Tim Farron’s religious folly

I was born and brought up in a country where I knew that, on account of my family’s faith, I was barred by law from marrying the sovereign. Not much more than a theoretical hardship, since until recently the law would anyway prevent me as a man from marrying the heirs to the country’s throne because they happen to be male as well. In any case, by the measure of social progress fawningly used at the time of the marriage of Catherine Middleton and William Windsor, I’m still two generations too close to a coal miner.

Nor has any Catholic ever been Prime Minister of the UK. Up to and including Blair’s flirtation with Rome, there was an assumption that, while not strictly illegal, it might be practically difficult or impossible for a Catholic to fulfill the role, given the office’s involvement in church matters.

On the other hand, I grew up knowing that one of America’s greatest presidents was a Catholic, like me. And whether I was first told at primary school or at home, I knew from an early age that John F. Kennedy had given a great and important speech that had persuaded non-Catholic Americans, including Presbyterian and Jewish Americans, that they could safely vote for him without fearing that he was answerable to Rome; or that his decisions in the Oval Office would be made with Catholic doctrine in mind.

In this context, Tim Farron’s stated reasons for resignation are a massive step backwards. There should be no religious disqualification to political office, and Farron’s is self-imposed. If the illiberalism of his church is more important to him than the liberal instinct he claims always to have had, he should have taken some time for private reflection, and in the public sphere worn his religion much more lightly.

I have some sympathy with what seems likeliest to be his position; that whether or not something is a “sin” is a religious rather than a political question, and that he therefore won’t discuss that as a politician. But in how he has, in fact, chosen to answer and not answer the question (as well as in his earliest votes cast on gay rights issues) he has allowed that private religion into his public role.

But it was by using this as justification for his resignation where he did harm. He has explicitly supported the idea that being religious is incompatible with leading a political party with any claim to liberalism. He has projected his own fundamental illiberalism (or at least, his difficulties reconciling his religious and public life) onto others in public life who have personal faith.

We live in a country which has not yet managed fully to reintegrate the Christian sect that I was born into, where the ruling party courts sectarian trouble by seeking the support of the DUP, and where intolerance of Islam is on the march. This is the context in which Tim Farron seems to have confirmed the worst fears of secularists; he has raised the religious bar an inch or two, at least for those who don’t fit the establishment as cosily as do the “sons of the manse” and the “vicars’ daughters.”

On converting

I intend—this may cause a few eyebrows to raise—to convert. Specifically, I intend to convert to Catholicism, and I shall do so on my deathbed. I was born an atheist (we all are, if you think about it), raised an atheist and, other than an interesting wobble which will be the subject of a later post, have been and will remain an atheist for almost my whole life—but convert I will, in my final moments, and I shall do so with good cause.

The reason I intend to convert has little to do with my immortal soul, or with the existence of an ultimate being. The ontological argument may have been good enough for Russell, but it fails to convince me. No, I shall convert for one reason only: to exact a perverse revenge upon Brideshead Revisited.

I loved that book, or rather I loved the first 95 percent of it. It’s Waugh’s first grown-up novel, after he had got bored of poking fun at airheaded poshos, and it’s a treat. Waugh could turn a fine phrase, and in Brideshead he hasn’t lost his satirist’s eye, but it is a maturer novel, about outsiders and left-behinds; a nostalgic but not misty-eyed paean to a departing age. It draws sympathetic though far from perfect characters, and even has as a major theme a fairly uncritical depiction of homosexuality (and if you’re one of those who, to protect your own sensibilities, insist that the relationship depicted between Charles and Sebastian is passionate but not physical, I suggest you reread the Italian section, and think upon what Sebastian means when he looks at the statue of a soldier and says “It’s rather sad to think that whatever happens you and I can never possibly get involved in a war”). Of course, the Brideshead family are Catholics, but I viewed this largely as a literary device to make even the characters from the aristocracy socially excluded. Waugh later wrote overtly Catholic books but, just as with Graham Greene, I credited him with being able to write about Catholics without writing a Catholic book. After all, the most mainstream Catholic of the book—Bridey himself—is an insufferable prig.

But then I reached the last chapter, and Lord Marchmain’s deathbed conversion. Lord Marchmain, the most attractive character in the book, uproarously living in sin and in Venice with his Italian mistress, resolutely refusing to return to his infuriatingly placid, devout wife in their mouldering country pile. I don’t usually invest myself emotionally in novels (did you not read the previous two posts?), and I don’t expect fictional people to be anything other than fictions, but nothing, nothing in literature has had me screaming in fury as much as his pathetic, woebegone end, feebly indicating his acceptance of extreme unction in his last hours. Nothing, that is, other than the consequent few pages in which not only the wavering Julia but also the narrator himself—the only other resolute sceptic in the book—see in Marchmain’s terminal capitulation evidence of the truth of the Faith; and it is clear that the reader, too, is enjoined to take a fictional act of despair as a shove in that direction. I thought I was reading a smart, gently acidic novel about a fading epoch; and I discovered that all of that, all of it was nothing more than a grotesquely elongated set-up for a crass and proselytizing homily.

What is this, Evelyn, what nonsense is this? The idea that a dying man’s terror of his imminent non-existence leads him to set aside his reason and take up Pascal’s improbable wager is perfectly plausible: but is that really the best that you can do for your religion, to claim that this should be an inspiration? That despair leads to unreason? Is that all you have?

So I shall have my revenge and I shall have it by converting, myself. A genuine, heartfelt, full conversion: bell, book, and candle. I shall recite the Pater noster, and savour upon my tongue the cannibalistically transubstantiated wafer. I shall set aside the millions I make from syndicating this blog for masses to be said for me by hair-shirted monks, and I shall firmly believe that when those very monks were beating the living shit out of their novices it was to induce moral improvement and a contempt for the flesh, and not because they were socially catastrophic sadists. I shall devoutly accept the absolute authority of the Bishop of Rome as granted by apostolic succession, and try my hardest to ignore the inconveniently contradictory fact that the man upon whose purported writings the vast majority of the Papal theology is based was a charismatic evangelist who never met Jesus, and fought with the man to whom the apostolic commission was actually granted.

I shall put my immortal soul out of peril, and I shall do so solely because of a few pages in an out-dated book. I said it was perverse: but nothing will give me greater pleasure in this world or the next than, having earnt my last-minute pass beyond the Pearly Gates, proceeding to hunt down Evelyn Waugh in the heavenly realm, wrenching his gaze back down to this terrestrial plane, and pointing out to him that, rather than a host of serene and uplifted mourners inspired by my last act to turn to Rome themselves, there will be but angry and confused individuals debating whether I was a hypocrite, a fool, or a coward. “There!” I shall exclaim triumphantly to him, “That’s what a deathbed conversion really looks like! Now, can a soul get a decent ambrosia and tonic round here?”