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In defence of Jacob Rees-Mogg

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A musty and old fashioned political leader of a modern Western nation doesn’t support gay marriage. Their party has historically sought to place limits upon the right to abortion. Votes are held, after which both gay marriage and abortion are deemed perfectly legal. This despite the personal morality of said leader, who is a proud and conservative Christian.

And everyone moves on.

This is not a vision of a future Rees-Mogg premiership but an account of what actually occurred in Germany on June 30th of this year. The gay marriage question had become unavoidable, and Angela Merkel determined that a free vote in the Bundestag was the best solution. She voted against the bill, saying that ‘[f]or me, marriage in German law is marriage between a man and a woman.’

But the bill was passed, weddings in Germany are now permitted by law to be fabulous, and there’s not much else to say on the matter. The Chancellor still has the respect of a vast swathe of her electorate. It is likely that she will be re-elected this year.

This is not because the German populace is a bunch of hard-right moralists opposed to liberal values and achievements. Quite the opposite. That faction has been quiet since the ‘40s.

Rather, Merkel’s enduring popularity is evidence of Teutonic common sense. Few would claim that their Chancellor is perfect, and many would disagree with her religious and moral views. But they understand that her views are personal. They are hers, not the state’s or the peoples’. They are not being imposed upon an unwilling populace.

It is a point that we would do well to remember.

Which brings me to Rees-Mogg. Deemed the favourite to succeed Theresa May (by people who don’t know how the Conservative Party works), the MP for the sixteenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries recently appeared on ITV’s gaudy travesty Good Morning Britain, and he used the occasion to do what Tim Farron could not: he answered questions.

He revealed that, as an observant Catholic, he is personally opposed to abortion in all circumstances. He also opposes same-sex marriage.

I am familiar with Catholic teaching in these matters, having been forced to study and memorise it. Most of it is twaddle, and I must necessarily be brief. But study of its laws and teachings can be enlightening.

The question of same-sex marriage ought to have forced us to consider what exactly marriage is, and where the limits of our secularism lie. I am sympathetic to Rees-Mogg’s position, because I don’t think the state should involve itself in the making of theological distinctions and definitions. The trade-off, of course, is that it should not subsidise religious institutions. As long as marriage receives unique tax allowances from the state, it cannot be a religious institution, never mind an exclusionary one.

There is much, too, to be said on the subject of abortion. Church teaching in this area is in fact quite modern, having existed in its current form only since the institution of the Code of Canon Law in 1917. And ‘life’ was not automatically ‘human life’ until the 17th Century, when Aristotle’s concept of ‘delayed ensoulment’ was largely abandoned. Eternal truths are remarkably malleable.

But that is mere commentary. The question for Rees-Mogg’s most visceral critics is this: are politicians and political leaders allowed to have religious beliefs?

I’m sure I needn’t point out that, had Rees-Mogg appeared on television and called God by another name, our reaction would have been very different. Bold is he who stands up in public and claims that a Muslim is disqualified from public office because of his adherence to Islam. Yet conservative Islam is more pernicious and threatening, because it propagates a parallel and supremacist legal code.

Therein lies the difference. Rees-Mogg is a constitutionalist with a keen legal mind, and his knowledge of our powers, their separations and their limitations, is exceptional. Abortion is legal in this country, and preventing access to it is illegal. Rees-Mogg knows and respects this; when asked if he would stop a woman from having an abortion, he said that he would not, for it would not be lawful and law trumps personal belief.

Long-established parliamentary tradition, which Rees-Mogg values more than most, has it that votes on abortion cannot be subject to party whips, because abortion is an issue of conscience. Thus Rees-Mogg may believe that abortion is immoral, but he would not and could not seek to change the law by coercion.

This is hardly nuanced, but it seems to have escaped the notice of outraged Twitter mobs. Rees-Mogg has been branded an extremist and declared unfit for high office. But I rather think that it is these hypocritical and thoughtless cultural totalitarians who are extremist and dangerous.

I would not vote for a party led by Rees-Mogg because I disagree wholeheartedly with the socioeconomic philosophy by which that party would operate. That I disagree with his personal moral outlook would only be relevant if he sought to propagate it by law or from a dispatch box, which he is highly unlikely to do. Should it get that far, my decision, and those of everyone else in the country, will be made at the ballot box. In the meantime, democracy and common law preserve us.

But I would far rather a leader well-versed in law and constitutionality, with a respect for the democratic system and the separation of powers, than one who abides by the edicts of those for whom the personal is and must always be political.

If Rees-Mogg’s religious views are enough to condemn him, to make him ‘extreme’ and ‘dangerous’ and disqualify him from office, then I wonder if we are now mature enough for democracy.

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