The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on March 14, 2012
A Muslim Voice for European Christianity

The Tablet is an international Catholic weekly published in Britain. It was founded in 1840, a time when British Catholics still suffered from various civil disabilities. Today it is a very useful source of information about events and ideas in the world of the Roman faith. In its issue of February 18, 2012, it published two separate but related stories that captured my attention.
The first story deals with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who is the first Muslim woman to be a cabinet minister (in the government of David Cameron); she is also a co-chairman of the Conservative Party, with Basil Feldman. (The name suggests that he is Jewish. Googling him did not divulge his religious identity. I cannot help hoping that he is Jewish: I love the idea that the old party of Colonel Blimp may now be headed by a Jew and a Muslim.) Warsi, who was elevated to the peerage as a true and trusted Tory, is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. She was raised in Yorkshire (whose distinctive accents still echo in her speech).
The story reports on her heading a British ministerial delegation to the Vatican. During this visit she gave an address at a prestigious Catholic institution in Rome, during which she agreed with the view of Pope Benedict XVI about the important place of religion in public discourse. She also agreed with the Pope’s opposition to a militant secularism growing in Europe (as recently exhibited by a court decision prohibiting prayers to be said at meetings of a town council in Devon—possibly a case of American influence by way of ACLU-type Kemalism). Warsi elaborated in an interview with The Tablet (it took place in the House of Lords—where else would an honest-to-goodness baroness give an interview?): “Aggressive secularism is pushing faith out of any public place. Europe would not try to erase the church spires on our horizons; then why would you try to erase our religious history or the role of Christianity in the development of values in our nations? Europe needs to be more in tune with its Christian identity” (my italics).
Some time earlier Warsi had drawn attention by an address headed “This Government does God”. The title was an allusion to a statement by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press secretary, “We don’t do God here” (expressing a widespread secularism in the Labour Party, continuing despite Blair’s personal Christian piety). Warsi was signaling that a Conservative government did not have this prejudice. In the interview she mentioned that her daughter attends a Catholic convent school: “My daughter’s own Islamic faith is strengthened by the Christian influence in her school. She says the Lord’s Prayer, she knows all the hymns and Christmas carols.”
The other story deals with an address by Queen Elizabeth at a meeting with representatives of what was intriguingly called “the nine faiths of the United Kingdom”, hosted at Lambeth Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Queen defended the role of the Church of England, “woven in the fabric of society”. She also defended the state establishment of the Church. The purpose of the established Church, she said, is “not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of all faiths in this country. Instead the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”  If one knows something about the ecclesiastical history of England, there is some irony here. The Queen is still formally head of the Church of England, and one of her titles, solemnly pronounced at her coronation is “Defender of the Faith”. The title was bestowed by the Pope on Henry VIII, a reward for his having written a fierce theological attack against Martin Luther. Needless to say, this was before he broke with the Pope, who would not bless Henry’s divorce of his wife and marriage to his mistress, the unfortunate, soon-to-be-beheaded Anne Boleyn. These less than spiritual origins of the Church of England should not influence an appreciation of some of its later accomplishments. (A Christian, and indeed a Muslim, might say that God works in wondrous ways.) Be this as it may, Queen Elizabeth II has now implicitly (though not in so many words) re-titled herself as “Defender of the Faiths”. (It is fair to say that no party in the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century would have been happy with this re-interpretation.)

A suitable comment applicable to both stories was made, in response to the Queen’s address, by Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Britain: “The Church of England has a resonance and a significance beyond the Church of England; it is the best of a gathering of religious diversity.”  By the way, Sacks, who also sits in the House of Lords, is staunchly Orthodox. He tells the following story to illustrate the ingrained pragmatism of British political culture: The parade accompanying the monarch to Parliament to give the Speech from the Throne (which of course is dictated by the Prime Minister) is led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Ahead of him a cross is carried, behind him are representatives of all the other faiths. Sacks protested that, as an observant Jew, he could not march behind a cross. The order of the parade was accordingly changed: First the Chief Rabbi, then the cross, then the Archbishop.
There are two lessons to be drawn from these stories. As to the Church of England, apart from its participation in the quirkiness of English life, something that English people generally value (rightly so, I think) and that others often find puzzling, its official role has merits that should not be overlooked. Grace Davie, a sharply insightful British sociologist, has cited the merit of a weak establishment of religion, of which the Church of England today is a prime example (she has also discussed in similar vein the role of equally weak Lutheran churches in Scandinavia). A strong establishment, one that has real power in the state, is very likely to be oppressive. That was certainly so in past English history, as Puritans, Quakers and many other non-Anglicans would readily testify. Today the C. of E. is without any real power—is almost pathetically weak. Yet precisely for this reason, while it still has the faint aura of its official status, it can credibly function as a moral authority. It has exercised this authority especially in the protection of religious minorities, as when the Archbishop of Canterbury (in a statement that was widely misunderstood) said that British Muslims should be free, if they wanted, to use Islamic courts as mediators in civil disputes. This is particularly important for Americans, who should understand that the distinctive version of the separation of church and state in the United States, while it has been superbly successful in managing a pluralistic religious landscape in this country, is not the only way in which religious freedom and individual rights can be protected. Not so incidentally, such an understanding has implications for American policies toward states who define themselves as in some ways Islamic.
The story of Sayeeda Warsi embracing the Christian heritage of Europe has important implications for the much-discussed issue of the Muslim presence in Europe. She has been attacked as “un-Islamic” by some of her co-religionists (she shrugs off these attacks). But survey data from Britain and from other European countries indicate that far more Muslims would side with her, not with her critics. (A recent survey of Muslims in France spoke of “the republican majority”.) This is not to minimize the danger from the minority addicted to radical versions of Islam and in some instances ready to express the radicalism in acts of violence. To be sure, even a small minority with such ideas can cause a lot of trouble. But these people are a minority. Most Muslims in Europe want to become an integral part of their several societies. The notion of “Eurabia”, an Islamized continent, is at this point an improbable dystopia.

  • WigWag

    The problem, Professor Berger, is not the threat that radical Islamists in Europe will attract enough followers to make “Eurabia” a viable threat. The problem is the threat that European Islamists pose to their own more moderate co-religionists who they view as apostates.

    I don’t know much about Sayeeda Warsi but I can’t help but wonder how well it would go over in her native Pakistan if it was widely known that her daughter attends a Christian school. Does Ms Warsi feel safe visiting Pakistan? It would be interesting to know.

    Ms Warsi may defend the role and importance of Europe’s religious heritage while Ayaan Hirsi Ali may be an avowed atheist, but I think it’s safe to assume that they are both liberals. It was Hirsi-Ali’s embrace of pluralism and Western values that turned her into an “infidel” and forced her to travel in the Netherlands and elsewhere under police guard after a Muslim extremist murdered her friend and collaborator, Theo Van Gogh.

    The other obvious comparison with Ms Warsi is with another intellectual who came out of the Muslim world, Salman Rushdie. How many years did Rushdie live under a fatwa that implored devout Muslims to assassinate him on sight? What was Rushdie’s crime? Writing the “Satanic Verses,” a book far less blasphemous than either “Paradise Lost” or “The Divine Comedy.”

    The legitimate criticism that can be directed at the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury is that rather than standing up to defend courageous moderate Muslims who are targeted by their extremist co-religionists, the Church of England prefers to make excuses for the radicals rather than defend the enlightened moderates. Like many European institutions that have moved increasingly to the left, the Archbishop is so besotted with the ideology of multiculturalism that he seems more enthusiastic about legitimizing the tenets of radical Islam than in standing up for the tenets of his own faith. This is a problem that we also see in the United States amongst certain left wing denominations including the Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian churches.

    It is great that there are moderate Muslims out there like Ms Warsi who are defending Europe’s religious tradition in general and Christianity in particular. But let’s be frank; they are lone voices being drowned out by a cacophonous debate. There won’t be a large number of moderate Muslim voices out there until these voices are no longer stilled by the threat of violence from more hardline Islamists. The fact that the Church of England is more committed to worshipping at the alter of multiculturalism and to making excuses for the radicals is evidence that for all of Ms Warsi’s eloquence, her battle is already lost.

  • WigWag

    I do have one specific historical quibble with Professor Berger’s post. Professor Berger mentions the “less than spiritual origins” of the Church of England. I think this is unfair.

    There is a common misconception that Henry’s desire for a divorce from Mary was motivated by his prodigious sexual appetite and his lust for Anne Boleyn; this is a dramatic oversimplification. Henry could have bedded Anne Boleyn without marrying her; in fact he probably engaged in sexual relations with her before they married.

    The reason Henry needed a divorce was because Mary had been unable to provide England with a living male heir. By today’s standards perhaps Professor Berger is right, breaking away from Rome so he could procure a divorce might seem “less than spiritual.”

    But it is important to remember that within less than a century before Henry’s reign, England had been torn apart by a bloody civil war (the War of the Roses) that was fought over the succession to the throne. Nobody in England, especially Henry, looked forward to another bloody war over succession so the birth of a male heir seemed critical.

    From the vantage point of the 21st century it is easy to disparage this motivation and chalk the whole thing up to Henry’s sexual appetite but as anyone who has lived through a civil war knows, they are not pretty. Understanding this history makes Henry’s search for a wife who could give him a living (and legitimate) male heir seem downright patriotic.

    It is also worth pointing out that under Canon Law Henry was probably entitled to an annulment and the Pope surely would have granted him one had he not been imprisoned in the Vatican by Mary’s closest male relative, the King of Spain.

    Finally, the English Reformation was inspired by more than Henry’s desire for a divorce and his desire to take possession of Church property. The Church in England was guilty of the same corruption that characterized it’s behavior in the rest of Europe. All anyone needs to do to get an idea of how corrupt and hated the Catholic Church in England was is to read “Canterbury Tales.”

    By the time Henry broke away from Rome he had the support of most English commoners who were fed up with the oppression, violence and corruption of the English Catholic Church.

    I think Professor Berger’s assertion that the Church of England was born for nefarious reasons is just not supported by the historical record.

  • Daniel Kennelly

    WigWag, aren’t you reading a little too much into Berger’s words? After all, he only says the C of E was born from “less than spiritual origins”, which is even consistent with the history you yourself provide. In that sense, his account is certainly “supported by the historical record.” Whether those reasons were nefarious or not we’ll leave to the judgment of those concerned less with history and more with religion or politics.

    Nor do I think it’s cut and dry that most commoners were “fed up with the oppression, violence and corruption of the English Catholic Church”, to the point that they thought a formal break was in order. The adoption of Reformation doctrine was a contentious issue for decades, if not centuries, after the Boleyn affair.

  • Michael K

    I love the idea that the old party of Colonel Blimp may now be headed by a Jew and a Muslim.

    The great Victorian Conservative leader D’Israeli was a Jewish convert and I believe the first Catholic to lead a major British political party was Iain Duncan Smith.

  • Cunctator

    Very frequently when discussing Islam in Europe, we are confropnted by the inevitable “faith-based” assertion. Today is no different. Professor Bergen writes that “Most Muslims in Europe want to become an integral part of their several societies. The notion of “Eurabia”, an Islamized continent, is at this point an improbable dystopia.” I am not sure why various authors keep making this atatement — there is no empirical evidence to substantiate such a claim. Indeed, polling repeatedly (and in several countries) shows the opposite, that large proportions of Muslims in Europe do not want to adopt Western values, expect Western societies to accomodate Islamic beliefs and practices, and are largely disdainful of what we might call Western civilisation. And that proportion does not just include those who would be considered extremist in their outlook. It is quite possible that most Muslims want to be an integral part of the societies they live — but it is not likely the same society as the majority of Europeans inhabit.

    Lastly, I doubt very much that the Queen regards herself as Defender of the Faiths, as Professor Berger suggests. By all accounts, QEII has very strong Protestant-Christian beliefs and that her support of the Lambeth gathering is more in keeping with her role as Head of State rather than as Head of the Established Church.

  • WigWag

    “WigWag, aren’t you reading a little too much into Berger’s words? After all, he only says the C of E was born from “less than spiritual origins”, which is even consistent with the history you yourself provide. In that sense, his account is certainly supported by the historical record.” (Daniel Kennelly)

    Thank you for your interesting reply, Daniel. First of all a correction: in my original comment I misspoke. Henry sought a divorce from his wife Catherine not Mary (who was Henry’s and Catherine’s daughter). I am sorry for the mistake.

    I think that there were both spiritual and non-spiritual motivations for the founding of the Church of England. You are right that the concern of Henry and the rest of England that the King should not die without a male heir was a temporal as opposed to spiritual matter. Obviously the same thing is true of Henry’s desire to confiscate church property so he could enrich his own treasury. On the other hand, these were not the only factors that led to the creation of the Church of England.

    Many of the spiritual disputes that motivated the Reformation in the rest of Europe were also at play in the English Reformation. The theological controversy about whether the “real presence” actually resided in the host was certainly a matter of “spiritual” disagreement. So was the disagreement about whether purgatory existed and if it did, whether the intercession of ecclesiastical authorities or the prayer of family members could lessen the period of time that a soul was encumbered there.

    During Henry’s reign numerous English apostates were burned at the stake; the right of Church leaders to sentence congregants to capital punishment for relatively minor infractions was, in some sense, a matter of spiritual dispute.

    Finally, the very matter that led to the breach with Rome in the first place, Henry’s entitlement to an annulment, was a matter of spiritual disagreement. Prior to her marriage to Henry, Catherine had been married to his older brother now deceased. The question in cannon law came down to whether or not Henry’s brother and Catherine had enjoyed conjugal relations before he died; if they had, an annulment was justified. Catherine claimed that they had never consummated the marriage, but many people then as now find that her assertion strains credulity.

    Many factors motivated the English Reformation; not all of these factors were “spiritual,” but some of them certainly were, which is why I think that Professor Berger got this small point wrong.

    In his post Professor Berger also alludes to the beheading of Anne Boleyn. The Queen, who like her predecessor, Catherine, had proven unable to deliver a male heir was convicted of treason for the crime of committing adultery and incest; there is a dispute amongst historians about how likely it was that Anne actually committed adultery. My personal opinion is that she probably was guilty of adultery but not incest.

    Whether she was actually guilty of adultery or not, one thing is clear, a sentence of capital punishment for adultery became increasingly uncommon in Europe in the years after Boleyn’s death in 1536. Ironically, the death sentence is still a common punishment for adultery in many Muslim nations today including Pakistan where Ms Warsi has her roots.

  • gs

    1. It’s been claimed that a large fraction of young Euromuslims are hostile to the countries in which they reside. The contrary polls to which Peter Berger refers are encouraging. Unfortunately he does not link to them. I agree with commenter Cunctator that this article would benefit if Berger did.

    2. Commenter WigWag’s discussion of English history was enlightening. Less enlightening, but hopefully not less enlightened, is his repeated linkage of Ms. Warsi with her “native Pakistan”: an extremely cursory Web search reveals that Warsi was born in Yorkshire.

    Absent evidence to the contrary, I view Warsi as the kind of second-generation immigrant–as the kind of citizen–that any sensible country should value.

  • Daulat Ram

    Correc, Warsi.

    Similarly, India needs to reignite its Hindu identity.

  • Eric R.

    The Tories have already had a Jewish leader of their Party – Michael Howard in the 1990s.

  • http://www.heavensmydestination.blogspot.com Nicodemus

    Your words,

    “Today the C. of E. is without any real power—is almost pathetically weak.”

    http://www.anglican-nig.org/main.php?k_j=12&d=594&p_t=index.php

    The above Press Statement from the Nicholas D. Okoh Archbishop, Metropolitan and Primate of All Nigeria following Rowan Williams announcement is full of meaning as to the current state of the Anglican Church and is one of those statements that seems irrelevant to many but historically it is and will remain full of significance.

    The thousands of Christians in the 18th century and beyond who left the shores of Britain and many of whom paid with their lives have contributed in particular to the enormous expansion(millions)of Anglicanism worldwide, and the See of Canterbury has little relevance. It is now all about the See of the Global South and Lambeth Palace could just as well be now be transported to Nigeria.

    So what of the UK version of the Church of England? It is still founded on a clear doctrinal basis even if you do not have to believe it to become a vicar? The theological foundation of the Church of England is legally expressed in the Thirty-nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Homilies, magisterial documents. These have been justly described as the best expression of the Protestant Reformation.

    There is a very helpful liturgy, some would say glorious. This may surprise, but not only does the Book of Common Prayer express Protestant truths, but it models the ingredients for a congregational gathering and historically the Church of England has proved to have great strategic significance and still has.