Conservatives, Liberals and Populists

To an Englishwoman of my generation and background, the use of ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ as a term of abuse or condemnation is incomprehensible. They are descriptive terms only, and although one may sympathize with one or the other according to context, the idea of their representing an individual’s moral standing is questionable. As far as I can see, there is probably more sin in spewing contempt and hatred over someone who holds different opinions from oneself than there is in holding those opinions. I say ‘probably’ because, of course, the argument must be nuanced.

To give an example to make that last point clearer. If someone argues that women have a right to abortion, I part company with them because I do not believe we have the right to destroy life in the womb. I believe it is wrong, very wrong, and during the years when I was active in the Life movement, I did what I could not only to provide practical alternatives but also to try to help others see why abortion is wrong. What I did not do was hurl anger and abuse at those who argued for abortion, still less did I talk about women who had abortions in terms of  wickedness and sin. In other words, I made a pragmatic judgement — abortion is wrong and to be condemned — but did not equate that with a moral judgement of the person  — you are to be condemned because you support abortion.

So, on the question of abortion, I am to be labelled a conservative; on other matters, such as  the desirability of some form of state-sponsored  healthcare and social welfare, I daresay I am to be labelled a liberal. In different degrees, and with different mixes, that is true of most people. We hold a wide range of opinions, some of which may appear to others inconsistent but which to us make sense and are part of our outlook on life. A problem comes when this cheerful mix is overlaid with dark notions of populism and democracy run riot, and it becomes neither acceptable nor even possible to hold opinions different from the mainstream. That is the point at which genuine freedom is lost; but before then it dies a thousand deaths as it becomes more and more circumscribed by those who argue loudly for the current fashionable orthodoxy. To take one example, it seems to be slightly easier in the U.K. to wear a hijab in the workplace than it is a cross, yet both are, for their wearers, a sign of their religious adherence. We can see an erosion of freedom in the name of, well, what exactly? A vague, well-meaning attempt to secularise the workplace has become something quite different, a form of petty discrimination.

A couple of BBC Newsnight presentations on Plato’s Republic as an explanation of the rise of Donald Trump as President of the U.S.A. have been going the rounds and provoked some interesting reactions (you can see the second here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnzo9qXLFUo). Their reading of the text is selective, but to anyone familar with it, the trajectory traced is perfectly legitimate. There is an inherent tendency in democracy to become more and more liberal and for freedoms to multiply, so that, in the end, we all do as we please and all differences or inequalities are done away with. However, as that does not lead to happiness, we look for a saviour, drawn from the elite but who makes great play of being hostile to it and in favour of ‘the little man’, who solves our problems for us by gradually taking away the very freedoms that led us to desire a saviour in the first place. This is populism in action: the kidnapping of democracy by democratic means. As an explanation of the rise of tyranny, it is seductive; and to anyone who has read the nightmare vision of society in Plato’s mature work, The Laws, the vision of The Republic is, at least in its earlier account of democracy, infinitely preferable. But it makes several assumptions many of us would question. For example, self-interest isn’t the only value we admit. Pace Mr Trump, most of us see ourselves as part of a bigger world than that defined by the nation state. We have global responsibilities, whether we like it or not, although we may disagree on what those responsibilities are.

Where does all this leave the Christian when confronted with the moral and political upheavals of our time? I am not sure. What I do think is clear is that the need to live with integrity was never plainer or more important. Just as I don’t think we should join in the abuse-hurling that has begun to characterise every level of political debate, so I don’t think we should opt out of all the difficulties that living in a democratic society implies. We have a duty to engage, but how we do so is as important as that we do so. Today’s gospel, Mark 3.22-30, has much to say on the destructiveness of division and blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. It makes uncomfortable reading. I am reminded that tomorrow we celebrate the feast of St Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva at a critical time, of whom one of the Calvinists against whom he argued said that, if ever they were to honour a saint, it would be he. He is the patron saint of writers and debaters. We are all now writers and debaters on blogs and Social Media. Prehaps if we spent less time shouting at one another and more time, like St Francis de Sales, thinking and praying, we might see more clearly what we have to do. In the end, labels are a minor matter; it is what we are that counts.

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Christian Unity and St Francis de Sales

I like the fact that the feast of St Francis de Sales occurs during the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. He has so much to teach us about how to ‘do’ Christian Unity. It matters that Francis was graciously received by Theodore Beza, the great Protestant scholar and theologian. It also matters that, as Bishop of Geneva, Francis was remarkable for his gentleness and courtesy, yet there was never any doubt about what he believed or taught. He was clear about his Catholicism, and because he was clear, he was able to transcend the polemics of his time. He was more interested in winning souls for God than in scoring points off his opponents.

Sometimes I think we all get a little weary with the quest for Unity. We know it isn’t optional, but we don’t quite see what we ought to do or be to attain it. As a Catholic, my primary focus is on reconciliation with the Orthodox, but living as I do in England, practically speaking, I am more concerned with the Anglican and Protestant traditions of my fellow citizens. That is why I find St Francis de Sales such an encouragement. If you look at his life or read his writings, you can see that his way of working for the Unity of the Church was simply to be faithful to his own vocation and allow God to do with him as he chose. That strikes a chord because the holiness of Benedictines consists largely in a lifetime of small fidelities. God can write straight with crooked sticks; he can also use our littleness to do something great.

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