By Leon Spence
You will recall that I have mentioned to you before the challenges of writing a regular column; that difficult task of prophesying what news will still be current in the intervening time between writing and publication, and the jeopardy of making an absolute fool of yourself in doing so.
You will have heard many journalists talk of the long summer parliamentary recess as ‘silly season’; those two or three months when MPs go on holiday and the news and gossip of the Westminster village all but grinds to a halt. It stops to the extent that – and I kid you not here – a few weeks ago I found myself on the front page of my local newspaper just because I had mentioned on social media that I enjoyed playing the role of Father Christmas for functions and fayres. In the lazy days of August it was judged to be enough of a story to make headline news. The story was the epitome of ‘silly season’, the bane of columnists.
With that in mind, about four weeks ago I was looking for inspiration for this column. There had been a few stories in the media about a slightly eccentric and traditional backbench Conservative Member of Parliament coming from relative obscurity virtually overnight to being the hot favourite to be leader of his party, and potentially Prime Minister.
Of course, that MP was Jacob Rees-Mogg, a proud Catholic and someone whom article after article portrayed as being the Conservative answer to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn; a man true to his beliefs and ideology, a man of principle willing to eschew the triangulation of modern day political policy making.
I thought to myself ‘wouldn’t it be grand to interview Mr Rees-Mogg for my column?’ and dropped an email to his parliamentary office to ask if it would be possible to have a chat with him.
Now, more often than not, when you ask a politician if they would like to talk about their faith, they will run for the hills. In modern politics a Christian belief is often seen as guaranteed career destruction – look no further than the treatment of Tim Farron and his largely hypothesised views on homosexuality during the last election campaign, for evidence of that. So in e-mailing Rees-Mogg I didn’t have too much expectation of receiving a reply.
Imagine my astonishment, then, when less than an hour later an email dropped into my inbox from the MP’s diary secretary very politely declining my request, explaining that ‘a number of interviews have been published recently… and he thinks it likely that people will be rather bored by him by now.’
It is probably fair to say that if Mr Rees-Mogg thought that the public would be bored by him in the middle of August then by last week they must have reached saturation point.
Of course, you will know by now of the MP’s appearance on ITV’s Good Morning Britain when, some would argue, he was ambushed by presenter Piers Morgan asking pointed questions about same sex marriage and abortion. You will be aware of the robust defence Mr Rees-Mogg put up for the teaching of the Church on both issues; and no doubt you will be familiar with the criticisms written about him in the secular media – and the overwhelmingly supportive editorials of the Catholic press.
When it comes to Church teaching, far more knowledgeable commentators than I have expressed their admiration for Mr Rees-Mogg’s defence of it and clarity about how it affects his personal political beliefs. Who could not have agreed with Bishop Philip Egan when he told the Catholic Herald that the politician gave a ‘wonderful witness on ITV as a Catholic’?
So I really do not intend for Mr Rees-Mogg to be the focus of my column this week but rather look to the underlying point as to what that interview was about.
I don’t know whether you have noticed but, it seems to me at least, over the past year faith and the battle for secularisation by the state have become a battleground like never before.
It all seemingly started with Theresa May becoming Prime Minister and her guarded willingness to talk about how her personal faith had shaped her into the politician she is today.
Then there was the promise of a relaxation of funding criteria for new Church schools to allow a greater proportion of faith-based admissions, and the subsequent backing away from the policy after the surprising General Election result.
I urge you to take a look in the more serious reaches of our news media and over recent months virtually every day you will find a story about faith and
religion, the way it impacts on society and what secularists are doing to fight back against it.
In just the past few weeks The Times has run stories on Catholic prison inmates now outnumbering Anglicans; an increase in the number of animals killed without stunning; a Christian family suing their child’s school due to gender neutral uniform policies which allow boys to wear dresses; Ofsted stepping into arguments over whether hijabs should be allowed to be worn in primary schools; and just this week an article claiming ‘Most British Catholics back right to abortion’. Those stories are the tip of the iceberg and from just one publication; there are many others.
It was indeed The Times that ran a particularly abhorrent cartoon last week of an unborn Mr Rees Mogg holding a placard stating ‘Anti-Gay, Anti-Abortion’ and a speech bubble proclaiming ‘Well, that’s my leadership plan terminated…’
There is a battle going on for secularisation arguably like never before, and energised by claims last week of Britain becoming a country where the minority of us have faith, and it is up to us to fight for the huge good that organised religion does and seek to influence decision makers.
Last night I went to the cinema to see the new blockbuster adaptation of the Stephen King novel IT, a horror story of a small New England town overtaken every 27 years by a great evil in the shape of a demonic clown and being fought off by a group of adolescent loners who seemingly are the only ones truly understanding what is going on.
As the clown seeks to pick each one off by exposing their very worst fears they realise that the only way to battle it is by working together, placing their faith in each other and overcoming their fears.
It is a wonderful film that is just as much about friendship and the coming of age as it is about a scary clown; but as I sat watching it I was struck by how it reflected the war between secularisation and our faith.
There are a great many people out there for whom religion is an anathema, who would like to see the end of it.
Not all of us can assert our beliefs as eruditely or as prominently as Jacob Rees-Mogg but we can all do our bit in standing up for our faith and explaining proudly and courteously why we believe the things that we do to others. We may fear being ridiculed but, just like those children in IT, together there is nothing that we cannot overcome.
In the months and years to come you can guarantee that each of us will be subjected to ridicule for our Catholicism. I ask you what better example can there be of defending it than Mr Rees-Mogg?
Together, we can re-assert the importance of religion in policy making.
Leon is a councillor, writer and charity trustee. You can follow him on Twitter @cllrleonspence
Picture: Jacob Rees-Mogg MP speaking to supporters during a Conservative Voice meeting, in the Boothroyd Room at Portcullis House, London.