Magazine article The Spectator

Can You Trust a Christian?

Magazine article The Spectator

Can You Trust a Christian?

Article excerpt

Secular prejudice is fine, but religious belief is increasingly suspect

For some time we have known about the tension between George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith over welfare reform. The Chancellor wanted more welfare cuts, and the Work and Pensions Secretary resisted: real reform, he said, would cost money. So far, so understandable. But a new biography of the Chancellor by Janan Ganesh reveals another element behind the struggle. Ganesh writes that Osborne 'questioned the analytical rigour of the Christian Conservatives who hovered behind the project'. A Treasury source is quoted making it clearer still: 'He thinks the people pushing this are such total advocates and evangelicals that they blind themselves to any downsides.'

To put it another way, the Christianity of Mr Duncan Smith and his associates makes them suspect. As 'evangelicals', they don't function intellectually the way that others do. That's new. Until very recently, politicians and pundits regarded Christianity as a system of beliefs and values. Grown-ups might have doctrinal differences, but Christianity was a respectable and rational foundation for a world view. When Lady T rowed with bishops, she dealt with them on their own scriptural terms, saying that the Good Samaritan had to make money to give it away in the first place. Religion was part of public debate, not an impediment to it.

It would be unfair to suggest that Mr Osborne's reservations about religion in public life are anything but typical. The writer Matthew Parris recently expressed exactly the same kind of reserve, with his characteristic charm and eloquence. He recalled a disCDONAGH cussion in which he listened respectfully to the arguments of one anti-abortion MP - until he smelt a rat. 'I noticed his surname. It struck me he was probably a Roman Catholic. I checked; he was a notably convinced Roman Catholic.' So Parris concluded that the argument was a smokescreen. 'He presumably believes that it isn't really a matter of x weeks or y weeks but that almost any termination after conception is not just a sin but a mortal sin, punishable by eternal damnation.'

In other words, the Catholic MP - who had, I assume, an Irish-sounding surname like my own - could be safely discounted as a rational player in an important debate because 'presumably' he's got a thing about sin and damnation. Anyone who lives in parts of the UK still blighted by sectarianism will recognise this way of thinking. But to hear it raised in an English context is quite new.

What bothers me is the underlying assumption that not just Catholics but religious people generally are incapable of arguing from first principles, because they're indoctrinated. I am a Catholic, and no one would charge me with keeping the fact quiet.

I am also anti-abortion, but not because of scripture. Not because of ideas about when a foetus acquires a soul. Not because the Pope tells me to be. I'm anti-abortion because I regard the foetus as a human entity - a view derived from biology - which should have some protection in law.

I suppose that this viewpoint is, at heart, religious, but I find it is shared by quite a few atheists and agnostics. I can't, in all honesty, distinguish my views on this subject from those, say, of Dominic Lawson, an atheist from a Jewish cultural background. Or from those of the late Christopher Hitchens, who was a pro-lifer in his way. Or from any atheist who believes that life is sacred, and that this life begins some way before birth. …

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