Entry from January 8, 2012

The Iowa caucus results should serve as a reminder of one of the things, and perhaps the most consequential, that President Obama has been wrong about, which is American exceptionalism. And one of the most exceptional things about America is that, unlike most of the post-Christian world, we still have a religious right, as the remarkable showing by former Senator Rick Santorum showed. In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention pointed to some of the reasons why this is likely to be a more significant datum in this year’s election than the media, obsessed with “divisions” in the Republican party, are able to understand. But Americans themselves are not always aware of just how exceptional they are. The same cannot be said of foreign commentators who are terrified by the spectacle of conservatives voting on the basis of their religious faith and imagine there is no difference between them and Islamists — which is why Andrew Sullivan has invented the term “Christianist” to describe them.

Mr Sullivan is British by birth, and in Britain, like almost everywhere else outside the embattled countries of Africa, religion is on the left. One example is the column written by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for The Times of London on Christmas eve. Dr Williams wrote of his experience with the pastoral care of former child soldiers in the Congo. Many had escaped from their unwilling participation in that country’s terrible civil war and were on their way to rehabilitation, he said, partly on account of their Christian faith:

They had been prised out of the grip of the militias that had captured them and reintroduced to something like normality. All had been assured of a safe place to live if they managed to get away. Many had been reunited with their families. They had advocates and helpers in their communities, people who were willing to stick their necks out to support them when others reacted with suspicion or even disgust. How had it happened? They all had one answer. The Church had not given up on them.

It was a moving message, but the Archbishop couldn’t resist improving on it — and perhaps deprecating any sense that he was engaging in Victorian style patronization towards the savages of Africa — by drawing a parallel to the recent riots in his own country. “People were swept up in arson, looting and violence. The majority were just baffled and angry, desperately wondering what could be done to put things straight, to show that their communities could still work.”

Wait a minute! People were “swept up” in criminal activity? Is he writing here about the criminals or their victims? There is a deliberate ambiguity here, behind which we can detect echoes of his description of the rioters in The Guardian three weeks earlier as “people who have vague but strong longings for something like secure employment, and no idea where to look for it; who on the whole want to belong, and live in a climate where they are taken seriously as workers, as citizens — and as needy individuals; and who have got used to being pushed to the margins and told that they are dispensable.” This assumption that the rioters can’t be expected to obey the law like everyone else really is patronizing and bound to antagonize all sides, except that of his fellow patronizing lefties. That the English church is not taken seriously even by those it would defend is a measure of its decline into political as well as spiritual irrelevance.

Well, that’s present day Anglicanism for you. For the senior prelate of the church to ignore personal responsibility for criminal acts and blame “society,” as he goes on to do, amounts to self-parody, which is thrown into higher relief by the foolish and insulting comparison to child soldiers in Africa. Appropriately, all this leads up to the stunningly banal conclusion about rioters, child soldiers and people in general that we should all pray they may “find out that God and the friends of God are there for them.” A religion based on such feel-good, pop cultural platitudes is just one more left-wing utopian fantasy, and not the most plausible of those on offer. We have such left-wing churchmen in the US too, of course, but they haven’t got the sort of clout still wielded here, uniquely, by “the religious right.” It’s hard to imagine that the latter will not be heard from again in November.

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