Thursday, September 07, 2017

Why Rees-Mogg is wrong

The knives are out for Jacob Rees-Mogg MP for saying that, as a Catholic, he opposes Same Sex Marriage (SSM) and abortion in all circumstances, in this TV interview. I agree and support him, but I feel I must qualify the way he expressed himself, not on a matter of mere technical accuracy but in relation to questions of fundamental importance.

First, he repeatedly notes that he accepts Church teaching, and this is why he opposes these two things. Since many non-Catholics agree with him, today and in the past, this seems a curious way of talking. It seems to be an implicit appeal to religious freedom, and this is indeed how the debate about his comments is now playing out in the media: the question has become 'can Catholics lead political parties, or hold important government positions?' The argument for answering that question in the affirmative is 'religious freedom'. We shouldn't exclude people from positions just because of their religious affiliation. Rees-Mogg and other Catholics should be allowed their eccentric views because those views are part of being Catholic.



This line of argument has a number of unfortunate consequences, not all of which make an appearance in the interview, but all of which will come back to haunt us.

a. It implies that views about SSM and abortion belong on the 'faith' side of a 'faith' vs. 'reason' distinction. In liberal political theory, this means that they are not part of public discourse (which can only appeal to what people in different religions have in common: i.e. reason) and should not be allowed to influence political decision-making. Now, we can argue with this theory and we can dispute the understanding of the relationship between faith and reason it rests upon, but in making brief public statements and in debates the fact that the theory is hugely influential among listeners must be taken into account.

The simple way out here is to emphasise that in the cases of both SSM and abortion Catholics and all others of the same view are appealing not to faith but to reason, a reason which includes the discussion about values which is a necessary part of political discourse. That is, in fact, what the most prominent opponents of SSM and of abortion have consistently laboured to do, in the case of abortion over many decades. Their opponents have equally consistently striven to present them as motivated solely by religious faith (or bigotry, if you prefer), because if that is so they are effectively silenced.

In short, Rees-Mogg's appeal to religious faith plays right into the hands of those who want to make opposition to SSM and to abortion unsayable in public. Once that has happened, they will move on to make it unsayable in private - indeed, they've already started on that. Religious freedom will not protect what has come to be seen as injustice in the public realm: it will not allow us to impose our bigotry about homosexuality on our children any more than it will allow us to practice wife-beating.

b. Suppose, per impossible, that the strategy were successful, and the liberals allowed Catholics the kind of protected private space they sometimes allow Muslims, and say: we must allow those Catholics a bubble of autonomy to be intolerant of homosexual relationships and prevent their daughters getting abortions. Obviously, this is never going to happen, but if it did: it would mean hanging out all our non-Catholic allies out to dry. The extremely courageous secular homosexuals who refuse to conform to type and opposed gay marriage; the non-religious doctors and nurses who can feel in the depths of their being that cutting a tiny human into pieces in the womb is not what they studied medicine to do: what are we saying to them? That they are outside our cosy protected space and can be devoured by the wolves of the new orthodoxy?

c. It is not just a matter of media or political strategy: the idea that our opposition to SSM or abortion derives from faith rather than reason (even when their relationship is correctly understood) is not what the Church teaches. We know that God has asked us to be baptised, from revelation, which we believe by faith. We Catholics are obliged to abstain from meat on Fridays, by command of the Church which has authority over us (and not over non-Catholics). By contrast, we know that marriage cannot be contracted between two people of the same sex, and that killing the unborn is wrong, by reason. It is a matter of Natural Law, not Divine or Ecclesiastical Law.

What the Church tells us is that the obligation of keeping most of the Ten Commandments does not derive from a divine command which could apply to one community and not another, or varied over time. There are many, many obligations in the Old Testament and in the Church which apply to some groups of people and not others, and apply at one time and not at another, and there are others which are universal and unchangeable. We say that the latter are matters of Natural Law. Because the obligations of Natural Law apply to everyone all the time, they must be knowable, at least in principle, to everyone all the time: that is, by reason. When God commanded the Israelites not to kill, on Mount Sinai, He was reminding them of an obligation which already applied to them, and to everyone, and always will.

It should be obvious how vitally important this distinction is in the debates about SSM and abortion. If we allow the impression to form that SSM and abortion is something which Catholics can't do because of rules which apply only to Catholics, then as far as the law of the land is concerned we have lost the argument in a totally irretrievable way. We have also given a totally false impression of the teaching of the Church.

Second, Rees-Mogg keeps saying that marriage is a 'sacrament'. What is the significance of this supposed to be? On this I share the exasperation of the canonist blogger Edward Peters. The sacrament of matrimony takes place when two baptised Christians contract a marriage. The debate about SSM has got nothing, as far as I can see, absolutely nothing, to do with the sacrament of matrimony. It has everything to do with state's recognition of regulation of marriage.

The marriages the state recognises and regulates will be sacramental when they are contracted by two baptised Christians (the Church teaches us); when contracted validly by a couple who are not both baptised Christians they will be what we call 'natural marriages': perfectly licit, binding, life-long, and the proper context for sexual relations and the raising of children.

The only reason I can imagine for Rees-Mogg's baffling but repeated references to sacramentality is that he wants to avail himself of the distinction the government started making in the context of the same sex marriage legislation, between 'civil marriage' and 'religious marriage'. As many people pointed out this was a completely new distinction, with (at that time) no basis in law or linguistic usage. People are either married or they aren't, according to either civil or to canon law. If they are married, they may have been married on a beach in California by a humanist Registrar, or in St Peter's in Rome by the Pope. As a matter of fact, the former may be a sacramental marriage, if the couple were both baptised Christians and neither of them was impeded by Canon Law from getting married in that particular way (as Catholics are, but other Christians are not), and the latter might be a non-sacramental marriage, for example if one of the parties was not baptised.

In short, if Rees-Mogg is trying to appeal to a distinction between marriage-as-religious-ceremony and marriage-without-religious-ceremony, he has chosen the wrong way to do it. Nevertheless, this remains my best explanation for his talking about marriage as a sacrament.

The promise of this spurious distinction between 'civil' and 'religious' marriage was that the question of religious personnel, buildings, and services being used in marriage services could be separated from the question of the legal right to marry, which was being given to same-sex couples. The idea was that such couples could marry, but not have the right to a religious service. This idea collapsed immediately, however, from both directions. On the one side Anglican (and other Protestant) ministers wanted to carry our same-sex marriages in their churches. On the other side, same-sex couples pointed out that they were being denied something not denied to heterosexual couples: clearly wrongful discrimination, if it is conceded that SSM is in fact possible. It was a complete dead-end as a distinction in political terms, as well as being conceptually incoherent.

Third, Rees-Mogg makes a distinction between the two issues, of SSM and abortion, which is seriously unhelpful. He says that in the case of SSM the couple involved are doing something themselves, whereas in the case of abortion the rights of the unborn child are at issue. This may seem plausible enough at first glance, until it is remembered that the whole debate about SSM was about the status of marriage as a legally recognised, public institution.

The implication that we can let homosexual couples who wish to 'marry' get on with it, whereas we can't let abortionists and their clients get on with abortion, suggests that marriage is not a public institution with implications for other married couples, children, and society as a whole. Not only was this suggestion not accepted by the Catholic opposition to SSM, it was not accepted by the proponents of SSM either. Same-sex couples were already legally free to shack up with each other, and engage in sexual activity, and they were, by the time of the SSM debate, free to enter into 'Civil Partnerships' which gave them certain legal privileges.

What was being held back from them was the recognition of their relationships as legally equivalent to marriage. That recognition meant that the law ceased to give proper recognition to the natural institution of marriage, which has a different nature and purpose from other kinds of relationship. It ceased to be possible for the law, and therefore employers, the armed services, the taxman, adoption agencies, and a lot of other institutions and individuals, to recognise the difference between a married couple, and a couple in a same-sex relationship who'd been through a certain legal form. Any rights, privileges, and special treatment accorded to married couples would from then on have to be accorded to the latter as well, which means in practice that such privileges are watered down, distorted, or abolished.

What is surprising about Rees-Mogg's position here, as with his suggestion that opposition to abortion is a matter of faith rather than reason, is how his position undermines that of the many perceptive and courageous defenders of life and marriage, many but not all of them Catholics, who battled and continue to battle for common sense in public debates all over the world. If I were them, I must say I'd be pretty miffed.

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39 comments:

  1. What a destructive post. JRM's comments were put forward in a 3 minute interview on Good Morning Britain, he was not trying to give a lecture on faith and morals.

    Many ordinary Catholics will have been greatly cheered by his remarks - for once, a practising, believing Catholic not afraid to nail his colours to the mast.

    You refer to his "bigotry". Can I say that you shock me.
    Luckily, the Catholics who were cheered by his remarks will not read your intemperate and wayward posting.

    Terry Middleton

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    1. I don't refer to his bigotry.

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    2. I don't think it's a destructive post. Yes, of course, many Catholics will be greatly cheered. I am one. But as I read the transcript I thought: "that's wrong", "that too" ... And this post has articulated why, well. I didn't see it as a dig at Rees-Mogg, but as a back-stop.

      Please go back and re-read the "bigotry" point.

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  2. Thank you, thank you and thank you.

    I guess he means well but this, on his part - for such an intelligence man - a most poor defence of what we actually believe and why. Like you I found the appeal to sacramentality absurd.

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  3. Ho, hum. Jesus told us to expect a lot worse than merely not being allowed to become Prime Minister.

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    1. A Prime Minister with genuine Catholic values would be an asset to the nation.Rethink your ho hums.

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    2. The case against Rees-Mogg is his voting record on the matters that have in fact come before the House of Commons during his time there, set in the context of his wider political associations and of how he makes his money. On those, not least from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching, he is a moral disgrace. That is not ameliorated in any way by his hypothetical views on abortion or on same-sex marriage.

      In Britain, legislation may have something of a role on abortion, and should certainly be supported if and when it were to be proposed, but the fact of the matter is that to try and use it as the principal instrument is, again, simply naive in a country where one in three women has had an abortion. That figure is not skewed by London or what have you. It is constant across and throughout England, Scotland and Wales. In Jacob Rees-Mogg's constituency of North East Somerset, one in three women has had at least one abortion.

      Rather than an individual candidate about whom hardly anyone would ever ask, any party that had a formal policy of banning or greatly restricting abortion by legislation would lose every seat in Great Britain. Every single one. That is just a fact. In so doing, it would close the debate on abortion forever.

      The same is true of any party led by someone who was openly of that view. Although checking the parliamentary records would have set them right, most people had no idea what John Smith's, or Charles Kennedy's, or Iain Duncan Smith's view on abortion was. But everyone now knows what Rees-Mogg's is. Ho, hum. Jesus told us to expect a lot worse than merely not being allowed to become Prime Minister.

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    3. "any party that had a formal policy of banning or greatly restricting abortion by legislation would lose every seat in Great Britain. Every single one."
      I don't think that's true at all...in fact, it would force discussion of the issue (though the media would unite in trying to keep biological facts out of the discussion and frame discourse instead on 'women's rights'.). I note that at least one dominant party in another part of the United Kingdom is clearly opposed to abortion (though technically Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain).

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  4. I think JR-M is to be applauded for expressing his total opposition to abortion and SSM. There were, however, some serious flaws in what he said, as you have mentioned. There were others too, such as what he said about accepting the law on abortion as an enactment in a democratic society.

    I suspect, however, that few Catholic politicians or others in public life would have stated their adherence to Catholic teaching as clearly as he did. Kudos to him for that.

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    1. You have raised an interesting point. There are Catholic politicians who publicly support same sex marriage and urge voters to support ssm. With such a blatant disregard for Church doctrine, why do they consider themselves to be Catholic.Apart from gross hypocrisy I think it is a cynical plot to cause division and destroy the Church and I don't understand why these perpetrators are not officially excommunicated.This 'ordinary' Catholic admires JRM for having the courage of his convictions by saying he personally supports the teachings of the Catholic Church. He is a great example to all of us.

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    2. "I suspect, however, that few Catholic politicians or others in public life would have stated their adherence to Catholic teaching as clearly as he did. Kudos to him for that."

      So say I !

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  6. I'm neither a politician nor a philosopher. And I think he is right. I'm saying this over 200 years late but we have let religion become far too small an issue in politics. Yes, these sins are against the natural law as even the philosophers knew it. But how much worse is it they are against the good God and His Church. Further, if all we are are random collections of atoms with no soul how can sodomy or dismembering infants be unreasonable? We've been playing that reason card long since that hand was over.
    Paul Long

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  7. If opposition to abortion is based on reason and argument rather than faith and revelation then why are so few people persuaded by these reasons and arguments?

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    1. You could also ask why so few people are convinced by divine revelation.

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    2. Because being convinced by revelation is not the conclusion of a moral/philosophical argument.

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    3. If you think that people are reliably convinced by complex philosophical arguments, you can't have spent much teaching philosophy.

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    4. Precisely! Which is why so few people find arguments against abortion and SSM based on an appeal to the Natural Law convincing!

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    5. Free will comes into it - to refuse to accept a cogent argument involves a perverse act of the will.

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  8. St Paul makes it quite clear that the sin of the homosexual act is contrary to divine law and to natural law:

    For this cause God delivered them up to shameful affections. For their women have changed the natural use into that use which is against nature. Romans 1:26


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  9. For this cause God delivered them up to shameful affections. For their women have changed the natural use into that use which is against nature. And, in like manner, the men also, leaving the natural use of the women, have burned in their lusts one towards another, men with men working that which is filthy, and receiving in themselves the recompense which was due to their error. Romans 1, 26-27

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  10. Give the guy a break. He was calmly defending Catholic social doctrine under heated questioning from tabloid journalists - not delivering a class in semantics. He was magnificent. You are being na├»ve if you think that our society can be brought to understand that SSM and abortion are in conflict with “reason”. And his references to marriage as a sacrament were clearly meant to say: a sacramental marriage in Catholic terms can only be contracted by a man and a woman.

    Rees-Mogg is clearly interested in being a future leader of the Tory Party and was glad to have an opportunity to get his Catholic views out in the open so he isn’t subjected to death by a thousand cuts like poor old Tim Farron. I wish him luck – and so should you.

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    1. I totally concur. Should Dr Shaw have been placed in the same situation I wonder how he would have fared? The chance to sit down & think the content of a blog - altering & amending - is not the same as sitting in front of a live interviewer (probably very professional) with no notice of the questions is a different situation completely.
      It also concerns me that Dr Shaw's blog goes under the title "LMS Chairman". Although (in very small print) he does claim that his comments are personal I do wonder how many readers are misled by the title to equate his ramblings with the stated position of the LMS. I have already suggested an alternative title "Dr Joe's Ramblings"

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  11. I agree with DeHeretico. It wasn't a philosophically foolproof three minutes (how could it have been?) but that's not the point. JRM has laid down a marker in the public mind. He's stood up for his Catholic faith and for the truth, and Joe Public will remember that. It could even be a turning point in the national conversation. Who knows? We should be careful, therefore, not to be too pedantic in our responses, pourng cold water over a pretty bravura performance.

    The parallel with Tim Farron is a good one. TF tried first to water down, them hide his beliefs and was swallowed whole by the media monster. JRM, on the other hand, has thrown down the gauntlet. He's effectively stood up in the public square and said, 'I'm a Catholic, this is what I believe, what are you going to do about it?

    He'll get a fair few brickbats, but also much respect. As will the Church, I'm sure.

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  13. He did not invoke arguments based on faith in regard to abortion and in regard to marriage he is correct about its sacramentality (even in the natural order) and the consequent absence of any authority to regulate it attaching to the state. As Leo XIII observes: "Marriage has God for its Author, and was from the very beginning a kind of foreshadowing of the Incarnation of His Son; and therefore there abides in it a something holy and religious; not extraneous, but innate; not derived from men, but implanted by nature. Innocent III, therefore, and Honorius III, our predecessors, affirmed not falsely nor rashly that a sacrament of marriage existed ever amongst the faithful and unbelievers. We call to witness the monuments of antiquity, as also the manners and customs of those people who, being the most civilized, had the greatest knowledge of law and equity. In the minds of all of them it was a fixed and foregone conclusion that, when marriage was thought of, it was thought of as conjoined with religion and holiness. Hence, among those, marriages were commonly celebrated with religious ceremonies, under the authority of pontiffs, and with the ministry of priests. So mighty, even in the souls ignorant of heavenly doctrine, was the force of nature, of the remembrance of their origin, and of the conscience of the human race. As, then, marriage is holy by its own power, in its own nature, and of itself, it ought not to be regulated and administered by the will of civil rulers, but by the divine authority of the Church, which alone in sacred matters professes the office of teaching. Next, the dignity of the sacrament must be considered, for through addition of the sacrament the marriages of Christians have become far the noblest of all matrimonial unions. But to decree and ordain concerning the sacrament is, by the will of Christ Himself, so much a part of the power and duty of the Church that it is plainly absurd to maintain that even the very smallest fraction of such power has been transferred to the civil ruler."

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  14. Seriously, blog posts like this are unhelpful and pretty mean-spirited. I wonder whether the author would have enunciated the position he states here so clearly on live television with a glaring and rather aggressive interviewer, all in the space of 3 minutes. Rees-Mogg does not claim to be a theologian but a politician and faithful Catholic. Kudos to him that he was bold in this day and age to express his opposition to both, and not take the weasly way out that somebody of the like of the spineless IDS has done on numerous occasions.

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  15. JR-M's comments are reminiscient of one of his appearances on Have I Got News for You. He was asked why he voted against same-sex marriage and said he had obeyed "the whip of the Catholic Church". It's a neat line, but again it's not much use in the wider debate for the same reasons discussed here.

    It's also rather a poor means of evangelising. If we start to say that we Catholics labour sadly under the rule of the Church and might speak or act otherwise were the Church more lenient, we give the impression that a) it's pretty unpleasant being a Catholic so nobody else should subject themselves to what we have to put up with, and b) the Church i.e. the hierarchy) should relent and stop being mean.

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  16. By contrast, we know that marriage cannot be contracted between two people of the same sex, and that killing the unborn is wrong, by reason. It is a matter of Natural Law, not Divine or Ecclesiastical Law.

    Not Divine or Ecclesiastical Law?

    What the Church tells us is that the obligation of keeping most of the Ten Commandments does not derive from a divine command which could apply to one community and not another, or varied over time.

    Not from Divine Law or teaching ? Not the teaching of the Holy Spirit?

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    1. The Natural Law is taught by the Holy Spirit, it is taught by Scripture, and it is taught by the Church. Nevertheless its status is distinct from the status of Divine Law which can be changed: for example the food purity laws which were binding only on the Jews and only between the time of their promulgation on Mount Sinai until the time of the Church.

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    2. So you agree that that marriage cannot be contracted between two people of the same sex, and that killing the unborn is wrong, is also Divine and Ecclesiastical Law and so is the Ten Commandments.

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    3. Yes, they reiterate those principles, and indeed they may establish penalties associated with them too.

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  17. On 5 February 2013 Sir Edward Leigh MP, speaking in the debate on same-sex 'marriage', actually quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the floor of the House of Commons. He also made a neat point about Parliamentary sovereignty when he quoted the Earl of Pembroke in 1648 saying that Parliament could do anything apart from making a man a woman or a woman a man - before pointing out that in 2004 it did precisely this with the Gender Recognition Act. The speech may be read at the Catholic Voices website.

    To oppose what Cameron fatuously called 'equal marriage' is to lay oneself open to the charge of 'homophobia'. Amber Rudd, referring the other day to the group National Action, put its 'homophobia' before other unpleasant characteristics such as its anti-Semitism, racialism and incitement to violence.

    For the record, I don't think JRM was at his best in this interview. But to say he is 'wrong' is going too far. He might have put up a better argument for his case, but that's hardly the same thing.

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    1. Well said.

      And I'm glad to learn about Edward Leigh's speech.

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  18. For a (complimentary) comment from a minister in the Free Church of Scotland see:
    https://theweeflea.com/2017/09/07/the-man-who-could-make-me-vote-tory/

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  19. Perfectly bizarre wailing in certain quarters that they have somehow been dispossessed. Dispossessed of what, exactly? It is still only 10 years since Tony Blair could not become a Catholic until he had ceased to be Prime Minister. He, who had changed the Constitution more than any Prime Minister before or since, and far more than Corbyn proposes to do, did not attempt clarify the law that still appears to bar Catholics from the Premiership, because he knew that, whatever the law might be, a Catholic Prime Minister was still politically impossible. The insistence on both the constitutional and the political points would not have come from his own party.

    Oh, well, Jesus Himself thought that this kind of thing was good for us. Arguments in defence of the Catholic Church's definition of marriage as the best basis for the law of the land, and in defence of the right to make that case, ought to have been offered in 1533. As, of course they were. (Even Luther and Tyndale supported Catherine of Aragon against Henry VIII; in its origins, the English Reformation was as untheological as anything has ever been.) Rees-Mogg's and his supporters' weird sense of their own impugned entitlement is like his routine quotation of the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and Victorian Anglican hymnody: it does not come across as culturally Catholic at all. As the New York Irish used to say of John F. Kennedy, "He never did a day of Catholic school in his life."

    As to those who until this week held that it was, and ought to be, impossible for a Catholic to become Prime Minister, but who have now decided that Rees-Mogg speaks for them despite their Protestantism, see above on marriage, while on abortion, to which church do you belong? The Church of England, has never been against abortion. It, the Church of Scotland, and the Methodist Church wrote suspiciously similar reports that David Steel then wrote up as what became the 1967 Abortion Act. In eventually backing down on several Lords amendments to that Bill, amendments that the Commons rejected by which the Lords were determined to keep, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, saved his own and his brethren's seats in the House of Lords. In other words, there are still bishops in the House of Lords at all because they supported abortion, and not as some Medieval or Early Modern quirk, but a mere 50 years ago.

    The de facto prohibition on a pro-life Prime Minister is at least 50 years old. Since the 1967 Abortion Act, only three opponents of that legislation and of its successive extensions have even been candidates to lead either of the main parties, in the sense of being on the ballot paper in the end. Those have been John Smith, John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith. Only Smith and Duncan Smith have won the Leadership (in Smith's case, as long ago as 1992), and only Smith has come within sight of becoming Prime Minister, although even he never did so. It is inconceivable, so to speak, that anyone of that view could ever again make it onto the ballot to lead either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party.

    We have already seen that the same thing now applied to same-sex marriage. If keeping Andrea Leadsom off the ballot meant that there simply would not be an election at all, then there simply would not be an election at all, even though she would have lost it anyway. And even though she would have lost it anyway, there simply was not an election at all. Jacob Rees-Mogg, nota bene.

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    1. I don't agree that an anti-abortion politician cannot lead a party, but s/he'd need to stand up to the media bullies. But what's really needed is a new populist Christian democratic party. Why try to rehabilitate the Tories (who are no longer conservative) or Labour (who care nothing for working people)? The established parties don't represent their constituencies; they select candidates (who often don't even live in the constituency) for whom we have the privilege of voting. It's not much better than old Soviet-style elections. People should stand from their own constituencies and control the party, not the other way round.

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