In defence of Christianity

An article in the Spectator (UK) written by Michael Gove former Conservative minister
for education in British Parliament.

Subject: In defence of Christianity

‘Jeremy Paxman was on great form last week, reminding us that when it comes
to being rude to prime ministers he has no peers.

Jeremy’s rudeness is, of course, magnificently bipartisan. However elegant
the sneer he displayed when asking David Cameron about Stephen Green, it was
as nothing compared to the pointed disdain with which he once asked Tony
Blair about his faith. Was it true, Jeremy inquired, that he had prayed
together with his fellow Christian George W. Bush?

The question was asked in a tone of Old Malvernian hauteur which implied
that spending time in religious contemplation was clearly deviant behaviour
of the most disgusting kind. Jeremy seemed to be suggesting that it would
probably be less scandalous if we discovered the two men had sought relief
from the pressures of high office by smoking crack together.

Praying? What kind of people are you?One philanthropist gave up his work
because his evangelical Christianity was under constant attack

Well, the kind of people who built our civilisation, founded our
democracies, developed our modern ideas of rights and justice, ended
slavery, established universal education and who are, even as I write, in
the forefront of the fight against poverty, prejudice and ignorance. In a
word, Christians.

But to call yourself a Christian in contemporary Britain is to invite pity,
condescension or cool dismissal. In a culture that prizes sophistication,
non-judgmentalism, irony and detachment, it is to declare yourself
intolerant, naive, superstitious and backward.

It was almost 150 years ago that Matthew Arnold wrote of the Sea of Faith’s
‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ and in our time that current has been
replaced by an incoming tide of negativity towards Christianity.

In his wonderful book Unapologetic, the author Francis Spufford describes
the welter of prejudice the admission of Christian belief tends to unleash.
‘It means that we believe in a load of bronze-age absurdities. It means that
we don’t believe in dinosaurs. It means that we’re dogmatic. That we’re
self-righteous. That we fetishise pain and suffering. That we advocate
wishy-washy niceness. That we promise the oppressed pie in the sky when they
die… That we build absurdly complex intellectual structures, full of
meaningless distinctions, on the marshmallow foundations of fantasy… That we
destroy the spontaneity and hopefulness of children by implanting a sick
mythology in young minds…’

And that’s just for starters. If we’re Roman Catholic we’re accessories to
child abuse, if we’re Anglo-Catholics we’re homophobic bigots curiously
attached to velvet and lace, if we’re liberal Anglicans we’re pointless
hand-wringing conscience–hawkers, and if we’re evangelicals we’re creepy
obsessives who are uncomfortable with anyone enjoying anything more louche
than a slice of Battenberg.

Even in the area where Christianity might be supposed to be vaguely
relevant — moral reasoning — it’s casually assumed that Christian belief is
an actively disabling factor. When Paxo asked Blair about his praying habits
he prefaced his question by suggesting that the Prime Minister and the
President found it easier to go to war in Iraq because their Christianity
made them see everything narrowly in terms of good and evil, black and
white, them and us.

Far from enlarging someone’s sympathy or providing a frame for ethical
reflection, Christianity is seen as a mind-narrowing doctrine. Where once
politicians who were considering matters of life and death might have been
thought to be helped in their decision-making by Christian thinking — by
reflecting on the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, by applying the subtle
tests of just-war doctrine — now Christianity means the banal morality of
the fairy tale and genuflection before a sky pixie’s simplicities.

How has it come to this?

The contrast between the Christianity I see our culture belittle nightly,
and the Christianity I see our country benefit from daily, could not be
greater.

The reality of Christian mission in today’s churches is a story of thousands
of quiet kindnesses. In many of our most disadvantaged communities it is the
churches that provide warmth, food, friendship and support for individuals
who have fallen on the worst of times. The homeless, those in the grip of
alcoholism or drug addiction, individuals with undiagnosed mental health
problems and those overwhelmed by multiple crises are all helped — in
innumerable ways — by Christians.

Churches provide debt counselling, marriage guidance, childcare, English
language lessons, after-school clubs, food banks, emergency accommodation
and, sometimes most importantly of all, someone to listen. The lives of most
clergy and the thoughts of most churchgoers are not occupied with agonising
over sexual morality but with helping others in practical ways — in proving
their commitment to Christ through service to others.

But Christian charity — far from being applauded — is seen by many as
somehow suspect. Again and again, as a politician, I have found that when
people who were open and proud of their Christian faith wished to help
others — in education, in social work, in prisons and in hospices — their
belief was somehow seen as an ignoble ulterior motive sullying their
actions. Their charity would somehow be nobler and more selfless if it weren’t
actuated by religion.

The suspicion was that Christians helped others because they wanted to look
good in the eyes of their deity and earn the religious equivalent of
Clubcard points securing entry to Heaven. Or they interfered in the lives of
the less fortunate because they were moral imperialists — getting off on the
thrill and power of controlling someone else’s life and impulses. Or, most
disturbingly of all, they were looking to recruit individuals — especially
in our schools — to affirm the arid simplicities and narrow certainties of
their faith.

This prejudice that Christian belief demeans the integrity of an action is
remarkably pervasive. And on occasion singularly vehement.

One of the saddest moments during my time as Education Secretary was the day
I took a call from a wonderfully generous philanthropist who had devoted
limitless time and money to helping educate disadvantaged children in some
of the most challenging areas of Britain but who now felt he had no option
but to step away from his commitments because his evangelical Christianity
meant that he, and his generosity, were under constant attack.

I suspect that one of the reasons why any suggestion of religious belief —
let alone motivation — on the part of people in public life excites
suspicion and antipathy is the assumption that those with faith consider
their acts somehow sanctified and superior compared with others.

Relativism is the orthodoxy of our age. Asserting that any one set of
beliefs is more deserving of respect than any other is a sin against the
Holy Spirit of Non–Judgmentalism. And proclaiming your adherence to the
faith which generations of dead white males used to cow and coerce others is
particularly problematic. You stand in the tradition of the Inquisition, the
Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits who made South America safe for
colonisation, the missionaries who accompanied the imperial exploiters into
Africa, the Christian Brothers who presided over forced adoption and the
televangelists who keep America safe for capitalism.

But genuine Christian faith — far from making any individual more invincibly
convinced of their own righteousness — makes us realise just how flawed and
fallible we all are. I am selfish, lazy, greedy, hypocritical, confused,
self-deceiving, impatient and weak. And that’s just on a good day. As the
Book of Common Prayer puts it, ‘We have followed too much the devices and
desires of our own hearts…And there is no health in us.’

Christianity helps us recognise and confront those weaknesses with a
resolution — albeit imperfect and fragile — to do better. But more
importantly, it encourages us to feel a sense of empathy rather than
superiority towards others because we recognise that we are as guilty of
selfishness and open to temptation as anyone.

More than that, Christianity encourages us to see that, while all of us are
prey to weakness, there is a potential for good in everyone. Every
individual is precious. Christianity encourages us to look beyond tribe and
tradition to celebrate our common humanity. And at every stage in human
history when tyrants and dictators have attempted to set individuals against
one another, it has been Christians who have shielded the vulnerable from
oppression. It was Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Christian-inspired
White Rose movement that led the internal opposition to Hitler’s rule. It
was the moral witness of the Catholic church in Poland that helped erode
Communism’s authority in the 1980s.

In his magnificent book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western
Liberalism, the Oxford academic Larry Siedentop shows how it has been the
Christian conception of God which has given rise to the respect for
individual conscience, rights and autonomy which underpin our civilisation.

In pre-Christian times, moral reasoning and full human potential were
assumed to be restricted to an elite. Greek city states depended on a
population of helots, the Roman Empire on the subjugation of slaves and
barbarians, to sustain their rule. Their achievements were built on a
foundation of radical inequality. Christianity, by contrast, like Judaism
before it, gives every individual the dignity of a soul, the capacity to
reason, the right to be heard and equality before the law. Because every
individual is — in the image of God — capable of moral judgment, reflection
and responsibility.

Belief in the unique and valuable nature of every individual should make us
angry at oppression, at the racism which divides and the prejudice which
demeans humanity. And it was deep, radical Christian faith which inspired
many of our greatest political heroes — Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Lincoln,
Gladstone, Pope John Paul II and Martin Luther King. There should be nothing
to be ashamed of in finding their example inspirational, the words and
beliefs that moved them beautiful and true.’

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One thought on “In defence of Christianity

  1. I am wondering if this article conflates some assumptions with evidence. The uncomfortable truth is that some conceptions of Christianity are counterproductive while others are helpful to notions of community and humanity. George Bush stating that God told him to go into Iraq (and presumably sanction torture, killing of civilians and ramping up world terrorism as a consequence is hardly a defence of Christianity. On the other hand Christians setting up food banks, volunteering to help minister to those with Ebola, andacting as peacemakers is rall rather closer to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Some prayer placed in the public eye may be well intentioned but we might remember that Jesus specifically condemned public prayer of the self-promoting kind.

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