Protestant Gove and Catholic May
Michael Gove has declared in The Times that Theresa May might be Britain’s first Catholic prime minister. Easily dealt with. No she isn’t – that was Blair, whose formal conversion to Catholicism came only a few months after leaving office and was clearly the culmination of years of sympathetic inquiry.
As Alexander Pope observed… “a little learning is a dangerous thing”, and Gove is the sort of reader whose “shallow draughts” have made him a a truly dangerous idiot.
Apparently Theresa May is not proceeding with the most extreme and destructive form of Brexit fast enough and the reason why she isn’t is because she’s Britain’s first sort of Catholic Prime Minister, as evidenced by her decision to give up her favourite crisps for Lent. Any sane observer would I think conclude that for someone who wanted to stay in the EU less than a year ago – May’s determination to push for the most complete and ruthless version of leaving it has been quite startling.
But Gove looks at that partial Lenten crisp eating abstinence and sees reminders of an upper case Catholicism that is cognate with a catholicity that is akin to a “universalism” that denies British exceptionalism. May is not Protestant enough to enjoy Brexit enough. She’s Anglo, not Roman Catholic says Gove – but Catholic nonetheless. Gove then takes a disastrous sip from the history tributary to the Pierian spring and waxes absurdly lyrical…
“Britain’s path to preeminence in the past followed our break with Catholicism and embrace of the Reformation. We pursued a global, maritime, buccaneering, individualistic, liberal destiny — the spirit of our capitalism was infused with a very Protestant ethic. Now that we are once more freeing ourselves from a conformist Continent to make our own way in the world the question of whether we need to be more radical to maximise opportunities or more cautious to reassure and protect is central to our politics.”
The wrongness and ignorance of Gove takes a while to process. Of course, the sectarian nastiness of suggesting that Catholicism is something alien to something else called “the British character” has already been widely deplored Gove has been accused of wanting to turn the clock back to the 17th century. But Gove has done more than insult Catholicism. He doesn’t get Protestantism either. And he doesn’t get History.
Because the so-called buccaneer protestants that Gove is summoning as character witnesses in support of his strangeness would have been appalled by Brexit. It is true that since the late sixteenth century, a protestant England (Britain’s not till 1707 Gove), might find itself relatively isolated compared to a predominantly Catholic Europe. But this was never policy. Queen Elizabeth I spoke many European languages and thought of herself (rightly) as a European ruler. She took an intense interest in European politics and sought (and needed) European allies. She challenged the might of Spain and championed Dutch independence. No, the policy initiated by Elizabeth’s administration and broadly and generally agreed for centuries was not isolationism but “Balance of Power”. England (and later Britain) abandoned not Europe but territorial ambition within Europe. Focusing on a maritime trading empire, England (and later Britain) repeatedly intervened in Europe to ensure that no one European nation achieved political and economic hegemony.
The idea of rejecting the entire European alliance system, of cheerfully doing without any European ally at all would have been anathema to English and/or British governments from whatever period of “greatness” Gove chooses to invoke. Even Cromwell employed Milton (among others) to write to European nations so as to make friends and influence people. Isolationism has never been a preferred ideology from whatever heroic Days of Yore are coloured in inside Gove’s head.
Then there’s Protestantism. Here’s the thing. Martin Luther was not English. The claims made by Protestants are no less “universal” than those by Catholics. And England (and later Britain) at its most hysterically and violently Protestant did not regard England or Britain as the only venue for Protestantism. No, they were evangelical, trying to make common cause with other protestants across Europe. If the claims made by protestant theologians were right – they were right for everyone. The purpose of Protestantism was not to give a bit of ideological colouring to a particular tribe but rather to save souls. Everywhere. All over the world. Insofar as Protestantism and Catholicism both claimed to be authentic versions of a thing called Christianity, they were both involved in making universal truth claims – not cherishing cultural distinctiveness on nationalist lines.
In the final analysis Gove, like so many “Christians”, has no sense of Jesus as the saviour of humanity, the bearer of a message of new life and new hope for the entire world. Gove’s Protestantism and/or Christianity hugs a much smaller Jesus, who died on the cross with the much narrower ambition of reinforcing the smug privileges of a particular tribe. It’s not so much anti-Catholic as it is bronze age pagan – a pre-Judaeo-Christian veneration of whatever looks like helping a small group of people to feel better about themselves.
In this, of course, he is very like Theresa May.