Once again, a Laurence Boyce article on Lib Dem Voice has sparked off a discussion amongst the party faithful. This time, Laurence is riled by Cardinal O’Brien’s pronouncements on abortion. Last week, the Roman Catholic leader called on Catholic politicians to oppose abortion, and suggested that political leaders who vote in favour of it should be barred from Communion. Laurence sees this as “subvert[ing] the democratic process.”
To some extent, I sympathise. Laurence is right to attack the Cardinal’s stance on abortion. A woman doesn’t terminate her pregnancy for fun – she does so under very difficult and individual circumstances. A woman herself is best able to decide if an abortion is necessary and justified – not the state, and not the criminal law.
What I disagree with, however, is Laurence’s outrage that O’Brien should be allowed to air his views. It’s all very well to complain that the Cardinal isn’t elected and isn’t accountable to anyone, but as Jeremy Hargreaves points out, he doesn’t hold any political power either. Anybody who feels strongly about an issue has the right to campaign in public, and try to change people’s opinions. I’ve helped to organise a demo about a contentious and emotionally-charged issue – nobody elected me to represent them, but I really don’t think I was subverting democracy.
If Laurence believes that the religious groups should be entirely private organisations, he must accept their right to have their own policy, however out-of-kilter it is with the rest of society. And as long as churches don’t break the law on discrimination, they should be allowed to decide who is and isn’t eligible to take part in the activities they organise. The Catholic Church excluding a pro-choice politician from Communion is no worse than, say, UKIP refusing to let a pro-European edit their newsletter.
Much of the current debate stems from Laurence's belief that the Lib Dems should position themselves as an “explicitly secular political party”. Rather awkwardly, there are two definitions of the word “secularism”, with significantly different meanings, which often leads to misunderstanding and confusion when people discuss this topic. If we're going to have a rational debate on the role of secularism within the Lib Dems, we need to define our terms clearly.
Firstly, secularism can mean total freedom of belief; the idea that the state should remain entirely neutral, without promoting any religion over another, or promoting theism over atheism. That’s my view of secularism. It’s consistent with liberal thought and with existing Lib Dem policy.
Then there’s the second view, as given by the OED: the doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state. This brand of secularism isn’t just a neutral stance on religion, it’s an argument against it. It may well be a good argument, but that isn’t the point. If we’re going to be neutral, and leave religion up to individual consciences, then we’re wrong to attack religion, just as we’d be wrong to as promote it.
I’m all in favour of the Lib Dems having a strong platform of religious neutrality – in fact, I think it’s a fundamental liberal belief. But if we allow secularism to descend into Laurence’s pastime of “bashing religion”, even when it genuinely deserves bashing, we undermine our claim to be neutral and tolerant. It takes a lot of discipline to stay calm, especially when figures like Cardinal O’Brien make such outrageous pronouncements – but true secularism vitally needs that sort of discipline.