The Pope and the Baroness
Yesterday’s meeting between Benedict XVI and Baroness Warsi in Rome was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the pontiff to meet a great spiritual leader of our time, for which he seems to have been grateful. (At least Ratzo was elected. In the Tory chair’s one face-down with the electorate, in Dewsbury in 2005, she managed to bump up Labour’s majority against the national swing.) Meanwhile, back in Britain, another unelected leader has weighed into the church-and-state debate: the queen delivered a paean to the ‘under-appreciated’ Church of England in front of representatives of what the newspaper write-ups, dutifully following the church’s press release, called ‘the eight non-Christian religions’.
The pope may have been rude about Islam in his notorious Regensburg address of 2006, which hailed the Muslim-bashing Byzantine emperor Manuel II, but blessed are the ecumenicals, as the Roman church has always said in its strenuous efforts to square the crescent with the cross. The expense-account junket offered a triple-A freebie for the baroness, plus a mere six coalition ministers and the ministerial baggage train. You might cavil that the point could have been made by a photo-op with the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose palace handily lies just across Westminster Bridge from Parliament – but the queen had landed that one for her multi-faith address.
Warsi is a Cameronian’s dream tick-box Tory, an Asian Muslim woman who is in other respects indistinguishable from her predecessor Eric Pickles, now the local government minister. He, too, thinks that there’s not enough God in politics these days, and last week rapped Mr Justice Ouseley for stopping Bideford councillors from saying their prayers. Pickles should know all about the non-separation of church and state. In 2004, the local Conservative party in his Brentwood and Ongar constituency was infiltrated by devotees from the Peniel Pentecostal Church, whose ‘charismatic’ minister Michael Reid later resigned over – what else – a sex scandal. Peniel also managed to get its front organisation, the Christian Congress for Traditional Values, into trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority for homophobic propaganda in 2008 (‘Gay aim: abolish the family’).
Warsi’s reception by the Vatican has been described as ‘rapturous’. She joined the Vatican in bemoaning the European constitution’s failure to mention God – one of this sprawling document’s few and happy omissions, and one of the few happy respects in which it follows the US Constitution. But apparently any God is better than none. Not the Aztecs’ big pecorino maybe, but let’s face it, Jah, Allah, Elohim, Thor, that Hindu one, are all basically the same dude, and we need Him to stem the tide of militant secularism, whose intolerance shows up so glaringly beside their god-fearing brethren’s record of crusades, autos da fé, jihad, ritual genital mutilation and witch-burning.
Admittedly Richard Dawkins and other dog-collar atheists set themselves up for mockery by god-fearers eager to equate scientific rationalism with banana-worship. A nimbler response to religiosity is not an equal and opposite Schwärmerei, but boredom. The Today programme’s ‘thought for the day’ soapbox, often derided by atheists, is welcome precisely because of its power to reduce even fervid zealots to drooling ennui. At my school, where vanilla Anglicanism ruled, the head would intone St Patrick’s breastplate or the creed with all the fervour of an in-flight safety demo. It wasn’t so much that we didn’t believe in God. We just couldn’t see the point of him. We need more of that apathy today.