I am what I am
Christina Odone encourages Christians boldly to affirm their faith.
‘Do you think you could work with atheists?’ That was the trick question Peter Wilby, editor of the New Statesman, posed as he interviewed me for the position of deputy editor. I thought at the time he meant it as a jokey reference to my professional past – after editing the Catholic Herald would I deign to work with the Hampstead heathen?
Far from it. He meant: can you take the heat? For the New Statesman staff, and many of the writers the magazine depend on, may be socially liberal, keen on animal rights and fairtrade coffee, munchers of lentils and organic tofu, mindful of the lot of the poor – but they do harbour one prejudice: Christians. Christians are seen as the heirs of the Crusaders, the Inquisition, the nineteenth-century colonial missionaries, the obscurantists, the anti-Darwinists, the White Supremacists of southern Africa and the southern United States. They are Creationist fundamentalists who are anti-women, anti-gays and anti-semitic. Their churches are led by kiddy fiddlers and autocratic bigots; their faithful are out of touch and out to convert.
It took me months to overcome my colleagues’ suspicion – and even now I know that they’re prepared to accept me only despite my faith. Alas, anti-Christian sentiment is not confined to the offices of the New Statesman or its stable of writers.
Dick and Polly
Here is a quote from Richard Dawkins, in the wake of September 11: ‘My last vestige of "hands off religion" respect disappeared as I watched the Day of Prayer in Washington Cathedral. Then there was the even more nauseating prayer-meeting in the New York stadium, where prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonation and urged people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place. It is time for people of intellect, as opposed to people of faith, to stand up and say, "Enough!"’
And here is another quote, this one from Polly Toynbee, the Guardian journalist and honorary member of the National Secular Society: ‘Christianity and Judaism define themselves through disgust for women's bodies. There are ritual baths, churching, shaving heads, denying abortion and contraception, arranged marriage, purdah, barring unclean women access to the altar, let alone the priesthood, letting men divorce but not women – all this perverted abhorrence of half the human race lies at the maggotty heart of religion, the defining creed in all the holy of holies.’
Christianity, the complex religion that for two millennia has taught such difficult precepts as ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you’, ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘love thy neighbour’ is suddenly boiled down to a maggoty body, shaved heads and purdah-clad limbs.
This kind of prejudice spares no one. Think back: when did our prime minister look his most agonized? It wasn’t during the Hutton inquiry or during the slow-clapping he endured at the Women’s Institute annual meeting. No, his most awkward moment came following his meeting with George Bush last spring, when a reporter asked, ‘Did you pray together?’ Whoa! Tony Blair knew that to admit that he and the famously Christian Bush had prayed together would have risked the same derision he gets for slipping into Mass with his family, or mentioning God in his speeches.
As the Daily Telegraph’s Beebwatch has so ably pointed out in recent weeks, the BBC’s painful and painstaking belief in multicultural balance and evenhandedness deserts it when Christians, and particularly the Catholic Church, appear in its sights. Who better to comment for the Today programme on the beatification of Mother Teresa than her most vitriolic critic, Christopher Hitchens – and with his remarks unsullied by even the mildest tinge of critical questioning. The same BBC plans a satirical cartoon called Popetown – imagine if it tried its hand at a similarly jocular take on the Islamic world called Mullahstan, or Mufti-town; it timed its broadcasting of a violently anti-John Paul II Panorama programme to coincide with the Pope’s 25th anniversary.
Channel 4, meanwhile, plans to let loose that judicious oracle of theological insight, Christopher Hitchens, on the making of saints.
Religious broadcasting is an embarrassing duty to the moguls of the airwaves, best discharged by shallow and hysterical reporting of controversies that make most sense to the secular world, not the ones that most challenge them. And even the remaining toeholds of a religious perspective on daily life – like those three minutes dedicated to ‘Thought for the Day’ on the Today programme – are seen as an unjustified intrusion into the secular discourse. Not long ago the National Secular Society enlisted some of the best known members of the chattering classes to sign up to its campaign to allow atheists in the slot as well.
Baiting Christians is something of a sport among the so-called bien pensants – educated men and women who are comfortably-off, rise with the Today programme and retire after some dinner party philosophizing. Why do these otherwise tolerant, sensible and humane chattering classes turn so viciously on a religion of which the sharpest criticism might be that it is watered down? The churches of this country are not practising voodoo or human sacrifice, nor are they supporting witch-hunts. The truth is that the bien pensants are the ones who most enjoy the status quo, and therefore sense, in the Christian, a dangerous foe, a subversive element who wants nothing short of the destruction of their comfortable lifestyle.
The world turned upside down
They are right. Christians are troublemakers who turn upside down the values that the chatteratis hold dear and question the principles modern society rests on.
Christianity is of course not the only religion to resist unchecked materialist greed, to promote the family and urge protection of the vulnerable. But it would be unthinkable for those same chattering classes to indulge in the same persecution and vilification of Jews or Muslims or Hindus. It is not just the unimaginability of a satirical television programme directed at the follies and absurdities of the Muslim world, on the lines of Popetown. Just imagine if the BBC or the other self-professed and self-consciously liberal media were to home in on the way in which orthodox and liberal Jews disagree over the role of women or the acceptance of homosexuality. That would immediately prompt accusations of cultural insensitivity, discrimination, racism and so forth.
The point is that Jews and Muslims are not just minority faiths; the vast majority of these faiths’ practitioners also belong to a distinct race and ethnic group – and as such, are unassailable. In short, religion as such may be anathema to the chatteratis, but a multi ethnic society is sacred, and to taunt a British Asian Muslim from Bradford or an orthodox Jew from North London, however bizarre or unappealing their beliefs may be to the secular mindset, is unthinkable.
But make a white, Anglo Saxon – or even like me a Mediterranean – Christian the target of your vitriol, and you will have a ready audience and plenty of support.
So what are these subversive Christian views?
Authority and ‘Me’
For a start, we believe in authority. In an era that prizes individual freedom, individual choice and individual authority, Christians share an unabashed belief in a supreme being whose word is final. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a democracy and makes no claim to be one. In the City of God there is no elected mayor, no divine equivalent of Ken Livingstone to reflect the views of angels, archangels, seraphim and cherubim, and judge their competing claims on the manna and crystal waters.
We Christians look to this spiritual authority to dictate our words and deeds. To modern ears, the concept sounds outrageously autocratic. The right to follow our own wishes has, after all, become enshrined in our world outlook. From when to die to when to give birth, from whom to have sex with, to how to spend our money, we enjoy unlimited freedom over our conduct. Anyone who tries to curb or question this is branded oppressive, interfering, dictatorial. In secular eyes, freedom is all, and me is central.
The contemporary bien pensants to whom this is so shocking are the direct descendants of the ‘me generation’ of the 1960s who constructed a world where anything me liked, me could have: free love, the Pill, divorce, drugs, political moral and social rebellion – self-indulgent behaviour, abhorred by past generations, became de rigueur.
Today, this ascendancy of self is celebrated as emancipation – female and male alike. The chattering classes applaud the way old constraints that hindered progress or personal happiness were ditched and thus laws were changed, religious traditions ignored, family obligations trampled. Society has moved with effortless rapidity from decriminalization to tolerance, from tolerance to acceptance, from acceptance to promotion. This revolution of mores has not only unleashed profound, confused, confusing and often unwelcome social changes. It has changed the philosophical basis of our society, elevating men and women to the most important fixed point in the universe – around which everything revolves.
Freedom with a purpose
But for the Christian freedom is not an end in itself; and men and women are not the centre of the universe. To proclaim that you can do as you wish is not necessarily a good. Unfettered individualism can mean greed and selfishness, the evasion of personal responsibility, the destruction of the family.
Christians believe that they, insignificant beings, must humbly obey one overarching and all-powerful authority. From this authority stems a clear system of judgement – and this too poses a threat to today’s live-and-let-live mentality. According to Christian teaching, there is a right and a wrong; there are absolute truths. Confide these principles to a member of the chattering classes and they’ll choke on their carpaccio. In our pluralist society, they’ve been taught that one person’s truth is as valid as another’s. The Christian’s certainty that theirs is the right path smacks of wild-eyed fundamentalism, the kind of dangerous self-righteousness that can turn piety into cruelty, missionary zeal into terrorist campaign. To pass judgement on someone’s actions – to say abortion is murder, or that adultery and gay sex are wrong – is to be branded a censorious, prejudiced hatemonger.
For the chattering classes pride themselves in their allegiance to the poor and the voiceless. They petition the government to pour more tax-payers cash into trying to give the disadvantaged a better deal; or they might visit a sink estate and write about life as the other half lives it. But when they discover that the child they’re expecting is abnormal, they’re lightning quick to book a termination; when they meet someone who has chosen to live with and care for an Alzheimers-ridden, elderly mum they raise their eyebrows and talk knowingly of a martyr complex. No wonder that they get uncomfortable when the Christian explains that every child is a blessing, not a choice; or that every human being, no matter how handicapped or simple-minded, has a divine spark and deserves to be treated with the utmost dignity. They grow uneasy when the Christian talks of moral responsibility and of our need to defend the rights of the defenceless child and the vulnerable elderly as much as the neglected poor. For the chattering classes, this amounts to a game of moral one-upmanship. They are caught out – and they resent it.
And here we have the dilemma of the secular bien pensants. They don’t just want to be successful and contented; they yearn to be seen as good and fair and open-minded as well. They want to feel entitled to consume without guilt, to indulge temptation without censure, and to condemn the cruel and the greedy – not just from the standpoint of economics or sociology.
In short they want to be regarded as moral beings. To this end, they have attempted to erect their own parallel system of morality, one that looks to humanism rather than God for its inspiration. The result closely resembles the religious model – but fails in one important respect: it cannot answer the question why? Why should I not cheat, why should I not sleep with him, why should I help her out?
The Christian knows the answer to this ‘why’ and, alas, that certainty simply throws into relief the brittle edifice that houses the secularist’s morals.
The chatterati would like every churchgoer they meet to be a transatlantic echo of those American television evangelists, with their Uriah Heep conduct and swaggering claims. Such easily ridiculed believers would be cherished; they would make the chattering classes feel secure in their secular world-view. When instead they meet someone with a questioning faith, clear on the big themes but uncertain on the little ones, open to all the fruits of science and reason – that person seems dangerously sane and acceptable.
How scary. Brrrr… once you’ve acknowledged that such a believer is quite normal, then surely it is just a short step to signing up to the Alpha Course, or displaying a Padre Pio sticker on the dashboard. Perish the thought.
A very British antipathy
And so the vilification must not abate, the mockery must not subside. There may be no pillaging of churches or distributing of pamphlets that depict priests and nuns in orgiastic abandon, but the anti-Christian attitude of today’s Britain is as deep rooted and widespread as anticlericalism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France.
It is a peculiarly British antipathy. In America, where I grew up, Christians are taken seriously. They are afforded respect and accorded status. When Bush holds a prayer breakfast at the White house, or invokes God in his speeches, no-one mocks; the Congress begins each day with a prayer and until a 1962 Supreme Court ruling outlawed it, schools did too. In Italy, where my family is from and where I spent my early years, Christianity in the form of Catholicism is absolutely accepted. Most Catholics do approach their faith as an ŕ la carte menu from which they can choose the easiest bits while rejecting those that prove more difficult to chew. But those who practice their religion need not fear being made a laughing-stock.
In England by contrast, this anti-Christian secular persecution is commonplace. And it has been for centuries: there is a strand in establishment thinking that has always feared uncontrolled and uncontrollable religious belief. The Catholic whose allegiance to Rome threatened the crown; the non-conformist whose dissent threatened the established church; the Protestant whose faith destabilized the Catholic monarch. Christians were trouble – always.
Similarly, today, we see the guardians of the secular establishment shiver at the prospect of Christians drawing up close to their glass house. One burning question – ‘why should I?’ – one defiant stand – ‘I cannot support the murder of an unborn child’ – and the house risks cracking, and breaking into smithereens.
As they retreat, fearful, behind a wall of mockery and contempt, the chattering classes dream of inflicting the ultimate defeat – silence – upon their Christian foes.
There is, alas, some evidence that they may succeed.
Here then is the challenge to today’s Christian. In the face of opposition, we must not buckle. We must not be fearful or embarrassed. We should articulate all the louder just that part of our Lord’s message that our enemies find so annoying, so subversive, and ultimately so unanswerable. We must, unbowed, unashamed, publicly acknowledge our faith. We must bring our beliefs to bear upon decision-making. We must come out in support of others who believe – whether they be Jews or Muslims or fellow Christians. We may not need to sport a ‘Jesus Loves Me’ bumper sticker or leaflet the neighbourhood with invitations to a prayer meeting. But we do need to proudly confirm, as we live each day, that, yes, we are Christians. And though some may hate us, here we stand. We can do no other.
Christina Odone is a journalist with the New Statesman. This article is an abbreviated version of her Tyndale Lecture.
Return to Home Page of This Issue
Return to Trushare Home Page