The problem with people who bring religion to their politics is that they’re obsessed with sex. It’s never “I’m a devout Anglican, therefore I couldn’t possibly vote for a cap on social security payments (Acts 4:34).” When a politician’s potted history starts “a committed Christian”, you can bet this isn’t a prelude to a CV full of redistributive tax policies. It’s all sodomy and foetuses, Tim Farron on a brightly lit TV sofa explaining why the adamantine but immeasurable quality of his “conscience” prevents him from according some people’s sexuality the same dignity as other people’s, or Jacob Rees-Mogg informing the pregnant victims of rape or incest that abortion is not an option, for, unlikely as it seems, this is what his Lord had in mind.
Then everyone disappears down the rabbit hole of church versus state, and what accommodations a reasonable political system can make to an immovable set of beliefs that are part of our cultural history and must not be erased. It’s a basic category error: the principle is not that religion has no place in politics; it’s that sex has no place in politics. If this assertion means we also have to stop going into a moral panic every time a minister has an affair, I’m OK with that.
The irreligious conservative bystander tends to respond with a shrug and wonder what the fuss is all about. Gay rights are well enough established that, even had the Liberal Democrats not been a spent electoral force, Farron’s reservations were unlikely to result in any concrete change. If Rees-Mogg were to become prime minister tomorrow, the unwanted pregnancies of rape victims would be the least of our problems. They chalk this up to the relatively new concept of “liberal intolerance”; we got our own way for so long that we no longer even allow our opponents to think a thing we disapprove of.
The hitch in that insouciance is that, when your sexuality is deplored by your political system, you are brutalised by the institutions that surround it. You effectively operate outside the protection of the law. We know this from the way gay-bashing was investigated by police in the 50s and 60s (short version; it wasn’t), we know this from the deaths of gay rights activists from Bangladesh to Jamaica to Cameroon. Homophobia has a curious, expansionist tendency: it is never enough to simply think less of a person for their sexual preferences. There is always an undercurrent of wanting to prove that disapproval with violence, or the turning-a-blind-eye thereto.
Anti-abortion rhetoric has a similar creeping quality, never confining itself to the rights of the unborn, always veering into women’s lives generally, how healthy they should stay, how much they should be paid, what their status should be on an operating table, or in a court of law. The sharp edge of the social violence is that when women don’t have access to legal abortion they die. So that’s why, when sex enters politics, we all make such a fuss. It may all be a lovable pose from the person with the conscience, but to those against whom their consciences recoil, it is a matter of life and death. Plus, there’s a simple hygiene issue: no consensual sex act is anybody else’s business. Nobody wants Rees-Mogg in their bedroom, even if only in his imagination.
It is in the interests of the homophobic and the misogynistic to cleave to the idea that this is a matter of religion, since it dignifies what would otherwise be a seedy and base diversion from the proper business of politics.
Less straightforward is why the others of their faith do so little to critique them. It is striking that actual religious figures in public life – rather than public figures who declaim their religion but hold it distinct from their office – tend to be much more interested in the pro-social aspects of their faith. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, last week put forward a radical plan for economic equality, not radical enough for my tastes, but situating him plainly in the territory of social justice.
Pope Francis is an ardent environmentalist and seeker after peace, positions that – at least in the first instance – would be anachronistic to find Biblical grounds for, but I think we can easily enough imagine having God’s approval. History has no shortage of religious movements for peace, equality and universal rights, and arguably, it is within church structures that warriors for social justice – the Oscar Romeros, the Desmond Tutus – are likely to be found, while hard-right authoritarians, the Mike Pences, exist outside it, enabling them to appropriate the energy and respectability of their faith without having to go back and check that closing down Planned Parenthood is the stated priority of the synod.
The mistake – also made with Islam – is to present all this on a sliding scale: Welby, with his bleeding-heart liberalism is a “moderate”, while Farron, unable to embrace sexual diversity even when his career depended on it, is “committed”. A Muslim whose religion spurred her to work for peace in the Middle East would be a “moderate”, while a Muslim who sought the immediate instatement of sharia law would be “extreme”.
Yet these positions are not gradations on the same scale: they are completely different world views, as different as pluralism and absolutism, as different as tolerance and authoritarianism, hanging on the same godhead not by ideological commonality but by historical coincidence. The pope, were he aware of him, would be compelled by this debate’s frame to defend Rees-Mogg, on the grounds that to do otherwise would be to allow religious conviction to be erased from the public sphere. What the pope ought to be able to do instead is to say: “Your conception of our religion, as a means of denigration and control, is not one I share or recognise.” Or, more succinctly: “You ain’t no Catholic, bruv.”
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist