O come all ye faithful: Pope Francis greets wellwishers outside the Vatican after an audience for health workers, 22 November. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Religion vs medicine, trouble at Fifa and Clive James’s final performance

There is a tendency among the devoutly religious to venerate what to them seems “natural” – or God-given. But the story of religion is one of retreat in the face of science’s relentless advance.

For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know . . .

A E Housman, from “Tell Me Not Here, It Needs Not Saying”

There is so much to admire about Pope Francis, the Argentine Jesuit who has become a talisman for many on the left. He lives modestly and has great humility. He scourges inequality and global poverty. He has courageously intervened in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which becomes ever more hopeless with each new atrocity committed. Yet his reported remarks condemning in vitro fertilisation – or “the scientific production of a child” – and embryonic stem-cell research were dismaying, if not altogether surprising. He is, after all, the Pope and not some kind of Latin American bandit-revolutionary, as some would have it.

There is a tendency among the devoutly religious to venerate what to them seems “natural” – or God-given. But the story of religion is one of retreat in the face of science’s relentless advance. Just as the Catholic Church was humiliated into accepting the Copernican revolution, so in time it will be forced to accommodate further advances in medicine, from gene therapy to embryonic stem-cell research. We live on a hostile planet and the human journey has been about making it incrementally less inhospitable.

Meanwhile, Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and his team are edging closer to finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes after discovering how to produce from embryonic stem cells huge quantities of the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells required in transplantation. Professor Melton’s two children were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as infants and it became his life’s mission to find a cure.

My elder sister’s son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a young boy and he has borne his illness with fortitude and grace. No one would wish anyone to suffer as he and others have from such an illness, least of all young children. Christian fundamentalists value above all the sanctity of human life, hence the opposition to contraception, abortion and assisted dying. But life is not an end in itself: how a life is lived is what matters, its quality and dignity. Why be in thrall to what neither knows nor cares?

****

David Bernstein, a former chairman of the Football Association, has called on England and other European nations to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia in protest at the machinations of Sepp Blatter, the Swiss megalomaniac who seems, in effect, to run Fifa like a personal fiefdom. Fifa’s report into the World Cup bidding process has hilariously exonerated Russia and Qatar of any duplicity but condemned England for breaking the rules. Fortunately, Michael Garcia, the American lawyer hired by Fifa to investigate corruption, has condemned the way his report has been misrepresented.

Football is a fabulously simple game debased by those who control and seek to profit from it. Blatter, who is 78, is seeking election for yet another term as Fifa president. Does the beautiful game have the leader it deserves?

****

To the Cambridge Union Chamber, to see Clive James perform in the winter leg of the literary festival of which the New Statesman is media partner. James was there to talk about his latest book but what we were treated to was a virtuoso one-man show. “Here I am making another final performance!” he joked.

This was a reference to his chronic illnesses. James has emphysema, “reward for a lifetime’s smoking”, and leukaemia, which is in remission. Modern medicine (“the meds”) and the dedication of Addenbrooke’s Hospital have prolonged his life beyond what even he imagined was possible. When you are living under a death sentence, one course of action, he said, was “inaction”. The other was “to go on working, as if you have all the time in the world”, which is what he says he has been doing. In truth, the poems he has published recently, several of them in the NS, are mostly about the period of his long, drawn-out dying. These late works offer a kind of extended leave-taking. They are about memory and forgetting and about what will soon be lost for ever: yet the tone is resigned, not bitter. And, because this is James, there is sardonic humour.

****

Clive James is unusual in having had a dual career as a prime-time TV presenter and as a serious man of letters: poet, novelist, memoirist. “Television looks as if it dissipates energy,” he said, “and it does. It takes five days to get one hour of television. But I enjoyed those days and I won’t knock them.”

Yet his first and greatest love was poetry, as a reader and writer. James is a wonderful raconteur, moving between different registers, high and low – from Philip Larkin to Game of Thrones in one smooth, easy movement. Dressed in a brown corduroy jacket, a beat poet’s black turtleneck sweater and black trousers, he moved at the “pace of a racing snail”, as he put it. He is thin now and very frail and his voice is weak and wheezy but still unmistakable. He recited from memory some of his favourite poems – Auden’s “Lullaby”, Andrew Marvell’s “The Definition of Love”, something by e e cummings (“a rebel poet who had the distinct advantage of having a trust fund; he could afford to be a communist”) – as well as one of his own. He said the art of poetry was “to capture [experiences] with the excitement of things well said”.

Clive James said many things that night and all of them well – and it was exciting for those of us who were there to see him perform one more time, for one last time. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

Getty
Show Hide image

What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496