The optimism at the end of Sarkozy's era vanished as Hollande (centre) seemed to dither. Photograph: Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos
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The sorrows of Mr Weak

Since the minister in charge of tax avoidance was forced to admit to a secret Swiss bank account, François Hollande’s entire government has begun to look shaky. How did it go so wrong, so fast?

One blustery day in mid-April, I left my pied-à-terre in Paris’s 11th arrondissement and headed south towards the Seine. I crossed the river by the Île Saint-Louis and made for Gibert Jeune, a large bookshop on the Left Bank at the northern end of the Boulevard Saint-Michel. I was searching for a copy of Rien ne se passe comme prévu (“nothing goes as planned”) by Laurent Binet. It is a quasijournalistic account, inflected with some of the mannerisms of American New Journalism, of François Hollande’s 2011-2012 campaign for the French presidency.

I’d enjoyed Binet’s novel, HHhH, and was interested to discover what he made of Hollande, the upper-middle-class doctor’s son, born in Rouen in 1954, who had committed himself to the politics of the left at a young age. I remembered the excitement that his campaign, with its commitment to levy a 75 per cent tax on high incomes, had elicited in Labour circles on this side of the Channel. Was this deceptively mild-mannered fonctionnaire, whose rhetoric often evoked the days of the Popular Front in the 1930s, a model for a new generation of social-democratic leaders in Europe?

By the time I arrived in Paris, however, the excitement that Hollande once induced on the left was a distant memory. The 75 per cent tax on those earning more than €1m a year had been ruled unconstitutional and the accidental president’s poll ratings were in free fall. The weekly news magazine L’Expressseemed to catch the popular mood with a cover depicting Hollande as “Monsieur Faible” (“Mr Weak”).

Having found a second-hand copy of Binet’s book, I walked west to the seventh arrondissement to meet the English writer and academic Andrew Hussey. He works at the Paris outpost of the University of London and his office overlooks the Esplanade des Invalides, close to the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament. The following week, the esplanade would be thronged with protesters, most of them Catholic, agitating against legislation to legalise gay marriage and adoption. In the small hours of 18 April a scuffle broke out on the floor of the Assembly when a rightwing opponent of gay marriage brandished a woman’s shoe that belonged, he claimed, to a young female protester. The next day the papers were full of excited talk about a Catholic “printemps français” (French spring) and even a right-wing version of the protests of May 1968.

None of this would have surprised Hussey, who has made the subject of intellectual and political violence in France his own. Over lunch, we talked about the lurid rhetorical overinvestment that so often characterises French politics, the obsession with gloire and grandeur. It struck me later that the French still expect their president to embody national grandeur, and that the mild and reticent Hollande struggles to do so.

Just how much he is struggling was made clear in an opinion poll published in Le Journal du Dimanche on 21 April, less than a year after he replaced Nicolas Sarkozy in the Élysée Palace. Seventy-four per cent of respondents declared themselves “unhappy” with his performance.

Never in the 55-year history of the French Fifth Republic have approval ratings for an incumbent president been so low so early in a presidency. Sarkozy achieved a comparable level of dissatisfaction (72 per cent) in April 2011, but by then he was almost four years in to the job; hisimmediate predecessor, Jacques Chirac, earned the opprobrium of 70 per cent of those polled in November 1995, and that was in the middle of a general strike. The only other Socialist president of the Fifth Republic, François Mitterrand, managed a disapproval rating of 65 per cent in December 1991, three and a half years in to a second seven-year term. As for the architect of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, the worst it ever got for him was in March 1963, when a poll showed that 40 per cent of voters were unhappy with his leadership.

Hollande’s abject standing in the polls owes something to the humiliation of his former budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac. On 2 April Cahuzac finally admitted, after a series of straight-faced denials, that he had used a secret Swiss bank account to avoid paying tax in France.

By then, the affair had been rumbling on for several months. In December, the investigative website Mediapart claimed that Cahuzac, who began his career as a cosmetic surgeon specialising in hair transplants, had kept an account at UBS in Geneva since the early 1990s. Mediapart’s case relied heavily on a report into Cahuzac’s financial affairs written in 2008 by Rémy Garnier, a former tax inspector in the south-western department of Lot-et-Garonne, where Cahuzac’s parliamentary constituency was located.

Cahuzac’s response to the revelations was swift and robust. He described Mediapart’s claims as “defamatory” and insisted in interviews that he had “never” had a bank account in Switzerland or anywhere else outside France. He also assured the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, of his good faith. The strategy seemed to be working until, in January this year, magistrates in Paris began building a case against him. Cahuzac’s resignation, which he finally announced on 19 March, was by then inevitable.

As a consequence of the affair, Hollande has become the focus for deep disaffection with what the French call “la classe politique”, the caste of ideologically nimble and sometimes extravagantly wealthy technocrats who usually fill governments of both right and left.

Like most front-rank French politicians, Hollande is an énarque, a graduate of the elite École Nationale d’Administration. He graduated first in his class in 1981. Among his contemporaries were his ex-partner Ségolène Royal, who ran as the Socialist candidate for president in 2007, the former centre-right prime minister Dominique de Villepin and the head of the new bank for public investment, Jean-Pierre Jouyet.

To the sociologists Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, the authors of President of the Rich: an Investigation into the Oligarchy in Sarkozy’s France (2010), the Cahuzac affair was cause for “intense intellectual jubilation”. They told the political weekly Le Nouvel Observateur: “The affair validates our theses concerning this caste which dominates France, this micro-society composed of people from left and right who function in the same way, with their wealth and their networks . . . It was another example of the power of oligarchy after the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal.”

Voters have no doubt made this very connection between Cahuzac and the disgraced Strauss-Kahn, whose likely run for the Socialist nomination for president was derailed by the exposure of a sex scandal in May 2011. (The two men were political allies; they also share a lawyer.) The public will also have recalled that Cahuzac had been leading the Hollande government’s struggle against tax fraud. He helped to draft a finance law that included important measures to combat tax evasion (notably the introduction of a 60 per cent levy on undeclared funds held abroad by French citizens).

Hollande’s response to the scandal has been uncharacteristically decisive. On 10 April, rather than leave it to Ayrault, the president, in the glare of television cameras, announced a wide-ranging “transparency” programme designed, among other things, to “remoralise” public life. The most eye-catching of these emergency measures was the requirement that cabinet ministers make a public declaration of their assets. They did so in short order – Ayrault revealing, to some amusement among journalists, that in addition to two houses worth more than €1m in total, he owns a 1988 Volkswagen kombi valued at €1,000.

It was the second time in a week that Hollande had gone on television to address the French people directly, something they weren’t accustomed to. He declared himself “hurt by what has happened”, an unusual admission from one who makes such a fetish of his sang-froid.

Catherine Fieschi, who is the director of the British think tank Counterpoint and has advised French administrations of all political complexions, tells me that communication has been Hollande’s biggest challenge. “The tragedy of it is that he’s not actually doing badly, though he’s doing very badly in the polls,” she says. “He’s got a huge communications problem.

“The big reproach is that he doesn’t govern. But the fact is that he does govern in most cases, but he’s been very bad at keeping people informed of what he’s doing –wilfully to begin with, because he wanted to break with the Sarkozy model.”

The president recognises that he must offer decisive leadership at a time of national crisis, yet this sits uneasily with his profound mistrust of the imperial presidency that was one of de Gaulle’s most ambiguous legacies. Shortly after Sarkozy was elected in 2007, Hollande denounced the new president’s method, which consisted, he said, of pretending that “the president can do it all alone” and “announcing this on television”. The irony is that Hollande has found himself doing exactly what he criticised Sarkozy for – supposing, as an article in Le Monde put it, that for every crisis, one can concoct a law in response. The Hollande presidency was meant to have broken with such legislative hyperactivity in the name of “normality” and the “exemplary republic”.

Suspicions on the French left about the institutions of the Fifth Republic have a long history. The strong presidency proposed by de Gaulle in 1958, as an antidote to the political instability caused by the Algerian war of independence, was opposed by the leaders of the non-communist left, Mitterrand and Pierre Mendès France. In 1964, Mitterrand published a book, Le coup d’État permanent, in which he accused de Gaulle of replacing the idea of popular representation with that of the infallible strong man. However, this didn’t stop Mitterrand running for president the following year, and again in 1974 and 1981, when at last he won, beating Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

Once he was established in the Elysée, Mitterrand’s misgivings about the “permanent coup d’état” soon evaporated. He had campaigned on the promise of restoring to parliament its “constitutional rights”, but in practice he left it little more room for manoeuvre than de Gaulle had ever envisaged for it. (That said, he was forced to endure “cohabitation” with two prime ministers of the right, Jacques Chirac and Édouard Balladur, an arrangement de Gaulle would have found unconscionable.)

Mitterrand’s exercise of the office of president – the cultivation of courtiers, the manipulation of cliques and the dispensing of favours – earned him the nickname “the Florentine”. Even if Hollande were temperamentally disposed to operating in this way, he could never gather around him enough placemen to build a Machiavellian court. “One of the big problems,” Fieschi says, “is his position within the Parti Socialiste [PS]. He might have been a party apparatchik but he had no support inside the PS headquarters in rue de Solférino. He was an accidental candidate. They rallied behind him when they saw he had a chance after the fall of Strauss-Kahn, but I don’t think he really had the party with him.”

Indeed, the party was notably quick, in the person of its first secretary, Harlem Désir, to criticise the government’s handling of economic policy, which Désir judged too focused on deficit reduction at the expense of growth and the fight against unemployment. This criticism was echoed recently by three ministers, including Arnaud Montebourg, who ran to Hollande’s left in the Socialist presidential primary in autumn 2011. Montebourg expressed scepticism at the balancing act that Hollande and the finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, are attempting: making the reduction of the deficit –which, at the end of 2012, stood at 4.8 per cent of economic output – their main priority, in deference to their German partners, while denying that this requires “austerity” measures of the kind being adopted elsewhere in Europe.

Hollande has two problems in this regard. First, he has to manage the expectations of his own party and of PS supporters more broadly. And here the shadow of Mitterrand looms once again. March 2013 marked the 30th anniversary of his “turn to austerity”, when, in the face of rising unemployment, high inflation and exchange-rate difficulties that led to a succession of devaluations of the franc, his government formally abandoned the model of statist economic management it had adopted in 1981.

March 1983 was a seminal moment in the history of the Parti Socialiste. Arthur Goldhammer, a historian of French politics who teaches at Harvard, has written that the PS remains divided “between those who have deeply internalised the U-turn of 1981-83 as a step in the right direction”, an accommodation with the world as it is and not as Socialists would wish it to be, and “those who look back on it as a mistake”. Hollande belongs in the first camp; Montebourg and critics to the president’s left place themselves in the second.

Hollande’s other problem is that his economic policy is failing on its own terms. In the election campaign, in order to outflank his opponent, he accepted Sarkozy’s commitment to reduce the deficit to 3 per cent of output by the end of 2013, partly by means of €10m worth of spending cuts. Despite forecasts of anaemic growth, Hollande reiterated this commitment in office. What Ayrault called a “fighting budget” was announced and the target of a 3 per cent reduction pronounced “realistic”.

In November 2012, during the parliamentary debate on the European “fiscal compact”, many on the left of the party, including the PS first secretary, as well as the foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, a wily political streetfighter who served as prime minister under Mitterrand, protested that the treaty meant “austerity for life”. That same month, the European Commission declared that it was unlikely France would reach the 3 per cent target.

 Hollande insisted it could be achieved, and continued to do so until February this year, when he left it to Ayrault to make the following announcement: “We will not be exactly at 3 per cent at the end of 2013, but we will not be far off.”

Who was the minister despatched to tour the radio and television studios to warn that a recalibration of expectations was imminent? None other than Jérôme Cahuzac. As the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro reported with some glee, one of Cahuzac’s last acts as a minister was to prepare people for the “burial of a presidential promise”.

Jonathan Derbyshire is the culture editor of the New Statesman

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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“Never be afraid of stridency”: Richard Dawkins’ interview with Christopher Hitchens

Is America heading for theocracy? How worrying is the rise of the Tea Party? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins discuss God and US politics.

The 2011 Christmas issue of the New Statesman was guest edited by Richard Dawkins. This is his interview with Christopher Hitchens from that issue. It was to be Hitchens' final interview; he died as it was published. A sensation at the time, it is now available to read online for the first time.

Richard Dawkins (left) and Christopher Hitchens in conversation

Richard Dawkins Do you have any memories of life at the New Statesman?

Christopher Hitchens Not that I want to impart. It seems like a different world and a different magazine and it happened to a different person. I’d love them to interview me one day about it, for an edition about the role of the Statesman, but I’d really rather you and I focus on the pulse of the issue, which is obviously our common cause.

RD I’ve been reading some of your recent collections of essays – I’m astounded by your sheer erudition. You seem to have read absolutely everything. I can’t think of anybody since Aldous Huxley who’s so well read.

CH It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth. A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I’m in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I’m not. But it’s something to at least have had the comparison made – it’s better than I expected when I started.

RD As an Orwell scholar, you must have a particular view of North Korea, Stalin, the Soviet Union, and you must get irritated – perhaps even more than I do – by the constant refrain we hear: “Stalin was an atheist.”

CH We don’t know for sure that he was. Hitler definitely wasn’t. There is a possibility that Himmler was. It’s very unlikely but it wouldn’t make any difference, either way. There’s no mandate in atheism for any particular kind of politics, anyway.

RD The people who did Hitler’s dirty work were almost all religious.

CH I’m afraid the SS’s relationship with the Catholic Church is something the Church still has to deal with and does not deny.

RD Can you talk a bit about that – the relationship of Nazism with the Catholic Church?

CH The way I put it is this: if you’re writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word “fascist”, if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with “extremeright Catholic party”. Almost all of those regimes were in place with the help of the Vatican and with understandings from the Holy See. It’s not denied. These understandings quite often persisted after the Second World War was over and extended to comparable regimes in Argentina and elsewhere.

RD But there were individual priests who did good things.

CH Not very many. You would know their names if there were more of them. When it comes to National Socialism, there’s no question there’s a mutation, a big one – the Nazis wanted their own form of worship. Just as they thought they were a separate race, they wanted their own religion. They dug out the Norse gods, all kinds of extraordinary myths and legends from the old sagas. They wanted to control the churches. They were willing to make a deal with them. The first deal Hitler made with the Catholic Church was the Konkordat. The Church agreed to dissolve its political party and he got control over German education, which was a pretty good deal. Celebrations of his birthday were actually by order from the pulpit. When Hitler survived an assassination attempt, prayers were said, and so forth. But there’s no doubt about it, [the Nazis] wanted control – and they were willing to clash with the churches to get it. There’s another example. You swore on Almighty God that you would never break your oath to the Führer. This is not even secular, let alone atheist.

RD There was also grace before meals, personally thanking Adolf Hitler.

CH I believe there was. Certainly, you can hear the oath being taken – there are recordings of it – but this, Richard, is a red herring. It’s not even secular. They’re changing the subject.

RD But it comes up over and over again.

CH You mentioned North Korea. It is, in every sense, a theocratic state. It’s almost supernatural, in that the births of the [ruling] Kim family are considered to be mysterious and accompanied by happenings. It’s a necrocracy or mausolocracy, but there’s no possible way you could say it’s a secular state, let alone an atheist one. Attempts to found new religions should attract our scorn just as much as the alliances with the old ones do. All they’re saying is that you can’t claim Hitler was distinctively or specifically Christian: “Maybe if he had gone on much longer, he would have de-Christianised a bit more.” This is all a complete fog of nonsense. It’s bad history and it’s bad propaganda.

RD And bad logic, because there’s no connection between atheism and doing horrible things, whereas there easily can be a connection in the case of religion, as we see with modern Islam.

CH To the extent that they are new religions – Stalin worship and Kim Il-sungism – we, like all atheists, regard them with horror.

RD You debated with Tony Blair. I’m not sure I watched that. I love listening to you [but] I can’t bear listening to . . . Well, I mustn’t say that. I think he did come over as rather nice on that evening.

CH He was charming, that evening. And during the day, as well.

RD What was your impression of him?

CH You can only have one aim per debate. I had two in debating with Tony Blair. The first one was to get him to admit that it was not done – the stuff we complain of – in only the name of religion. That’s a cop-out. The authority is in the text. Second, I wanted to get him to admit, if possible, that giving money to a charity or organising a charity does not vindicate a cause. I got him to the first one and I admired his honesty. He was asked by the interlocutor at about half-time: “Which of Christopher’s points strikes you as the best?” He said: “I have to admit, he’s made his case, he’s right. This stuff, there is authority for it in the canonical texts, in Islam, Judaism.” At that point, I’m ready to fold – I’ve done what I want for the evening. We did debate whether Catholic charities and so on were a good thing and I said: “They are but they don’t prove any point and some of them are only making up for damage done.” For example, the Church had better spend a lot of money doing repair work on its Aids policy in Africa, [to make up for preaching] that condoms don’t prevent disease or, in some cases, that they spread it. It is iniquitous. It has led to a lot of people dying, horribly. Also, I’ve never looked at some of the ground operations of these charities – apart from Mother Teresa – but they do involve a lot of proselytising, a lot of propaganda. They’re not just giving out free stuff. They’re doing work to recruit.

RD And Mother Teresa was one of the worst offenders?

CH She preached that poverty was a gift from God. And she believed that women should not be given control over the reproductive cycle. Mother Teresa spent her whole life making sure that the one cure for poverty we know is sound was not implemented. So Tony Blair knows this but he doesn’t have an answer. If I say, “Your Church preaches against the one cure for poverty,” he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t affirm it either. But remember, I did start with a text and I asked him to comment on it first, but he never did. Cardinal Newman said he would rather the whole world and everyone in it be painfully destroyed and condemned for ever to eternal torture than one sinner go unrebuked for the stealing of a sixpence. It’s right there in the centre of the Apologia. The man whose canonisation Tony had been campaigning for. You put these discrepancies in front of him and he’s like all the others. He keeps two sets of books. And this is also, even in an honest person, shady.

RD It’s like two minds, really. One notices this with some scientists.

CH I think we all do it a bit.

RD Do we?

CH We’re all great self-persuaders.

RD But do we hold such extreme contradictions in our heads?

CH We like to think our colleagues would point them out, in our group, anyway. No one’s pointed out to me in reviewing my God book God Is Not Great that there’s a flat discrepancy between the affirmation he makes on page X and the affirmation he makes on page Y.

RD But they do accuse you of being a contrarian, which you’ve called yourself . . .

CH Well, no, I haven’t. I’ve disowned it. I was asked to address the idea of it and I began by saying it’s got grave shortcomings as an idea, but I am a bit saddled with it.

RD I’ve always been very suspicious of the leftright dimension in politics.

CH Yes; it’s broken down with me.

RD It’s astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.

CH I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do. That has secular forms with gurus and dictators, of course, but it’s essentially the same. There have been some thinkers – Orwell is pre-eminent – who understood that, unfortunately, there is innate in humans a strong tendency to worship, to become abject. So we’re not just fighting the dictators. We’re criticising our fellow humans for trying to short-cut, to make their lives simpler, by surrendering and saying, “[If] you offer me bliss, of course I’m going to give up some of my mental freedom for that.” We say it’s a false bargain: you’ll get nothing. You’re a fool.

RD That part of you that was, or is, of the radical left is always against the totalitarian dictators.

CH Yes. I was a member of the Trotskyist group – for us, the socialist movement could only be revived if it was purged of Stalinism . . . It’s very much a point for our view that Stalinism was a theocracy.

RD One of my main beefs with religion is the way they label children as a “Catholic child” or a “Muslim child”. I’ve become a bit of a bore about it.

CH You must never be afraid of that charge, any more than stridency.

RD I will remember that.

CH If I was strident, it doesn’t matter – I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You’ve educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out.

Stridency is the least you should muster . . . It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, “Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements.” If you go on about something, the worst thing the English will say about you, as we both know – as we can say of them, by the way – is that they’re boring.

RD Indeed. Only this morning, I was sent a copy of [advice from] a British government website, called something like “The Responsibilities of Parents”. One of these responsibilities was “determine the child’s religion”. Literally, determine. It means establish, cause . . . I couldn’t ask for a clearer illustration, because, sometimes, when I make my complaint about this, I’m told nobody actually does label children Catholic children or Muslim children.

CH Well, the government does. It’s borrowed, as far as I can see, in part from British imperial policy, in turn borrowed from Ottoman and previous empires – you classify your new subjects according to their faith. You can be an Ottoman citizen but you’re a Jewish one or an Armenian Christian one. And some of these faiths tell their children that the children of other faiths are going to hell. I think we can’t ban that, nor can we call it “hate speech”, which I’m dubious about anyway, but there should be a wrinkle of disapproval.

RD I would call it mental child abuse.

CH I can’t find a way, as a libertarian, of saying that people can’t raise their children, as they say, according to their rights. But the child has rights and society does, too. We don’t allow female – and I don’t think we should countenance male – genital mutilation.

Now, it would be very hard to say that you can’t tell your child that they are lucky and they have joined the one true faith. I don’t see how you stop it. I only think the rest of society should look at it with a bit of disapproval, which it doesn’t. If you’re a Mormon and you run for office and say, “Do you believe in the golden plates that were dug up by Joseph Smith?” – which [Mitt] Romney hasn’t been asked yet – sorry, you’re going to get mocked. You’re going to get laughed at.

RD There is a tendency among liberals to feel that religion should be off the table.

CH Or even that there’s anti-religious racism, which I think is a terrible limitation.

RD Romney has questions to answer.

CH Certainly, he does. The question of Mormon racism did come up, to be fair, and the Church did very belatedly make amends for saying what, in effect, it had been saying: that black people’s souls weren’t human, quite. They timed it suspiciously for the passage of legislation. Well, OK, then they grant the right of society to amend [the legislation]. To that extent, they’re opportunists.

RD But what about the daftness of Mormonism? The fact that Joseph Smith was clearly a charlatan –

CH I know, it’s extraordinary.

RD I think there is a convention in America that you don’t tackle somebody about their religion.

CH Yes, and in a way it’s attributed to pluralism. And so, to that extent, one wants to respect it, but I think it can be exploited. By many people, including splinter-group Mormons who still do things like plural marriage and, very repulsively, compulsory dowries – they basically give away their daughters, often to blood relatives. And also kinship marriages that are too close. This actually won’t quite do. When it is important, they tend to take refuge in: “You’re attacking my fundamental right.” I don’t think they really should be allowed that.

RD Do you think America is in danger of becoming a theocracy?

CH No, I don’t. The people who we mean when we talk about that – maybe the extreme Protestant evangelicals, who do want a God-run America and believe it was founded on essentially fundamentalist Protestant principles – I think they may be the most overrated threat in the country.

RD Oh, good.

CH They’ve been defeated everywhere. Why is this? In the 1920s, they had a string of victories. They banned the sale, manufacture and distribution and consumption of alcohol. They made it the constitution. They more or less managed to ban immigration from countries that had non-Protestant, non-white majorities. From these victories, they have never recovered. They’ll never recover from [the failure of] Prohibition. It was their biggest defeat. They’ll never recover from the Scopes trial. Every time they’ve tried [to introduce the teaching of creationism], the local school board or the parents or the courts have thrown it out and it’s usually because of the work of people like you, who have shown that it’s nonsense. They try to make a free speech question out of it but they will fail with that, also. People don’t want to come from the town or the state or the county that gets laughed at.

RD Yes.

CH In all my tours around the South, it’s amazing how many people – Christians as well – want to disprove the idea that they’re all in thrall to people like [the fundamentalist preacher Jerry] Falwell. They don’t want to be a laughing stock.

RD Yes.

CH And if they passed an ordinance saying there will be prayer in school every morning from now on, one of two things would happen: it would be overthrown in no time by all the courts, with barrels of laughter heaped over it, or people would say: “Very well, we’re starting with Hindu prayer on Monday.” They would regret it so bitterly that there are days when I wish they would have their own way for a short time.

RD Oh, that’s very cheering.

CH I’m a bit more worried about the extreme, reactionary nature of the papacy now. But that again doesn’t seem to command very big allegiance among the American congregation. They are disobedient on contraception, flagrantly; on divorce; on gay marriage, to an extraordinary degree that I wouldn’t have predicted; and they’re only holding firm on abortion, which, in my opinion, is actually a very strong moral question and shouldn’t be decided lightly. I feel very squeamish about it. I believe that the unborn child is a real concept, in other words. We needn’t go there, but I’m not a complete abortion-on-demand fanatic. I think it requires a bit of reflection. But anyway, even on that, the Catholic Communion is very agonised. And also, [when] you go and debate with them, very few of them could tell you very much about what the catechism really is. It’s increasingly cultural Catholicism.

RD That is true, of course.

CH So, really, the only threat from religious force in America is the same as it is, I’m afraid, in many other countries – from outside. And it’s jihadism, some of it home-grown, but some of that is so weak and so self-discrediting.

RD It’s more of a problem in Britain.

CH And many other European countries, where its alleged root causes are being allowed slightly too friendly an interrogation, I think. Make that much too friendly.

RD Some of our friends are so worried about Islam that they’re prepared to lend support to Christianity as a kind of bulwark against it.

CH I know many Muslims who, in leaving the faith, have opted to go . . . to Christianity or via it to non-belief. Some of them say it’s the personality of Jesus of Nazareth. The mild and meek one, as compared to the rather farouche, physical, martial, rather greedy . . .

RD Warlord.

CH . . . Muhammad. I can see that that might have an effect.

RD Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?

CH No, in a funny way, I don’t worry that we’ll win. All that we can do is make absolutely sure that people know there’s a much more wonderful and interesting and beautiful alternative. No, I don’t think that Europe would fill up with Muslims as it emptied of Christians. Christianity has defeated itself in that it has become a cultural thing. There really aren’t believing Christians in the way there were generations ago.

RD Certainly in Europe that’s true – but in America?

CH There are revivals, of course, and among Jews as well. But I think there’s a very longrunning tendency in the developed world and in large areas elsewhere for people to see the virtue of secularism, the separation of church and state, because they’ve tried the alternatives . . . Every time something like a jihad or a sharia movement has taken over any country – admittedly they’ve only been able to do it in very primitive cases – it’s a smouldering wreck with no productivity.

RD Total failure. If you look at religiosity across countries of the world and, indeed, across the states of the US, you find that religiosity tends to correlate with poverty and with various other indices of social deprivation.

CH Yes. That’s also what it feeds on. But I don’t want to condescend about that. I know a lot of very educated, very prosperous, very thoughtful people who believe.

RD Do you think [Thomas] Jefferson and [James] Madison were deists, as is often said?

CH I think they fluctuated, one by one. Jefferson is the one I’m more happy to pronounce on. The furthest he would go in public was to incline to a theistic enlightened view but, in his private correspondence, he goes much further. He says he wishes we could return to the wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago. That’s in his discussion of his own Jefferson Bible, where he cuts out everything supernatural relating to Jesus. But also, very importantly, he says to his nephew Peter Carr in a private letter [on the subject of belief]: “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and the love of others which it will procure you.” Now, that can only be written by someone who’s had that experience.

RD It’s very good, isn’t it?

CH In my judgement, it’s an internal reading, but I think it’s a close one. There was certainly no priest at his bedside. But he did violate a rule of C S Lewis’s and here I’m on Lewis’s side. Lewis says it is a cop-out to say Jesus was a great moralist. He said it’s the one thing we must not say; it is a wicked thing to say. If he wasn’t the Son of God, he was a very evil impostor and his teachings were vain and fraudulent. You may not take the easy route here and say: “He may not have been the Son of God and he may not have been the Redeemer, but he was a wonderful moralist.” Lewis is more honest than Jefferson in this point. I admire Lewis for saying that. Rick Perry said it the other day.

RD Jesus could just have been mistaken.

CH He could. It’s not unknown for people to have the illusion that they’re God or the Son. It’s a common delusion but, again, I don’t think we need to condescend. Rick Perry once said: “Not only do I believe that Jesus is my personal saviour but I believe that those who don’t are going to eternal punishment.” He was challenged at least on the last bit and he said, “I don’t have the right to alter the doctrine. I can’t say it’s fine for me and not for others.”

RD So we ought to be on the side of these fundamentalists?

CH Not “on the side”, but I think we should say that there’s something about their honesty that we wish we could find.

RD Which we don’t get in bishops . . .

CH Our soft-centred bishops at Oxford and other people, yes.

RD I’m often asked why it is that this republic [of America], founded in secularism, is so much more religious than those western European countries that have an official state religion, like Scandinavia and Britain.

CH [Alexis] de Tocqueville has it exactly right. If you want a church in America, you have to build it by the sweat of your own brow and many have. That’s why they’re attached to them.

RD Yes.

CH [Look at] the Greek Orthodox community in Brooklyn. What’s the first thing it will do? It will build itself a little shrine. The Jews – not all of them – remarkably abandoned their religion very soon after arriving from the shtetl.

RD Are you saying that most Jews have abandoned their religion?

CH Increasingly in America. When you came to escape religious persecution and you didn’t want to replicate it, that’s a strong memory. The Jews very quickly secularised when they came. American Jews must be the most secular force on the planet now, as a collective. If they are a collective –which they’re not, really.

RD While not being religious, they often still observe the Sabbath and that kind of thing.

CH There’s got to be something cultural. I go to Passover every year. Sometimes, even I have a seder, because I want my child to know that she does come very distantly from another tradition. It would explain if she met her greatgrandfather why he spoke Yiddish. It’s cultural, but the Passover seder is also the Socratic forum. It’s dialectical. It’s accompanied by wine. It’s got the bones of quite a good discussion in it. And then there is manifest destiny. People feel America is just so lucky. It’s between two oceans, filled with minerals, wealth, beauty. It does seem providential to many people.

RD Promised land, city on a hill.

CH All that and the desire for another Eden. Some secular utopians came here with the same idea. Thomas Paine and others all thought of America as a great new start for the species.

RD But that was all secular.

CH A lot of it was, but you can’t get away from the liturgy: it’s too powerful. You will end up saying things like “promised land” and it can be mobilised for sinister purposes. But in a lot of cases, it’s a mild belief. It’s just: “We should share our good luck.”

RD I’ve heard another theory that, America being a country of immigrants, people coming from Europe, where they left their extended family and left their support system, were alone and they needed something.

CH Surely that was contained in what I just . . .

RD Maybe it was.

CH The reason why most of my friends are non-believers is not particularly that they were engaged in the arguments you and I have been having, but they were made indifferent by compulsory religion at school.

RD They got bored by it.

CH They’d had enough of it. They took from it occasionally whatever they needed – if you needed to get married, you knew where to go. Some of them, of course, are religious and some of them like the music but, generally speaking, the British people are benignly indifferent to religion.

RD And the fact that there is an established church increases that effect. Churches should not be tax-free the way that they are. Not automatically, anyway.

CH No, certainly not. If the Church has demanded that equal time be given to creationist or pseudo-creationist speculations . . . any Church that teaches that in its school and is in receipt of federal money from the faith-based initiative must, by law, also teach Darwinism and alternative teachings, in order that the debate is being taught. I don’t think they want this.

RD No.

CH Tell them if they want equal time, we’ll jolly well have it. That’s why they’ve always been against comparative religion.

RD Comparative religion would be one of the best weapons, I suspect.

CH It’s got so insipid in parts of America now that a lot of children are brought up – as their parents aren’t doing it and leave it to the schools and the schools are afraid of it – with no knowledge of any religion of any kind. I would like children to know what religion is about because [otherwise] some guru or cult or revivalists will sweep them up.

RD They’re vulnerable. I also would like them to know the Bible for literary reasons.

CH Precisely. We both, I was pleased to see, have written pieces about the King James Bible. The AV [Authorised Version], as it was called in my boyhood. A huge amount of English literature would be opaque if people didn’t know it.

RD Absolutely, yes. Have you read some of the modern translations? “Futile, said the preacher. Utterly futile.”

CH He doesn’t!

RD He does, honestly. “Futile, futile said the priest. It’s all futile.”

CH That’s Lamentations.

RD No, it’s Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, vanity.”

CH “Vanity, vanity.” Good God. That’s the least religious book in the Bible. That’s the one that Orwell wanted at his funeral.

RD I bet he did. I sometimes think the poetry comes from the intriguing obscurity of mistranslation. “When the sound of the grinding is low, the grasshopper is heard in the land . . . The grasshopper shall be a burden.” What the hell?

CH The Book of Job is the other great non-religious one, I always feel. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Try to do without that. No, I’m glad we’re on the same page there. People tell me that the recitation of the Quran can have the same effect if you understand the original language. I wish I did. Some of the Catholic liturgy is attractive.

RD I don’t know enough Latin to judge that.

CH Sometimes one has just enough to be irritated.

RD Yes [laughs]. Can you say anything about Christmas?

CH Yes. There was going to be a winter solstice holiday for sure. The dominant religion was going to take it over and that would have happened without Dickens and without others.

RD The Christmas tree comes from Prince Albert; the shepherds and the wise men are all made up.

CH Cyrenius wasn’t governor of Syria, all of that. Increasingly, it’s secularised itself. This “Happy Holidays” – I don’t particularly like that, either.

RD Horrible, isn’t it? “Happy holiday season.”

CH I prefer our stuff about the cosmos.

***

The day after this interview, I was honoured to present an award to Christopher Hitchens in the presence of a large audience in Texas that gave him a standing ovation, first as he entered the hall and again at the end of his deeply moving speech. My own presentation speech ended with a tribute, in which I said that every day he demonstrates the falsehood of the lie that there are no atheists in foxholes: “Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to muster.”