Rebuttals from the Pews

Editor’s note: We reprint here a recent column by the eminent historian Paul Johnson for the London Spectator.

The public is influenced not merely by the professional media but by self-proclaimed high-minded ideologues who exploit privileged positions in order to put forward extremist political views. There are two egregious categories of such people: clergymen and show-biz personalities. Left-wing members of such groups have recently been doing their best to make it easy for Saddam Hussein. He is a man who acquired his first pistol at the age of ten, committed his first murder at the age of 12, and has been slaughtering people, in cold and hot blood and in relentlessly growing numbers, ever since. He trained his own son in the science of cruelty by taking him, when a boy, to witness political prisoners being tortured in one of his Baghdad security prisons, and he himself has been reliably described as watching one of his political opponents being cast alive in a bath of acid to be slowly dissolved. Saddam’s murder of thousands of Kurds by chemical weapons, his slaughter of 7,000 Kuwaitis—including babies torn from life-support machines which were then stolen—and his systematic stripping of this small country of all its valuables, public and private, are well authenticated.

That has not prevented clerics, actors, and playwrights from publicly voicing views which would ensure his survival. Of course they go through the perfunctory motions of saying they condemn his atrocities—thereby adding what many would regard as a dimension of hypocrisy to their conduct. But the net effect of the policies they urge, to have an immediate cease-fire, to withdraw all Western forces from the area, and to rely entirely on ‘sanctions’ and United Nations exhortation, would be to leave Saddam in possession of his war-making machine (besides plundered Kuwait itself) and therefore of his capacity to savage his neighbors and brutalize his own people: Unless they are unusually stupid and ill-informed (which, of course, some of them may well be), these ‘anti-war’ agitators must know this to be true.

What is to be done about such people? In last week’s Catholic Herald, the British writer Desmond Albrow, a man of sense and moderation, complained about a sermon he had heard the Sunday before, on the Gulf, which was “an exercise in pacifism,” using “cheap quotations” and “making fun of those who claimed to have God on their side in the fighting.” The preacher’s message was to end the war immediately and leave everything to the U.N. No mention was made of the fact that the allies were seeking to liberate Kuwait in accordance with a specific resolution of the U.N. Security Council, or what would happen to the Kuwaitis or other small Arab states—or the Israelis for that matter—if Saddam’s will prevailed.

Mr. Albrow confessed that, for him, “the sermon caused irritation,” and hence he did not leave the church “a better man.” I admire his forbearance, but I doubt if simple passivity in the face of such gross abuse of priestly privilege is a virtue. Queen Elizabeth I, when angered by a blatantly political sermon, called out sharply, “To your text, Mr. Dean!”, an injunction which the cleric found it prudent to heed. Personally I am quite capable of following suit and interrupting a preacher who is straying outside his proper sphere. A priest who treats the pulpit as a political soap-box and, instead of sticking to faith and morals, tries to make contentious party points on issues of current controversy should be treated like any other tub-thumper, and heckled. If I had been in Mr. Albrow’s pew that is exactly what I would have done, and had the acoustics or layout of the church given the preacher an unfair advantage I would have advanced up the aisle and ensured that the congregation heard an alternative point of view. Clergymen should always be treated with the respect due to their office, but if they debase it by turning a church into a political meeting, then laymen have a right—I would say a duty—to contradict them publicly.

Not only should individual Christians act in this manner, they should also band together, compile lists of clergy who regularly subject captive congregations to Marxist claptrap, pacifist ideology, and abuse, and ensure that, whenever they are scheduled to preach, a group of people are present to bring any political harangue to an abrupt end. Such systematic cleansing of the churches can be done without any breach of canon or secular law. It would be welcome to most bishops, Anglican or Catholic (there are one or two notorious but insignificant exceptions), who would use the disturbances as an excellent and long overdue opportunity to discipline and if need be inhibit clerical extremists. Most of all, the vast majority of ordinary churchgoers, who attend for spiritual edification and comfort and precisely to get away from the lies and half-truths of party politics, would endorse such action. It would be the modern equivalent of Christ driving the moneychangers from the Temple.

Similar steps could be taken, equally lawfully, against pestilential show-biz exhibitionists who exploit any meretricious popularity they may enjoy to inflict on the public their unsolicited and often idiotic views about politics, again of an overwhelming left-wing nature. There are, it is true, one of two people in the theater—Tom Stoppard springs to mind—who are unusually well informed about international events and the issues involved. But they invariably decline to use their privileged position to trumpet their views and, instead, work quietly behind the scenes to achieve practical results in matters where they have specific personal knowledge. By contrast, the blabbermouths who sound off on television, in newspaper articles and public speeches tend to combine ignorance, bad judgment, and often sheer anti-American racism in equal proportions.

I would like to see formed an organization of sensible people, tired of this show-biz bullying, to interrupt performances by such actors, producers and playwrights and to tell audiences exactly why they are doing so. I suspect we would find theater-owners and managements, rather like bishops, quick to take the point. The message should be: if you want to use your theatrical fame, or your priestly office, to rant about politics, kindly leave the stage, or the pulpit.

  • Paul Johnson

    Educated at the Jesuit independent school Stonyhurst College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, Johnson first came to prominence in the 1950s as a journalist writing for, and later editing, the New Statesman magazine. A prolific writer, his books are acknowledged masterpieces of historical analysis.

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