Jacob Rees-Mogg Kept the Faith and Survived the Ambush
The prospect of the U.K.’s first Catholic prime minister may no longer be wishful thinking.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative politician and member of Parliament, has set the U.K. political media ablaze this week by unashamedly confessing his Catholicism live on breakfast television and followed this up by tweeting a link to his interview, accompanied by a section from the Creed in Latin: “Et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.”
This was sensational stuff. As the case of the former Liberal Democrat party leader, Tim Farron, demonstrated, beliefs surrounding same-sex marriage and abortion are deemed to be the political litmus test applied to Christian politicians in the U.K. (Muslims, Jews and Hindus escape a similar scrutiny) and Tim Farron felt that he needed to step down because it was impossible to be a party leader and be a Christian.
There is a grassroots movement in the Conservative Party to attempt to propel the Catholic father of six into becoming leader and Prime Minister, therefore for Rees-Mogg to openly admit in response to intense questioning by the ever-bombastic Piers Morgan that he opposed abortion in all cases (including rape) and disagreed with the concept of same-sex marriage, was both remarkable and incredibly courageous.
The liberal knives immediately came out, including an offensive and tasteless cartoon in The Times of London, depicting Rees-Mogg as an unborn child facing a deserved abortion thanks to his supposed ‘anti-gay’ views. The columnist for the liberal-left paper The Guardian, Suzanne Moore, wrote that Rees-Mogg was a bigot whose Catholicism has absolutely no place in public life.
Many noted that Rees-Mogg has now bravely scuppered his chances of becoming party leader or prime minster, which may or may not be true, but regardless of his own political ambitions which appear to be modest, he’s actually given Catholics, pro-lifers and any other Christians who hold orthodox views, an enormous boost.
I found my phone ringing off the hook with various TV and radio stations instantly wanting to canvass my views on whether or not Rees-Mogg’s remarks were acceptable and whether or not he ought to withdraw from politics. While no amount of debate is going to see any kind of repeal of the same-sex marriage act in the U.K., Rees-Mogg’s comments allowed an open discussion of the merits of the issue and whether those who oppose the legalization of homosexual unions are in fact the hateful bigots and homophobes of popular imagination. Other stations wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of the abortion issue which again was excellent opportunity to convey the humanity of the unborn child as well as to dish out some home truths about the reality of the abortion in the U.K. (The British people labor under the misapprehension that abortion facilities provide some kind of charitable health service.)
From my perspective as a Catholic journalist and media commentator, Jacob Rees-Mogg had reopened the debate—and even if his apologetic left much to be desired, it was all good.
Others however, weren’t so sure. Dr. Joseph Shaw, Chairman of the Latin Mass Society wrote an excoriating essay on his blog, entitled ‘why Jacob Rees-Mogg got it wrong’, followed by a second post with a handy guide to the way in which Catholics ought to defend themselves on these issues, when they inevitably come up. Dr. Shaw said:
It is very heartening to hear a Catholic politician of Jacob Rees-Mogg's intelligence and integrity defending the Church's teaching. The way he expressed himself does not, unfortunately, make clear that both abortion and same-sex marriage are matters of Natural Law, or reason, as opposed to faith. It is not only Catholics who recognize the moral problems of abortion and same-sex marriage, and we can and should appeal to widely-held moral instincts and public policy considerations in making the Catholic case in the public domain.
I had to confess to some disappointment when I read Dr. Shaw’s initial post because, as someone who has been on the frontline of defending these kinds of issues in the media for the past six years, I know precisely how difficult it is. Even with the benefit of media training, it’s difficult when you are sat there on live television, faced with a hostile audience or host putting words into your mouth and treating you as though you were defending the incineration of live puppies. When I attempted it on the BBC’s flagship political debate program, (I was similarly unprepared, I had been there to raise a specific pro-life issue) the panel looked at me as though I was mad, and my appearance resulted in a stash of hate mail and my being spat at. However once you have opened up on this subject in public, your card is permanently marked, which is why so many politicians prefer to keep silent. In a world where Pope Francis’ words are constantly distorted and misquoted to be thrown back at you by other Catholics and Christians in public life, to hear a politician publicly come out as a loyal son of the Church made my heart leap with joy. I was not the only one; Bishop Mark Davies also praised Rees-Mogg’s integrity.
Just two days before Rees-Mogg’s appearance, I found myself in the same hot-seat as Rees-Mogg, facing the irascible Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, on the subject of gender-neutral clothes for children. The producers had asked for some photographs of my children to illustrate my point that it was perfectly possible for children to wear unisex clothes; dungarees and things themed with dinosaurs and space-rockets, but what I wanted to strongly refute was the notion that sex or gender could in any way be fluid. I was warned that the entire segment could be subject to change, that “Piers would be Piers”—and thus it happened, that I was barely able to get a word in edgeways. I might have been in broad agreement with Morgan but he was more interested in forcefully imposing his own views on the matter than having any kind of nuanced debate.
Jacob Rees-Mogg was similarly ambushed. He’d been invited on the show to discuss his political views on Brexit, but instead found himself grilled on whether or not he believed homo-genital acts to be sinful, what he thought of homosexual unions and his views on abortion. If his apologetic wasn’t perfect it was precisely because he was speaking as politician, not theologian.
One of the criticisms of Rees-Mogg from Catholics on social media was that he did not explicitly state his intention to repeal or reform laws surrounding same-sex marriage or abortion, which would be his duty as a Catholic. What that overlooks, however, is that in the British system, a prime minister does not enjoy similar executive powers to that of the U.S. president and so matters deemed to be based upon personal morality (although these are arguably in the public interest) are not deemed to be party-political matters and politicians are allowed to vote according to their conscience instead of following the party line. Rees-Mogg was right to note that these are matters of democracy that he would not change, not least because he does not have the right to do so; any change would come from a bill introduced into Parliament, probably by an individual, which would then be subject to an overall vote by MPs. In the context of British democracy, Rees-Mogg’s answers are entirely correct—you can guarantee that he would vote the right way on these issues—but they also appeased the public who were assured that no matter how ‘abhorrent’ his views, he was not keen to impose his religiously-determined conscience on the British people, without their consent.
This last point has proved crucial and Rees-Mogg’s plain speaking could eventually work strongly in his favor, as the British public are heartily sick of the glozing rhetoric of their professional politicians, reminiscent of Milton’s serpent. Despite his latter conversion to Catholicism, former prime minister Tony Blair ‘didn’t do God’ in public, and while vicar’s daughter Theresa May may talk the talk on religious freedom, she is yet to translate any of her fine words into action. Hers is a government stuffed full of slightly right-of-center liberals which has just introduced a measure to make changing one’s sex, as easy as changing one’s name with no medical verification required.
Regardless of whether or not they subscribe to his faith, the general public appreciate Rees-Mogg’s refreshing honesty in stating it (Tim Farron’s downfall was his obfuscation) and are now beginning to kick back against old prejudices and re-examine their preconceptions about Catholicism with fresh eyes. The prospect of the U.K.’s first Catholic prime minister may no longer be wishful thinking.