain. You’re against gay marriage, you’re anti-abortion, and you can’t divorce, can you, the personal from the political here?”

On receiving merely a straightforward and candid reply to this, Coburn subsequently (@ 26’20”) went on to ask Rees-Mogg for his views on Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives:

“[Ruth Davidson is] somebody who is gay, engaged to be married, and pregnant. Do you have a problem with any of that?”

Jo Coburn, to Jacob Rees-Mogg, Daily Politics, 22 May 2018

“Let’s just sort of put that to one side for the moment, and look at Ruth Davidson whom we talked about at the beginning of the programme. […] She’s also somebody who is gay, engaged to be married, and pregnant. Do you have a problem with any of that?”

Rees-Mogg replied that he had no issue with her at all; indeed he rejoiced that she was bringing a new life into the world. However, Coburn continued:

“So you’d be happy to support her as leader?”

Rees-Mogg quite rightly refused to back one particular candidate, when there is no current leadership contest in the Tory party, but did describe Davidson as “a formidably capable person.”

The discussion continued:—

JC: “But you wouldn’t support her marriage to the woman that she wants to marry?”

RM: “This is an issue of sacramentality. The sacrament of marriage is one that is defined by the Church, not by the State, and the sacrament of marriage is available to a man and a woman. This is the teaching of the Catholic Church, which I accept.”

JC: “Right, but can you see that that is a problem for many people, if you are going to be a senior politician — you already are a senior politician if you count leading the ERG [European Research Group], the group of sixty or seventy MP’s [focussing on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union] — that you hold those views about some of your colleagues who want to be married and are gay?”

“You’re saying that tolerance only goes so far, and that you should not be tolerant of the teaching of the Catholic Church. So isn’t this stretching into religious bigotry?”

Jacob Rees-Mogg, to Jo Coburn, Daily Politics, 22 May 2018

RM: “I make no criticism of any of my colleagues. But do you believe in religious tolerance?”

JC: “I do.”

RM: “So why do you pick on this view of the Catholic Church?”

JC: “I’m just asking you…”

RM: “Well, I’m now asking you. Why do you pick on the views of the Catholic Church and say that you can’t hold these in modern politics?”

JC: “I’m not saying you can[’t]. I’m saying there are people who might have a problem with it.”

RM: “You’re saying that tolerance only goes so far, and that you should not be tolerant of the teaching of the Catholic Church. So isn’t this stretching into religious bigotry?”

JC: “Except is it a barrier, do you think, to holding high office?”

“The act of tolerance is to tolerate things you don’t agree with, not just ones you do agree with. And the problem with liberal tolerance is that it’s got to the point of only tolerating what it likes.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Daily Politics, 22 May 2018

RM: “That’s a different question; that’s not the one you just asked. And this is really important to get to the heart of this, because this country believes in religious tolerance. We are a very tolerant nation. And the act of tolerance is to tolerate things you don’t agree with, not just ones you do agree with. And the problem with liberal tolerance is that it’s got to the point of only tolerating what it likes. And therefore attacking…”

JC: “Don’t assume what I think, or that I’m attacking. I’m raising an issue that your colleagues have also raised.”

RM: “I’m just reading into your question. And the Catholic Church, of great antiquity, has taught these things. And it is absolutely legitimate for Catholics in public life, in private life, to believe and accept the teaching of the Catholic Church — as it is for Muslims to believe the teachings of Islam; and likewise for Anglicans, but also for agnostics and atheists.”

JC: “Of course. But if you wanted to hold office, high office, or if somebody who held those views wanted to hold high office, would they be a barrier?”

RM: “It would be a matter for the voters to decide. But what’s so important is that I should be honest with voters about my views, and make no bones about the fact that I’m a practising Catholic and I believe in the teaching of the Catholic Church.”

JC: “Should they be a barrier, then, or should they not? I mean, if — we’ve just discussed it, but there are people within your party, and I’ve talked about Anna Soubry and Justine Greening, who find those views difficult if someone was going to hold high office.”

RM: “They are absolutely entitled to disagree with my views and the views of the Catholic Church. But where I would quibble, is that if we are a tolerant nation you have to be tolerant of the views that you don’t like as well as the ones that you do.”

JC: “And that — and that is fine. And that is true. But you still haven’t answered the question, would they be a barrier to somebody holding high office in the Conservative party?”

RM: “It is up to the British voters to decide this. The British voter in the ballot box is entitled to vote for whomsoever he or she chooses. And I make clear to people in northern Somerset when they come to vote for me what my views are on any issues they ask about.”

JC: “Would you like to change the law on these issues?”

RM: “The law is not going to be changed.”

JC: “Well, that’s not my question. Would you like to change the law?”

RM: “But it’s quite an important prelude to the discussion. Because the issue is actually about what society thinks. I think it is a deep, deep sadness that there are 190,000 abortions in this country in a year, in 2016. I think it is one of the great tragedies of the modern world. And I think it would be a wonderful thing if society came to a different view on abortion. I do not see that happening, and I don’t think changing the law when society overwhelmingly thinks something different, is going to achieve much.”

JC: “And what about gay marriage? I mean, these are things— would you like to see the law changed, Jacob Rees-Mogg, on those issues?”

RM: “The law on gay marriage is now the settled will of Parliament, and is not going to change.”

“Whether or not Jo Coburn was simply re-stating the views of some of Rees-Mogg’s colleagues in the Conservative party, or whether she was actually baiting Rees-Mogg, he was entirely right to pick her up on the implication of what she was saying. The very question implies that somebody who holds the views of the Catholic Church cannot, on that basis, be fit for high office in UK politics.”

I quoted this discussion at some length, because I wanted to show how toxic an issue the traditional Judeo-Christian views on marriage and abortion have become in modern UK politics. Whether or not Jo Coburn was simply re-stating the views of some of Rees-Mogg’s colleagues in the Conservative party, or whether she was actually baiting Rees-Mogg (the Spectator thought the latter), he was entirely right to pick her up on the implication of what she was saying. The very question implies that somebody who holds the views of the Catholic Church cannot, on that basis, be fit for high office in UK politics. It is the same, horrible argument put forward by Matthew d’Ancona about the DUP in the wake of the 2017 General Election.

I certainly don’t agree with Rees-Mogg on all his views. But on this matter, I am pleased that he is able to put forward his considered view, in a way that was unflappable, polite, confident. He clearly hasn’t allowed himself to be broadsided on this issue in the way that Tim Farron, an evangelical Christian, was during the media witch-hunt that led to his resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

There seems to be this notion afoot — certainly Jo Coburn expressed it very clearly in the programme — that somehow, put a committed Christian into government and they won’t govern constitutionally. That is, in government they will act tyrannically, passing laws which conform to their personal conscience, without respect to the will of the UK populace.

“There seems to be this notion afoot — certainly Jo Coburn expressed it very clearly in the programme — that somehow, put a committed Christian into government and they won’t govern constitutionally. That is, in government they will act tyrannically, passing laws which conform to their personal conscience, without respect to the will of the UK populace.”

There is no evidence to support this. Rees-Mogg flatly denied it, saying that the predominant will of the British people on same-sex marriage and on abortion is clear (however much he might wish it were not the case), and that in government he therefore wouldn’t be changing the law in these areas. Similarly, Tim Farron was hounded over his personal views on homosexuality, in spite of his having voted for the recent changes to the legal definition of marriage as put forward in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill of 2013.

Are Rees-Mogg’s views “extreme”?

There was more to come, however. Towards the end of the programme (@ 37’) the current deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson MP, was introduced as a guest on the show. It was pointed out that Swinson has previously described Rees-Mogg’s views on abortion as “extreme” — a position Swinson herself maintained on the programme.

The discussion was with the imminent Republic of Ireland referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment in view.

Rees-Mogg quite rightly pointed out that his view can’t be extreme if it is the view of around a third of people in the Republic of Ireland (as had been stated already on the programme), and also of many people in the UK.

It was clear in the discussion that followed, that Swinson and Rees-Mogg were arguing entirely at cross-purposes.

For Rees-Mogg, the central issue is that life begins at conception, and therefore when one considers abortion there are two lives to consider — from which the only logical conclusion is that abortion is wrong (except perhaps in extreme circumstances).

Swinson’s position, on the other hand, was that a woman has the right to choose, and can and should be trusted to do so — from which the only logical conclusion is that abortion is a right and should be legal.

Since Swinson and Rees-Mogg were never going to argue the matter from the same philosophical page, Swinson then went on (@ 44’10”) to question Rees-Mogg’s voting record on other humanitarian issues. She called his voting record “a slight double standard,” saying, “I don’t think you can pick and choose which children you’d like to support.”

This is an argument which has been used a great deal in recent years — the idea that being ‘pro-life’ has less to do with abortion than to do with supporting a generous, life-affirming kind of welfare state.

I have always found this a specious, ‘straw man’ argument. Yes, a society that values its people as people should and will have provisions in place to look after its people throughout life, from birth to grave. But the fact that that doesn’t happen in various areas of public provision — and in the U.S. this argument is often pitched into the debate over the right to bear arms — is not, in and of itself, a justification of the legality or practice of abortion. Whichever other arguments one wishes to deploy in favour of abortion, that at least should not be one.

“You can’t pick and choose which types of freedom you want to defend. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, academic freedom or freedom of religion. You must defend all of them. Those freedoms are only one generation away from being lost.”

Hendrik Storm, Chief Executive, The Barnabas Fund

We have heard a lot about Islamophobia in recent years. I was interested to see recently that, thanks to the efforts of the Barnabas Fund and of Nathan Gill MEP, Christianophobia is now being discussed for the first time in the European Parliament. This recognizes the fact that Western European society is increasingly seeing Christianity as some kind of social subversion to be suppressed and oppressed.

This might be in fairly subtle ways at the moment. But the article on the Barnabas Fund website warned, “You can’t pick and choose which types of freedom you want to defend. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, academic freedom or freedom of religion. You must defend all of them. Those freedoms are only one generation away from being lost.”

When I see parliamentarians such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Tim Farron being attacked in the media on the basis of their Christian beliefs, it is perfectly clear to me that the Barnabas Fund’s dire warnings are a genuine probability.

As for whether Rees-Mogg is fit for high office: that is, as he himself made clear on the programme, for voters to decide — not for the self-appointed Thought Police of Justine Greening, Jo Swinson et al.

 

 

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