November 29, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, November 29, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Secularists in Great Britain offended by Prime Minister Theresa May's vague statement on faith
It was just an interview in the Sunday Times magazine of London. It came out on Sunday, the interviewee was Theresa May, the current Prime Minister of Great Britain. At the conclusion of the conversation, Theresa May spoke of the role of her religious faith in her duties as Prime Minister. The interviewer asked about making hard decisions. The Prime Minister said,
“It’s not so much about how do you steel yourself, it’s about, ‘Are you doing the right thing?’ If you know you are doing the right thing, you have the confidence, the energy to go and deliver that right message.”Show Full Transcript
The interviewer then said,
“That sounds rather moral.”
The Prime Minister responded,
“I suppose there is something in terms of faith. I’m a practicing member of the Church of England and so forth that lies behind what I do. It’s not like I’ve decided to do what I’m going to do and I’m stubborn. I think it through, have a gut instinct, look at the evidence, work through the arguments, because you have to think through the unintended consequences. But ultimately,” she said, “If you’ve done all that and you believe it’s the right thing to do, then you should go and do it. But sometimes it is difficult.”
Now to an American Christian observer, there would appear to be very little theological content, almost none in that comment whatsoever. As a matter of fact, looking at the statement, it comes from the interviewer simply asserting that her statement about how she makes decisions includes some moral dimension. In response to that the Prime Minister said, again,
“I suppose there is something in terms of faith. I’m a practicing member of the Church of England, and so forth.”
Now that sounds, to state the obvious, quintessentially Anglican and quintessentially British. It reflects a reserve in speaking about one’s own religious faith, but the reserve in this particular case points to a couple of particularities in the first place. She doesn’t say she’s a believing member of the Church of England; she may well be, but that’s not what she said. She said she is a practicing member of the Church of England, and then she followed that with the simple British statement “and so forth.” Under normal circumstances, no American politician would speak under such vague terms. Eugene McCarthy, the former United States Senator, once said that in Washington, D.C. there are two acceptable forms of religion: vague beliefs expressed strongly and strong beliefs expressed vaguely. What he warned against were strong beliefs expressed strongly. There is no danger of that whatsoever in this interview in the Sunday Times magazine of London with the British Prime Minister. But that’s not to say she didn’t find herself in controversy, and the controversy, it turns out, is the story.
The statement that I just read, largely devoid of any theological content whatsoever, is really the only reference to religion found in the entire interview, but nonetheless it was enough to outrage secularists in Great Britain.
Responding in the newspaper The Independent, the National Secular Society says that the Prime Minister must not seek to “impose her own religious values on others.”
Now just consider this for a moment. You heard everything the Prime Minister said, vague as her comments were. She didn’t make any statement of belief whatsoever, merely identifying herself as a practicing member of the Church of England, and so forth. And yet in that “and so forth,” evidently the secularists in Great Britain are outraged that the Prime Minister just might seek to impose her beliefs on the rest of the nation. As The Independent reports,
“Theresa May has been urged not to ‘abuse her position to promote Christianity’, after revealing how her faith in God is her driving force.
“The National Secular Society raised the alarm after the Prime Minister used a weekend newspaper interview to open up about her religious beliefs.”
When asked how she steeled herself for making tough decisions, the Prime Minister replied, well, we go back to the statement that I read from her interview, a statement in which she said,
“If you know you are doing the right thing, you have the confidence, the energy to go and deliver that right message.”
Now at that point we simply have to note there’s not only no theological content, there’s absolutely no religious content. But it was when she was asked about that moral approach that the Prime Minister said,
“I suppose there is something in terms of faith.”
This is where we come to understand just how secular, inevitably, a secular society must become. That is, if secularism is going to be the operating worldview, then it cannot tolerate any reference, however vague, to any form of religious belief that is seen by its very definition as an imposition. And that tells us a great deal about where Christians now stand.
The Secular Society’s leader Stephen Evans told The Independent,
“Many people lean on their faith during trying times and it’s no surprise that Theresa May is no different.
“However, the Prime Minister would do well to remember that she governs on behalf of everyone, including those of minority faiths and of course the majority of citizens who are not religious.”
He went on to say,
“While it is fine for Theresa May to have a faith, what she mustn’t do is abuse her position to promote Christianity or impose her own religious values on others.”
Now the reason were discussing this today on The Briefing is because in the interview it’s exceedingly clear, certainly clear to any believing Christian, that Theresa May, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, avoided almost studiously and strategically making anything that might be defined in any way as a theological statement. But you’ll notice that that didn’t prevent the Secular Society in Great Britain from making headline news in warning the Prime Minister about the fact that she is now in danger of imposing her beliefs on a secular nation. The other interesting thing to note almost immediately in this story is that the head of the Secular Society claims—and that not without evidence—that the majority of citizens in Great Britain now consider themselves to be secular.
Many Americans have a basically romantic notion about Britain, especially American evangelicals, who think back to the Victorian era and the vast churches that were then filled with people and then make an extension to the present, as if Britain is in any way continuing as a nation publicly marked by a commitment to Christianity. Even though the nation still has a state church, not by coincidence the Church of England, the actual rates of churchgoing in Great Britain have plummeted in such terms that it is now an open question as to whether the Church of England can survive. In recent weeks, it was announced that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, is considering whether or not local churches should even attempt across the nation to have weekly services. The simple numbers aren’t adding up.
But what we need to note that has significance not just on that side of the Atlantic but on this side also is the fact that it only takes the vaguest, most indeterminate religious statements to outrage and to cause concern in the secular left. We shouldn’t actually consider that the head of the Secular Society in Great Britain is stating something other than what he believes when he sounds this alarm. And The Independent has called it just that, an alarm. It is because of this: we need to understand that a secular worldview is threatened by a single theological statement held by a single individual. The reason for that is quite simple. If indeed there is a God, if indeed there is a Creator, if indeed there is a providential and sovereign God who rules over all, then eventually we will have to do with that God. The existence of that God eventually becomes the determining question for everything else. That’s why a secular society is made so unstable, indeed is panicked by any form of theological or religious expression.
It’s bad enough the Secular Society seems to be saying that if we have to have a Prime Minister, that Prime Minister might be vaguely defined a person of faith, but at the very least we should expect that the Prime Minister should keep those beliefs to herself, period, no matter how generalized or vague those beliefs might be.
But the panic among the secularists comes down to the statement by the Prime Minister of Great Britain, when she said,
“I am a practicing member of the Church of England and so forth.”
That might not sound like much, and theologically speaking it certainly is not much, but it’s more than a secular worldview can stand. And it helps to explain why those on the secular left use the language of imposing beliefs on those who simply have them and they are to open their mouths in any way about those beliefs. Though this interview was from Great Britain and had to do with the Prime Minister of that nation, we need to note that this is a pattern found on both sides of the Atlantic, increasingly so and revealingly so.
Is it possible to understand the world without taking religion seriously? Missing religion at the BBC
Next, also from Great Britain, a story about the BBC. The British Broadcasting Corporation is one of the central institutions of Britain, it’s been one of the most respected broadcasters around the world for a matter of decades. In speaking of the BBC, you’re speaking about an international platform for broadcasting that has been of great service and great influence around the world. And thus we should note a headline including this from Christian Today, a British periodical,
“Is The BBC In Danger Of Failing To Take Religion Seriously?”
Ruth Gledhill, a veteran religion reporter in Great Britain, writes,
“A senior BBC presenter has criticised the corporation’s attitude to religious programming in a rare intervention by an insider.
“Roger Bolton of Radio 4’s Feedback says: ‘Just six months after the Archbishop of Canterbury called in these very pages for broadcasters to take religion seriously, it seems the BBC is doing anything but.’”
Gledhill then explains that,
“Bolton spoke out after the BBC decided to drop the post of Head of Religion and place corporate responsibility for religion and ethics under Factual Scotland ‘to simplify the existing management structure’…
“Bolton says this will threaten the coverage of religion on the BBC.”
He asked the question,
“How can young people and immigrants to this country understand the UK without learning of the crucial role Christianity has played in the formation of its political structures and culture? How can people feel they’re being welcomed as equal citizens if we don’t bother to find out about what is often the most important part of their life, their faith?”
In one of the most interesting sections of Gledhill’s article, she says that Bolton says that many of the baby boomers, and he is one, basically thought that religion was a declining influence in the world and didn’t pay it a great deal of attention. But Bolton said this view is now decisively proved wrong. Bolton went on to note that the BBC no longer has a separate commissioning editor in television for religious and ethical programs. It has, however, an editor for almost every specialism except religion.
The really important aspect of this controversy in Great Britain is not so much about the BBC as about the fact that the decision made by the head of the BBC indicates that the corporation broadcasting there on behalf of the public in Great Britain really doesn’t see religion stories as all that important. As Bolton said, many in his own generation were absolutely convinced and remain convinced that religion will have and must have a declining influence around the world. And yet, he argues, looking around the world, that simply defies the obvious and is in contravention of the evidence.
Bolton asked some really important questions. How can you possibly understand what’s going on in the Middle East without understanding that religion plays such an important part? Specifically, he says, how can you understand the world without looking in Islam at the Sunni and Shia split? But at the same time he also was brave enough to say you can’t explain the political structures of Great Britain without talking about the Christian heritage of this nation. At this point we need to be reminded of something, and that is that the European Union in considering its own constitution and charter decided that it would not even acknowledge Christianity as formative in the very idea and history of Europe, because that might privilege Christianity. That’s a form of rewriting history in order to insist on a secular perspective. And yet that was actually the majority view in terms of the establishment of the European Union’s charter.
Finally, on this issue it’s interesting to note that those who are framing this decision, this policy on the part of the BBC, might actually inhabit social worlds in which religion apparently does not play a part. But that actually tells us about that social world; it doesn’t tell us about the real world. And once again, even though this story is about the BBC in Great Britain, it could just as easily be about many in the media elite here in the United States and elsewhere. Roger Bolton says that the BBC simply isn’t taking religion seriously. It’s a serious charge, but that doesn’t mean that it will be taken seriously.
How designers refusing to dress the Trumps exposed the left's inconsistency on moral objection
Next, coming to the United States and thinking about the interplay of culture and worldview, a really interesting article appeared in the New York Times, and it appeared under this headline,
“Making Bold Fashion Statements.”
Once again, it’s not just about fashion, it’s about worldview. The article is by Vanessa Friedman. She writes,
“American fashion is emerging from its shell-shocked postelection state and is beginning to wrestle with how it is going to handle the advent of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States. And just like everything else affected by the recent vote, a great divide has opened up.”
Now, just to say something that should be fundamental, I think most Americans would probably be surprised to know that fashion designers knew and understood themselves to be required to respond to a presidential election in the role as fashion designers. Friedman writes,
“Diane von Furstenberg, the chairwoman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and a very public supporter of Hillary Clinton, sent a letter to the more than 500 members of the council urging them to consider, ‘How can we help on the eve of this new era?’ She suggested that the answer is to ‘embrace diversity, be open-minded, be generous and have compassion’ and to ‘be an example of good.’”
Friedman writes, however,
“Nonetheless, last week, Sophie Theallet, a French designer and self-described ‘immigrant’ to New York who has made a signature out of elegance for all body types and ages, became the first C.F.D.A. member to declare publicly that she would not dress Melania Trump.”
She has, according to media reports, designed dresses for Michelle Obama. Ms. Theallet, according to the paper, established her position in social media and she invited fellow designers also to join her. The New York Times goes on to tell us that the day after Theallet’s letter, Fashionista, a fashion website with more than 2.5 million monthly readers, offered an editorial explaining,
“How We Plan on Covering (or Not Covering) Melania Trump’s Fashion Choices.”
The magazine said,
“We plan on having no part in normalizing the Trump family, particularly when it comes to cataloging the first lady’s fashion choices. As individuals, we don’t want to contribute to humanizing or making light of an administration that poses such serious threats to women, minorities, immigrants and more, and that has so many other troubling implications that we can’t ignore — but that we also can’t talk about in sufficient depth, because this is first and foremost a site about fashion and beauty. We won’t go so far as to say we’ll never write about what Ms. Trump is wearing, but we’re going to reserve it for strictly newsworthy occasions.”
Now at one level, I think one of most important insights here is the absolute self-absorption of the fashion industry. This tells us that the fashion industry as insiders believe themselves to be on a sacred moral mission, and that mission is violated by evidently having anything to do with creating clothing for Melania Trump, or in the case of Fashionista, even reporting on it. The moral stakes were made very clear in this article the New York Times with this statement,
“And it is fair to ask whether — if American fashion designers want to make a statement — it is ultimately better to reject an American president or to try to effect change from within, in whatever way the industry can.”
Now once again, let’s simply note the fact that this is the so-called fashion industry. It’s not previously considered to be a redoubt of political influence, but it clearly considers itself to be. Friedman’s article in the New York Times concludes,
“There will be plenty of time to judge, and plenty of evidence to judge by, when Mr. Trump actually takes office. That judgment will start with what is worn to the inauguration, an event that will send a very clear signal about his and his family’s intentions when it comes to sartorial semiology: whether it will be full of content, or simply style and fancy, signifying nothing.”
Now simply note the expression found in this New York Times article, “sartorial semiology.” That means the messaging that is being sent by the clothing that is worn at the inauguration. Historians might look back to the 1961 inauguration of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States when there was a very great deal made about the sartorial choices made by the new President and also the fashion choices made by his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, then the First Lady. But that was then and this is now. And now what makes all the difference is the fact that fashion designers understand themselves not only to be making a fashion statement, not even merely a cultural statement, but some kind of political and moral statement by whether or not they will create a design for the President and the First Lady of the United States. But from a Christian worldview analysis, I think that the issue of greatest concern in this article is the statement that came from that website Fashionista in which it called upon designers to decline the opportunity to humanize the first lady of the United States. At this point we need to simply ask the question, who is making a political statement here?
But we also need to note the arbitrariness of the New York Times basically celebrating these fashion designers saying that it would violate their moral convictions to do work for the Trump family, in particular for the new First Lady of the United States. Where is that outrage when it comes to cake bakers and florists and photographers who have stated that it would violate their moral principles to have to use their creative efforts in terms of supporting and celebrating a same-sex ceremony, a same-sex marriage? Here we simply have to note that the editorial pages of this very newspaper have been regularly outraged by the suggestion that those creative professionals have any moral right whatsoever to decide for whom they will work and for whom they will not. But when it comes to fashion designers, almost entirely here if not universally isolated on the political left, you will note that all of the sudden what they opposed on the editorial pages just a matter of routine is now endorsed by the very context of this article.
The moral posturing of the fashion designers behind this article would be a little easier to take more seriously if they extended the same respect and seriousness to those engaged in other creative professions. But of course we’re talking here about an article that appeared in the Style section of the New York Times, and it’s this kind of moral statement that in our contemporary times is very much in style.