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Press: Belief in progress requires the faith of a true believer

07 October 2022


THIS has been one of those weeks when religion — certainly Christianity — is entirely crowded out of the British news. The nearest to it was Charles Moore’s column in The Daily Telegraph, which had a plug for the Prayer Book Society, which he helped to found, and of which the then Prince Charles was a patron. Three questions arise, and one is answered.

First, which speechwriter wrote this for the Prince? “If English is spoken in Heaven (as the spread of English as a world language makes more likely each year), God undoubtedly employs Cranmer as his speech-writer. The angels of the lesser ministries probably use the language of the New English Bible and the Alternative Service Book for internal memos.” The very Brexit mixture of snobbery and grandiosity suggests that the speechwriter was Mr Moore himself.

Second, of the “more than a hundred” entries for a competition in reading Cranmer out loud, how many were privately educated?

Third, if only 100 children a year enter this competition, what is the future of the Prayer Book?

Still, keeping the Prayer Book alive as a niche product for fogeys like me is a great deal better than that it should be entirely forgotten.

EVERYTHING else was foreign coverage, and the United States is a very foreign country indeed. This becomes completely apparent when you read American coverage of Britain, or Europe more generally. The American journalist Sarah Posner has been covering the religious Right, from the Left, for at least ten years, and she had an explainer in the influential newsletter Talking Points Memo on Christian nationalism. Of course, the Prayer Book is the foundational document of English Christian nationalism, but, for her, as for progressive American opinion, the term connotes nothing but horror and Republicans.

The fact that she regards “Christian Democracy” as a synonym for “Christian nationalism” is perfectly extraordinary to any Western European. Historically speaking, the European welfare states were a product of Christian democracy, and possibly Christian nationalism as well. But that is not the most provincial aspect of her piece.

“How can you tell who is a Christian Nationalist?” she asks: “Christian nationalists believe that God had a ‘providential hand’ in America’s founding. They contend that, carrying out God’s will, the founders intended America to be a ‘Christian nation.’ They insist, falsely, that the founding documents prove both this intent and that the separation of church and state is a ‘myth.’ God also intended government to play a limited role in people’s lives, they assert — but to the extent government carries out its functions, it should be done from a ‘biblical worldview.’ That is why, in the Christian nationalist view, Christians should run for office, and voters should support them, so that America will be freed from what they claim is the anti-Christian overreach of a secular government.”

What is most provincial about this is the degree to which you can invert it to produce her own beliefs. All you do is to replace every reference to “God” and “biblical” with “Progress” and “progressive” and you have a paragraph that she would take as axiomatically true: the US is a manifestation of progress; the founders intended it to be a progressive nation, and for the separation of Church and State to be absolute; progress intended government to play a limited part in people’s (sex) lives, but to the extent that government carries out its functions, it should be done from a progressive world-view . . . and so on.

I can’t think of a clearer illustration of Tom Holland’s argument that secular humanism is a Christian heresy. Without the Judaeo-Christian idea of some presiding intelligence and will working through history, it makes no sense at all.

THIS is not a defence of Trumpist craziness, which is as close to fascism as anything outside of Moscow. But American Democrats share much of his underlying world-view. Posner cites in horror a poll that shows that 71 per cent of QAnon adherents believe that “God has granted America a special role in human history.” Anyone who has dealings with American progressives learns that they believe the opposite: that Progress has granted America a special role in human history.

But a belief in progress demands evidence. This is nowadays vouchsafed only to those who already believe. For a large part of the world’s population, and an increasing portion of the prosperous parts of it, there is no evidence. Their lives are stagnating materially and perhaps morally as well. For some, their lives are growing worse in absolute terms, as well as relative to the expectations that they once had.

This is the underlying logic behind the growing power of Charismatic Evangelicals. When you believe that nothing can or will get better, you fall back on the hope of miracles. When you can’t trust the State, you trust your tribe. And so, in the Brazilian elections, Donald Trump’s corrupt Evangelical candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, now threatens Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the candidate of Roman Catholic voters, who has himself served part of a prison term for corruption.

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