Rees-Mogg and the tyranny of liberalism

First Tim Farron, now Jacob Rees-Mogg. Two very different characters, the same stooshie. As with Farron, I initially shied away from commenting. But it’s hard to resist responding when it tugs away at something personal. It’s not that I find Rees-Mogg’s views on marriage surprising or that I think he has no right to hold them (his views on abortion are a good deal more problematic). But it’s not just that I disagree with them strongly either.

I accept that liberalism may not look very liberal if it’s intolerant of the rights of others to hold views we disagree with. But is it necessarily illiberal for someone who is socially liberal to be critical, perhaps quite pointedly, of someone who is socially conservative? I don’t think so, though I do accept that the way those views are expressed matters.

I get that Rees-Mogg’s views are not about me. This isn’t personal. Except that, in one sense, it is. And this is where it gets knotty. Because this isn’t just about a difference of opinion, it’s about a difference of being. The reason I can’t leave this alone is that I’m a gay Christian, a Catholic in fact.

And that’s one of the most frustrating things about this debate. It all too frequently suggests, at least implicitly, that faith and sexuality are two different worlds. They aren’t. It’s perfectly possible to be gay and religious and thousands of us are. Over time, I’ve decided that I don’t want to choose between the two and that I don’t have to.

But neither is it just that religion is something that you choose whereas sexuality is something that chooses you. Conversion therapy isn’t just obscene, it’s bad science. But being gay is more than something I am, it’s something I’ve chosen to embrace. And in my late teens when I was battling with that choice I assumed it meant that I couldn’t be a Christian.

So as I turned away from the church to politics, I left my faith behind. But it never quite got away, because it too was part of who I was. It had been an important part of me growing up and something that, perversely, had been instrumental in creating a sense of justice which underpinned my campaigning for gay rights.

Yes, I stopped going to church for quite a long time but my private relationship with God was still there and in the end, pulled me back. This was in part driven by a growing view within the church that it was permissible to interpret scripture through the lens of today’s social mores. A sense that to thrive and be relevant in the modern world, Christianity must be a living religion. But this isn’t about a complete rejection of scripture. As a friend who is about to enter the priesthood said to me recently, of course, you have to go back to scripture but it’s possible to hold these things in balance too.

I don’t think it has to be about absolutes. Though I have met gay men who disagree with me and who are prepared for their sexuality to be contingent to their faith. That’s their choice but there’s something of the unlit lamp about it that saddens me. Others will differ even more strongly, presumably Rees-Mogg amongst them, because their adherence to the church establishment line brooks no flexibility of interpretation.

People like Rees-Mogg are said to be more devoted. So should our liberalism extend to tolerance of them because they are more devoted than us? I think that’s trickier than it looks because we need to be careful not to conflate devotion with tradition. How do we measure devotion anyway? Who is to say what makes for strong faith. If we measure it in terms of church attendance, are we really measuring strength of belief? And even more germane to this debate, can we measure strength of belief by views on sexuality?

Attitudinal data on views about sexuality shows that Christians, Catholics included, are getting markedly more liberal about same sex relations. Does that make them any less faithful? As a perfectly serious Catholic colleague said to me recently, Rees-Mogg’s Catholicism isn't mine. And is Rees-Mogg’s Catholic faith stronger than that of Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall?

A concern expressed by critics of the liberal response to Farron and Rees-Mogg is that the stridency of the debate amounts to delegitimising their views? But we need to distinguish between form and content. Aggressive, pious, over personalised hounding of those you disagree with is at least unhelpful. Apart from anything else, you don’t stand much chance of winning them round.

And conducted in a certain way I can see how criticism looks tantamount to saying they don’t have a right to have their point of view. But it’s important to think about what might inform the strength of feeling of those dishing out criticism. If you’ve spent a large chunk of your life fighting for your legitimacy as a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person, it will play its part in how you respond and how inclined you feel to accept someone whose views appear to undermine your right to be who you are.

If you’re heterosexual (and many of my best friends are!), that struggle for personal legitimacy is not something you’ll have experienced. You may have had mixed fortunes in other respects, but no one will ever have questioned your right to be heterosexual. Sure, things are way better for us than they were. But there’s a mountain of evidence to show that we still have quite a long way to go. And it’s worryingly clear that progress can be reversed. Rees-Mogg and Farron may not be seeking reversal but it’s surely understandable that some people feel that their pronouncements give the green light to those who might be.

People with religious beliefs who feel that they are being denied a voice in public life, or that they can’t tell the truth about what they think, may have a point. Yet it’s surely worth acknowledging that the same has been true of gay people in religious life for a long time. And there is still no shortage of gay priests who feel forced to lie by religious establishments.

There’s an ironic tension in all of this. Liberalism should bring freedom, should it not? And yet it may feel like a place of tyranny for those with more socially conservative views. But to demand that those whose way of life is at odds with those views must eschew resistance for fear of being accused of illiberalism is like a rock and a hard place too.

The unfortunate truth is that liberal tyranny is a two-way street. It takes two to tango. And until we can learn to dance together we won’t be able to move on. We need to find more and better ways of talking to each other. And those whose default is to heat the debate up would do well to pipe down and give us the space to do that.

This is a friendly response to an article by Chris Deerin on Medium which can be found here.

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    Chris is a writer, influencer, activist and leader. Find out more about him here. image of Chris Creegan
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