Melanie Phillips: Into the Madness


You don’t fight religion with religion. You fight it with secularism.


The journalist and commentator Melanie Phillips wasn’t happy about the outcome of the US election.

In her piece “America goes into the darkness”, she says:

“The greatest satisfaction today over the re-election of Obama is not being felt in the Democratic Party. It is not being felt among the media, who are no longer objective observers but have turned instead into corrupt partisans who ruthlessly censored the truth about Obama and helped peddle his demonising propaganda about his opponent. It is not being felt among the gloating, drooling decadents of the western left who now scent a great blood-letting of all who dare defy their secular inquisition. No, the greatest satisfaction is surely being felt in Iran.”

Secular inquisition?

It amuses me when faithheads like Phillips can employ no stronger negative metaphor to vent their fury than a religious one. Although Phillips is Jewish rather than Catholic, this is revealing. It’s like she accepts political Christianity is a bad thing (it is).

I was happy with the result of the US election but I don’t consider myself the “western left”. If anything I’m probably slightly on the right.

And Obama is not exactly a secularist’s wet dream. Yes, he is probably more supportive of secularism than Romney, but he disgracefully sold out America’s constitutional guarantee of free speech in the face of pitchfork-wielding Muslim thugs who were offended – yet again – by moving pictures on a computer screen. As a secularist I was also disappointed Obama didn’t include “religious or non-religious” in this otherwise moving section of his victory speech:

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

But I’m satisfied with an Obama victory because, on balance, I think he is stronger than Romney on the issues I feel most strongly about: equality and the role of religion. On women’s rights, on the influence of religion (which is often the highest hurdle to achieving equality), and on equal marriage, I just couldn’t trust Romney and I’m glad the US electorate has sent him packing. And I’ve never been able to understand the American right’s supposed “prolife” stance on abortion but their deliberate and cynical refusal to maintain at least some intellectual consistency and apply that principle to the death penalty or, indeed, universal healthcare – issues on which many Republicans seem to be resolutely anti-life.

What’s also encouraging from an equality perspective is that Romney wasn’t even the most hardline social conservative amongst the Republican presidential candidates. He was considered something of a moderate, but he was still too hardline for the American voters. I hope one consequence of Romney’s defeat will be that Republicans ditch their unpleasant social conservatism fetish and train their sights on fiscal conservatism. I don’t necessarily agree with all that agenda either, but I’d just be pleased if they stopped obsessing over what people do with their own bodies.

Which brings us back to Phillips. She goes on to say:

“Obama’s agenda has been crystal clear from the get-go: to increase the power of the state over the citizen at home…”

Of course, as long as women don’t expect to have a say in what happens to their bodies, and as long as same-sex couples don’t expect equal legal treatment, all Republicans are perfectly relaxed about what citizens do in the privacy of their home.

I certainly don’t disagree with everything Phillips ever says, and I don’t like the way she is often caricatured by others or how even her legitimate arguments are dismissed because of who she is. The problem of Islamism is frighteningly real, and I still believe it will be the defining issue of this century.

Where I really disagree with Phillips, though, is on secularism. I see secularism as part of the antidote to religious power. Phillips sees it as the devil’s work. Like Blair, I’m guessing she considers secularism good for the Middle East but bad for the West, which makes literally no sense to me. One of the strongest signals we can send to the Middle East is a whole-hearted embrace of secularism in the West.

In this article, and her other writing, she expresses concern about Islamist governments in the Middle East, and I absolutely share that concern. Well, let’s say tomorrow all countries in the Middle East were to pass rock-solid secular constitutions guaranteeing the rights of all their citizens, whatever their religion if any, and that they actually implemented those constitutions in practice so that religion – whatever the franchise – was not indulged with the insane privileges it has historically enjoyed, thus clipping back its menacing and maniacal tentacles. Would Phillips object to that? Would that warrant the alarming description, “secular inquisition”? Would she see that as yet another instance of “aggressive secularism”? Maybe not. She might even be delighted by such a game-changing political development. I certainly would.

Look at this bit:

“Britain and the Europeans love Obama because they think he will end American exceptionalism and turn the US into a pale shadow of themselves. What they don’t realise is that, all but lobotomised by consumerist rights, state dependency, victim culture, sentimentality, post-religion, post-nationalism and post-Holocaust and Empire guilt, Britain and Europe are themselves fast going down the civilisational tubes.”

How could we forget? That’s what wrong with the West: not enough religion amongst the people, our politics, and our vital state institutions. Oh, Melanie, how right you are. If only we had more religion, like they do in, err, the Middle East. “Different religion, completely different,” I imagine she would fume. Different maybe, but the same. Political Christianity was bad before and what remains of it now is still bad. If it were fully unleashed and unmuzzled, as it is desperate to be, it would be a threat to global stability just like political Islam is. The phrase “Mother of all battles” was practically invented for a war in a nuclear age between competing politico-religious ideologies.

Melanie, secularism is part of the solution. It is not part of the problem. You don’t fight religious power with more or different religious power. We do not want a religious arms race where people murder each other to establish who worships the correct god. You fight religion with secularism. Secularism is an essential component of democracy, not its arch-nemesis. Secularism is right for the Middle East and secularism is also right for the West.

We are all entitled to secular governance because we are all entitled to democracy because, as someone called Thomas Jefferson once said (yes, he of Jeffersonian Wall fame separating church and state):

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men* are created equal”

* I know, I know.