Monday, January 28, 2008

Paulie on Protestants and politics

I'm grateful to Paulie for providing something unusual for the blogosphere - an intelligent post about religion and politics that actually makes you think. His argument, if I've understood him correctly, is that Protestantism is more illiberal - in practice if not in theory - than Catholicism and that this has fed into politics and finds its secular shadow in the tension between 'liberals' and 'democrats' :

"And there is a direct correlation here, I would argue, with the political tensions between liberals and democrats. Where the liberals demand constitutional defences for the rights of individuals and smaller prerogative powers for elected representatives, the consequences will always be the same. More lasting privilege. Poorer quality-standards of public policy. Less tolerance. Think of longer prison sentences, more executions, less redistributive taxes and a high burden of proof required to justify taxation, more vetoes, social censoriousness, more entrenched hereditary property rights and tougher immigration policies."
Paulie finds in scripturalism the foreshadow of a strident and unyielding libertarianism that insists on the demolition of hierarchy but can only result in a more entrenched and inflexible one taking its place, that insists on the expansion of 'rights' that can only be won at the expense of liberty as it is actually enjoyed in a representative democracy.

His argument seems quite Burkean to me - although probably unlike most who identify with the broad church of the centre left, this is not meant as an automatic condemnation. There's much to agree with in what Paulie's written here, although probably more to disagree with. In order to explain why, I think it's necessary to divide the questions he raises into two sections: 1) religion and the institutional form and ideology it adopts and 2) whether and to what extent this influences politics.

With regards to the first point, is Paulie right to argue that there is something fundamentally more intolerant about scriptural Protestantism than Catholicism? I'd agree up to a point and for the following reason. One of the defining features of 'protestant fundamentalism' is its anti-clericism and one of the downsides of this 'priesthood of all believers' from a liberal point of view is, as TC Smout pointed out, now everyone was expected to be a religious virtuoso, which is to say everyone was to be held to the same exacting demands that hitherto had, in theory anyway, only applied to the clerisy. More egalitarian without a doubt - and more illiberal. Religious history does, I think, teach us that there is often a tension between the two and on this Paulie and I agree. Although it's a strong field in which to compete, whether Catholicism in its long history of oppression ever produced anything quite as 'totalitarian' in character as Calvin's Geneva, is, I think, questionable.

However, while I find Paulie's argument contains a kernel of truth, I found myself disagreeing with much of it, and doing so for explicitly anti-religious reasons. To explain why, it might be appropriate to take him from his own starting point:

"There is no doubt that – from the point of view of the individual - ecumenism is very unattractive. If you believe in something, how can you justify the negation of that belief into a massive fudge of consensus? It's like the worst aspects of multiculturalism, moral relativism, and straightforward lazy thinking all rolled into one.

Yet, from the point of view of society as a whole, ecumenism is a valuable tool. It is a concept that would have passed the kind of moral tests that Machiavelli set for practitioners of statecraft. It creates the kind of space that the more responsible clerics can use to ensure that society isn't in a permanent state of civil war. This is useful when the likes of Wallace Thompson can go on the radio in a nominally catholic state and believe (as he evidently did) that it is perfectly reasonable to call the Pope 'The Antichrist' (Catholics being his disciples).

The wider population, the ones who are less interested in such theological conundrums, and more concerned with being able to get on with their lives without a fear of being burned for heresy, deserve some kind of cushion in such circumstances, and if ecumenism is it, then so be it."

I'd argue that from the point of view of society as a whole, ecumenism was and is virtually irrelevant and that it's role in the slow decay of Christian intolerance more or less non-existent. It's from this the basic ahistorical nature of Paulie's argument becomes evident. Is it really the case, for example, that Catholicism is the carrier of a more 'fuzzy' and therefore more liberal religious ideology? After all, the example of 'fuzziness' he uses comes from the Church of Ireland, which is a part of the Anglican communion. While it's true - as far as the outsider can tell, anyway - that Anglicans don't seem to believe anything in particular, I'd argue this is both fairly recent phenomenon and that such congenial liberal doubts are not entertained, for example, by the present head of the larger Catholic communion.

Paulie imputes too much to the internal characteristic of religious institutions and not enough to their historical development within wider society. I don't think the fact that the Catholic church doesn't burn heretics anymore has much to do with any theological doubts or flexibility - it's simply a function of the fact that they've been over the centuries been deprived of the power to do so. The same can be said of the Protestant church too. They no longer hang atheists in my country but this has to do with the fact that the Church of Scotland lost political control over the country, not because its members are any less convinced of the existence of God than they used to be.

It's only as an adjustment to this reality that the churches have, on the whole, become more agreeably 'fuzzy'. It partly survival and the need to preserve what little political power they have left has made it an on-going necessity. And it's partly their loss of power that allows the kind of research, which all thinking people in the church subsequently have no choice but to accept.

Furthermore, I'd argue that competition between religions - rather than any slow internal growth in tolerance - had more to do with the development of liberal societies. There was certainly a lot of bloodshed on the way but this is the point: to put it crudely, this had made for these countries the question as to whether religion should be separated from the state more urgent than ones that were more religiously homogeneous. I don't think, for example, that it's a co-incidence that a country like the Netherlands that has had such a long history of religious heterogeneity should be today so many people's first choice as an example of a liberal polity.
"Think of the difference between most EU states and the US. Then think about the trajectory upon which we are headed."
I know what he's getting at but I fear he's taking the short view. EU states: like Spain - or the Republic of Ireland? These are tolerant liberal states to the proportion that the catholic church's power has been broken. Prior to that, not much in the way of tolerance influenced by hierarchy, adherence to ritual and 'fuzzy' theology going on in either countries, I'm afraid.

But if he's wrong about the past, is the future he presents more plausible - one where these goddam libertarians will be the death of us?
"Where evangelicals prefer the unmediated message, there is an individualism that is implicit in many strands of liberalism – an individualism that will not accept any version of aristocratic governance – even it's most benign version – representative democracy."
And because they don't, they are corrosive to real liberty, is what he argues. I'm not happy about the characterisation of representative democracy as 'aristocratic governance' - not least because the problem he identifies is with those who only seem to pay lip-service to the need of government of any kind. I'd agree this is both a problem and that there is indeed something rather puritan about these liberals but I'm not happy either about the way he connects this to religious history. One could argue he's rather too soft on the older branch of Christianity because he is, by his own admission, an 'a catholic agnostic'. On the other hand, maybe I'm only taking issue with this because I'm an agnostic of the post-Reformation brand.

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