THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
Founded in 1840
FAITHFUL DEFENDERS OF LIBERTY
This week could well mark the point at which the “aggressively secularist” campaign by a few vociferous public atheists in Britain passed its high-water mark. It was defeated in battle not by an equal and opposite antisecularist force, but by people in the public eye offering a few home truths. They simply pointed out that the values of British civilisation that are taken for granted were founded on traditional wisdom drawn from religious faith, and that the cohesion of society still relies heavily, if almost invisibly, on its continuing presence. This was the message that Cabinet Minister Baroness Warsi took with her on Tuesday at the head of an unprecedented delegation of British government ministers to the Vatican. Her sentiments were fully appreciated by her hosts. It was not so different from the messages that the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury exchanged next day at an event in Lambeth Palace to mark her Diamond Jubilee, attended by representatives of nine British faith communities. What they also had in common was an implicit call to religious believers to resist the pressure to stay out of sight.
The phrase “aggressive secularism” used by Lady Warsi to describe a phenomenon threatening the right of religion to be present in public life has been heard many times before, and it has been widely but wrongly interpreted as if war to the death had been joined on both sides. The reality is closer to a situation teachers are familiar with – that it takes only one bully to destroy the harmony of a class of 30. Militant atheist campaigners, utterly unrepresentative even of the majority of atheists,
have had a chilling and coarsening effect on public discourse. They have managed to convince sections of the media that their virulent brand of anticlericalism had all but bullied religion off the national stage. Thus the success of the National Secular Society in challenging the right of one small local authority to make prayers part of the proceedings of its council meetings is hailed as a victory for the values of the Enlightenment, instead of an act of petty anti-religious intolerance.
So in her otherwise excellent analysis, Lady Warsi was too alarmist when she said militant secularism demonstrated similar traits to totalitarian regimes. Few in Britain have an appetite for the sort of “culture wars” that have occurred elsewhere. “Live and let live” is still the national trait. As the United States has shown, there is a serious case to be made for a constructive kind of secularism, which can secure rather than threaten religious faith. It is surprisingly similar to the case for Anglicanism made by the Queen. “Gently and assuredly,” she said, “the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely” – although it was not always so. But the Queen was also subtly repositioning the monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England: not as defender of one faith, as implied by the Coronation Oath, but as defender of all faiths. Thus she has trumped the secularist campaigners, who by repeatedly overstating their case have turned their cause into a divisive one, setting citizen against citizen, instead of what it could and should have been, a campaign in defence of religious liberty.
AUSTERITY MUST HAVE LIMITS
Measured by the savagery of their effects on the very fabric of Greek society, the European Union’s present policies towards Greece demand to be called into question. Examining the economic logic behind those policies, however, leads to an even more alarming conclusion. Among political and economic commentators of Left and Right, pro-European as well as Eurosceptic, there are almost none who think that the treatment prescribed, austerity piled on austerity year after year, has the remotest chance of working. In other words, it is the destiny of Greece to suffer worse and worse – until what? Revolution? Famine? Anarchy? Civil war?
One parallel would be Germany after the First World War. The allied victors, bent on r evenge, decided on a deliberate policy of beggaring Germany – already heading towards starvation because of the wartime blockade – by crippling its industry and commerce. At the same time, they demanded swingeing reparations payments. But, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out, the two approaches were incompatible. Either Germany was reduced to a land of hungry peasants, or it could keep its productive capa city intact to earn enough to pay the huge sums the allies demanded after Versailles; but not both.
European policy towards Greece is remarkably similar to the way Victorian Britain treated debt defaulters. Until their debts were paid they were locked up – thereby making sure they were never likely to earn enough to be released. Greece’s situation is no more hopeful. Cuts in spending have forced its econ omy into severe recession with large falls in GDP year on year; rising unemployment increases the call on public spending, leading to more borrowing. The collapse in demand is closing businesses across the private sector, the very enterprises whose growth is needed if the deficit is to come down.
It is all very well to argue, as many northern European politicians have done, that Greece has brought its misfortunes on itself. There was certainly a reckless never-never land period in Greece after it first joined the euro – on a false prospectus, what is more – that meant some painful reckoning was inevitable and the extravagance in public spending had to be reversed. But the application of repeated, almost punitive, doses of austerity was the only prescription that neo-liberal economists in the German Finance Ministry, as well as in the American credit-rating agencies, were prepared to envisage. As each dose failed, another was applied. Now the Greek economy verges on collapse. It is hardly surprising there are riots.
Indeed, austerity has become the watchword across Europe. In contrast, the US, which refused to be bullied by the ratings agencies and chose a more balanced combination of government financial discipline and measures to encourage economic growth, has escaped that fate. Britain is bogged down inthe same neo-liberal economic swamp as the rest of Europe.
In the short term, the Greeks need every bit of help to cope with the privations that are being visited upon them. Children must be fed and clothed, warmly housed and schooled; the sick must receive the care they need. The Greek Orthodox Church is feeding 250,000 people a day. But Europe must also rethink its grand strategy. It is not working, nor is it ever likely to. The revolution required is not in Athens but in Brussels and Berlin, and not in the streets but in ideas and policies.
2 | THE TABLET | 18 February 2012 COLUMNS
5 DAVID B LA I R
‘Sabotage campaigns are subject to the law of diminishing returns’
1 4 SARA MAITLAND
‘Once or twice I have prayed for a month against the grain of my preferences’
1 5 PARISH PRACTICE 1 6 NOTEBOOK 1 7 L ETTERS 1 8 THE L I V I NG S P I R I T 1 9 PUZZLES
1 8 F EBRUARY 2 0 1 2
COVER STORY 4 Slaying the secular dragon Catherine Pepinster
Britain’s first Muslim female Cabinet Minister, who caused a storm with a speech in Rome this week, talks to The Tablet’s editor
6 An elusive justice Michael Gunn
A year after demonstrators unseated President Hosni Mubarak, the army is still in charge in Egypt and protestors are weary of unrest
8 ‘Never again’ Elena Curti
More than 130 bishops and religious superiors meeting in Rome last week pledged to end once and for all clerical abuse
2 0 DENIS ALEXANDER
Christianity in Evolution: an exploration Jack Mahoney
I AN BRADLEY Queen Elizabeth II: her life in our times Sarah Bradford
The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and her people Andrew Marr
2 4 F EATURE
Laura Gascoigne Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery, London
C I NEMA Francine Stock Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
RADIO D.J. Taylor Famed for its Knitting – Woman’s Weekly
THEATRE Mark Lawson She Stoops to Conquer
1 0 Faith plain and simple Peter Stanford
How a three-part documentary beginning next week on BBC Television portayed Catholics young and old
1 1 Two of a kind Sue Gaisford
Two nuns whose clarity and generosity as teachers changed lives for ever are remembered by The Tablet’s former literary editor
1 2 Does religious education work? James C. Conroy
A lead author of major research on religion and society argues that RE not only matters but is crucial for children’s learning
2 8 THE CHURCH I N THE WORLD
Greece’s Catholic leader appeals to Pope for help 3 0 L ETTER FROM ROME 3 1 NEWS FROM BRITAIN AND I RELAND
Queen defends role of Christianity as ‘woven into the fabric of society’ 3 4 OBITUARY
18 February 2012 | THE TABLET | 3