Some background info on Theo: he is an Englishman who writes a column on religion for the left-liberal Guardian newspaper. It's not surprising that he got the job. He has the vaguest kind of allegiance to the Anglican Church, but at the same time strongly supports the secular liberal order in the UK.
In a recent column, Theo imagined Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats leader, giving the following speech:
In the past decade, religion and secularism have been coming into conflict in a new way. On one side, some religious groups feel hard done by, as if their rights are denied by the secular state. And on the other side, many secularists feel that faith communities are given too much leeway.
There's a conflict between the churches feeling they are losing their rights to follow their beliefs in a public setting and secularists who think the churches are given too many exceptions to liberal principles. How does Theo want Clegg to answer the conundrum? The imagined Clegg speech continues:
I think that the Labour government has got the balance wrong: it has been over-respectful of the claims of religious institutions, and has allowed the principle of secular liberalism to get rather lost.
Well, that's a clear answer. The churches lose out. Why? Because the ruling ideology of the UK is liberalism. Clegg is imagined continuing his speech as follows:
many of us in the party, myself included, feel that the whole idea of an official national church is outdated. We as a nation are bound together not by Anglicanism, or any other form of religion, but by liberal values. Maybe it's time to be honest about that – even if it means a process of constitutional change.
Now of course our change of emphasis will be accused of being anti-religious, as if we want religious believers to be persecuted by the secular state. But this is wrong. All we seek is a reassertion of liberalism as the nation's common ideology.
Isn't that just swell. According to a liberal like Theo, the one thing that is allowed to unite the residents of the UK is liberal ideology. That must make the 5% of the country committed to liberal ideology feel just great.
Theo goes on to describe the UK as a "liberal nation" and in another column he writes:
We need to clarify our national story. Liberalism is what unites us, and this must be made explicit. It is, in effect, our national creed...
We need a revolution that makes our latent national identity explicit. What unites us is not Anglicanism, or any form of Christianity; it is liberalism. That does not make us anti-religious, but it does make us suspicious of any form of religion that is at odds with liberalism.
We need to get a bit fundamentalist about the superiority of liberalism.
So religion is OK if it is not "at odds" with liberalism, liberalism being held to be the superior creed. Of course, any serious kind of religion will inevitably find itself at odds with liberalism, since modern liberalism holds that the source of morality is in the self and its desires and that the highest aim of man and society is to achieve an equal measure of individual autonomy.
(Nor is a political ideology like liberalism much of a basis for national unity. First, it's non-distinct. Liberalism is the orthodoxy in all the Western countries. So someone who is a liberal in England is not distinct in his identity from a Canadian, a Swede or a New Zealander. Second, it requires a level of group think that more traditional national identities don't require. Third, it's shallow, as it doesn't connect people as deeply as kinship, history, culture, language and religion. Fourth, the trajectory of liberalism is toward internationalism and open borders, making it even less suitable as a vehicle for maintaining a national entity.)
Once Theo has pronounced liberalism to be the superior creed, much else follows. For instance, Professor Robert Trigg has written a report which complains that when there is a clash between freedom of religion and other human rights, the freedom of religion is usually held to be secondary and sacrificed. Theo replies:
Trigg has a point: why should one human right trump another? If the right to religious freedom is real, then why should it have to bow to some other right as a matter of course? ... He is right that the current orthodoxy is to limit the right to religious expression: it must not interfere with other rights, so it is only fully operative in the private sphere.
What Trigg's argument proves is that, when it comes to pondering the place of religion in society, the language of rights is a mistake. There is no such thing as "human rights" in relation to religion. Some may say that there is no such thing as human rights at all, but the concept is generally benign: for example talk of the human right not to be tortured motivates opposition to the practice. In relation to religion, by contrast, the concept of human rights is simply not helpful...
... religious liberty is the creation of the liberal state, and it's a non-absolute condition: religious forms that are deemed reactionary, or illiberal, will necessarily be curbed. The classic example is the proscription of Roman Catholicism in early modern England. Was this illiberal, a denial of the Catholics' rights? Sort of, but to say so gets things the wrong way round. The old illiberal form of religion had to be banned, for relative liberty to be allowed to grow...
Does this mean that the liberal state has the right to curb whatever forms of religious expression it wants? Quite simply, yes. It must protect the new space it has created, of relative religious freedom, from reactionary religion. It must decide what is tolerable and what is not – we must trust our elected representatives to draw these ever-shifting lines.
Some interesting admissions here. Theo doesn't really believe in the notion of human rights, though he supports the concept when it serves the liberal cause. He states bluntly that there are no human rights when it comes to religion.
As there are no rights when it comes to religion, other secular rights are to rule in society. Religion is to vacate the public square.
Catholicism is held by Theo to be an illiberal religious form.
The liberal state, according to Theo, has the right to curb whatever form of religious expression it wants. We are supposed to trust our elected representatives to draw the ever-shifting lines between what is to be permitted and what isn't.
(The lines shift not because church beliefs change but because liberalism continues to push its principles in more radical directions. So a church belief that is acceptable today might not be considered so in 20 years time. The churches are expected to keep adapting to the "superior" creed of liberalism.)
So Theo is an honest liberal. He doesn't try to hide liberal rule behind claims of neutrality. He wants liberals to be out and proud. He wants liberal ideology to be recognised as the state creed. Nor does he attempt to uphold a pretence of liberal toleration. He expects that liberals in power will curb, on principle, that which is illiberal.
But there is a lot in the life of man which is illiberal, not just in the realm of religion, but in our national identity, our family life, our relationships, our moral beliefs and our masculine and feminine identities.
We can reject these things or we can reject liberalism. Theo has made his decision, but I'd like to think as the failures of liberalism mount that many others will choose differently.