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Tasteless in the extreme

23 September 2016

Fairy story: Baroness Warsi’s comments in the Telegraph on Wednesday of last week

Fairy story: Baroness Warsi’s comments in the Telegraph on Wednesday of last week

THERE is a bitter satisfaction for any working journalist in Private Eye’s “From The Message Boards” column, which reproduces, with startling accuracy, the illiterate angry entitlement of online comments that appear beneath what we write. The column is one of those things that seems like a parody only if you are unfamiliar with the original.

This week, it exhumed some remarkably tasteless comments about gay people from “two esteemed Christians, James Anderton (known affectionately as ‘God’s Copper’) and the Rev Dr Peter Mullen”, which were quoted with approval by the fictional (but horribly real) commenter who signs himself “metric martyr”.

Dr Mullen, as I remember, defended his remarks as a joke taken out of context, although he had published them on his blog. But the folk memory of attitudes such as that is what makes it so easy, as well as pleasurable, for people under 40 to feel morally superior to the Church of England.

The older ones may be different. The historian Tom Holland had a short piece in the New Statesman series on “Why I was wrong”. What he had been wrong about was Christianity: “By the time I came to read Edward Gibbon and the other great writers of the Enlightenment, I was more than ready to accept their interpretation of history: that the triumph of Christianity had ushered in an ‘age of superstition and credulity’, and that modernity was founded on the dusting down of long-forgotten classical values.

“My childhood instinct to think of the biblical God as the po-faced enemy of liberty and fun was rationalised. The defeat of paganism had ushered in the reign of Nobodaddy, and of all the crusaders, inquisitors and black-hatted puritans who had served as his acolytes.”

But, as an adult, he had come to realise that classical values contained no sense that human life had any intrinsic value. “Most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.”

I think this is quite an important canary in the present darkness, largely because Holland’s belief that “we generally assume that every human life is of equal value” looks remarkably faith-based in the year of Trump and Brexit.

The voters no longer “generally assume” this, assuming that they ever really did. The humane and universalist values that have been taught to the past two or three generations as if they sprang from self-evident reason turn out to be neither self-evident nor compelled by reason. And, if they are faith-based, then some people at least are going to be looking for a faith to base them on. Even if, like Holland, they cannot actually suppose it to be true, they will see that it is valuable.

This is not going to be a simple process. There are plenty of forms of Christianity that comfort the comfortable and afflict the already afflicted. Eighty per cent of Evangelicals in the United States are going to vote for Donald Trump. Christianity is increasingly popular as a tribal banner, meaning “not Muslim”.

John Bingham, in the Telegraph, had a great quote from Baroness Warsi, who resigned from the government over Gaza. “When I was the minister for faith there was a great catchphrase, they used to call me the minister for fairies, goblins and imaginary friends.

“And that was really an indication — along with the way in which we handled the Papal visit — of how unfortunately policy makers see faith.”

They do have help in this: the Reuters report on the death of the notable exorcist Fr Gabriele Amorth contained some wonderful deadpan: “Father Amorth claimed to have performed tens of thousands of exorcisms during his career and . . . maintained that people who are possessed by Satan vomit shards of glass and pieces of iron.

“He claimed that yoga is ‘evil’ because it leads to a worship of Hinduism and other Eastern religions, and that the Harry Potter books encourage children to believe in black magic and wizardry.”

But there are other things going on in the Vatican. The Guardian, alone in the secular press, picked up Pope Francis’s endorsement of the liberal interpretation of his summary document on the family. “Pope Francis has issued a remarkable endorsement of major changes in the way priests approach Catholics who are divorced and remarried, in a move that could open the door to some of them receiving communion,” Stephanie Kirchgaessner, from Rome, wrote.

This seems about the right weight for the story, which otherwise roiled the specialist Roman Catholic press but nowhere else. It neither hypes it nor pretends that nothing has happened.

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