THE most interesting story of the week was about the
ten-year-old Jewish girl whose mother had applied for an injunction
to stop her being baptised. It was reported by Martin Beckford in
the Telegraph; also in The Times, where it was
credited to Frances Gibb, the legal editor; and in the Daily
Mail, where it was credited to Leon Watson. Since the Times
and Mail stories were word-for-word identical in their first three
paragraphs, we are dealing with a miracle of verbal inspiration
unsurpassed since the translation of the Septuagint - unless
someone decided to brighten the agency copy with an in-house
The underlying story was the same in all versions: a
non-practising Jewish couple divorced. The husband converted to
Christianity, and on one of the weeks when he had custody of their
daughter, he took her to an (unspecified) Evangelical meeting.
Beckford had the telling human detail that "He said his daughter
told him on the way back from an evangelical Christian festival
that she had 'experienced an encounter with God'. He added that he
was initially sceptical as he thought she was just 'on a high'. The
father also said he was 'unhappy' when the girl went behind his
back to talk to a Sunday school teacher about being baptised."
This was as nothing to his unhappiness when the mother, without
telling anyone, applied for a court order forbidding the father
from having her baptised or confirmed. This was backed by the
grandparents and an unidentified rabbi. In Beckford's telling,
Judge John Pratt gave these opinions both barrels of Mandy
"The girl's grandparents accused her father of forcing her to
give up her Jewish heritage, while a rabbi told the court that it
would be 'unnatural to their soul' to make a child change religion.
The judge was scathing about these claims, saying that neither the
mother nor the grandparents had made 'any real effort' to consider
what was best for the girl while the rabbi's letter was made in
'inflammatory terms without any supporting evidence'.
"The judge said it was 'wholly wrong' for the mother to go to
court without discussing it with the father or his priest."
This strikes me as a thoroughly pro-religious judgment, as well
as a wise one. In particular, the rabbi's argument that it is
"unnatural to the soul" to allow a child to change religion is
identical in substance to the atheist argument that all religious
instruction is "indoctrination"; for the unstated premise of this
is that all children are born atheists. A subtle detail, which was
only in the PA copy, was that the judge felt that confirmation
would have to wait until the child was 16, if she still wanted it,
and if the mother was still opposed.
I am skipping the stories about God and sport, which I assume can
be found on the sports pages. Instead, let's talk about the longest
piece that I think I have ever read in a magazine: the concluding
part of Perry Anderson's essay on Indian politics in The London
Review of Books. This last part alone is 21,771 words,
although the preceding two have been shorter. But it is worth
reading it all.
Mr Anderson shows again and again that the emotional appeal of
both Gandhi and Nehru was based on a sort of mystical Hindu
reverence for an imagined India - no matter how their intellectual
appeal might be based on secularism. This has not only excluded
Muslims from much of Indian public life; it has underpinned Indian
politics since 1947:
"The truly deep impediments to collective action, even within
language communities, let alone across them, lay in the impassable
trenches of the caste system. . . The role of caste in the
political system would change, from the years after independence to
the present. What would not change was its structural
signific-ance as the ultimate secret of Indian democracy. Gandhi
declared that caste alone had preserved Hinduism from
disintegration. His judgment can be given a more contemporary
application. Caste is what preserved Hindu democracy from
It would be an unusual 20,000-word essay that couldn't yield 800
words worth quoting, and there are many more than that here. I
could have filled the whole column with quotations. But read it
all, especially for the comparisons with Israel and Ireland, where,
also, nominally secular independence movements gained their
strength from a religious national identity.
"In each case, as the ruling party gradually lost its lustre, it
was outflanked by a more extreme rival that had fewer inhibitions
about appealing directly to the theological passions aroused by the
original struggle: Fianna Fáil, Likud, BJP."
Mr Anderson wants to examine why the genuinely secular Left
failed in all these countries. On the way, he shows how little the
great myth of the political dominance of secularism was anchored in
fact, even when it was most powerful. The countries where
secularism did really triumph were those where nationalism had been
discredited by defeat or pyrrhic victory.