Jacob Rees-Mogg is Entitled to His Views, but Not the Keys to Downing Street

Just when you thought politics might calm down for a moment, Jacob Rees-Mogg – the foppish, reactionary, meme-worthy backbencher – starts being discussed as a potential Conservative leader. His chances are slim, but that hasn’t stopped a fervent ‘Moggmentum’ campaign from building.

Those slim chances seemed to be dashed on Wednesday, though, (or not, who knows – it’s a strange world we’re living in) when Rees-Mogg stated that he opposes equal marriage and abortion under all circumstances due to his strict Catholicism.

There was understandable outcry, but among the condemnation some voices were saying “And? They’re his opinions, he’s entitled to them”. Rees-Mogg did clarify that he wouldn’t stop someone having an abortion or a same-sex marriage, since his opinion and the law are different things. Fair enough – in any healthy democracy, church and state should remain separate.

Even so, the idea that having outdated, arguably bigoted views is fine so long as you don’t put them into practice feels strange. Voters choose MPs (and especially leaders) not just on policies but on character, so whether he legislates them or not, the idea of a prominent politician holding views so detrimental to significant chunks of the electorate is troubling. If Rees-Mogg opposes LGBT equality or a woman’s rights over her own body, even in cases of rape and life-threatening illness, what other stances might he take? (His voting record paints a good picture and spoiler alert: it’s full of opposition to equality).

Notorious welfare-slasher Iain Duncan Smith sprang into defence, seeming to accuse women and the LGBT community of hypocrisy for not offering Rees-Mogg the same tolerance they themselves seek (“tolerance is a two-way thing”, he said).

A few points: A) Being critical of somebody’s views doesn’t equal intolerance. For the hundredth time, freedom of speech isn’t the same as being free from criticism, and while Rees-Mogg is perfectly entitled to believe and say whatever he wants, others are similarly free to disapprove. B) It’s possible to be tolerant of other views without wanting their holder entering 10 Downing Street. And C) There’s only so much tolerance people can be expected to muster if they sense a politician’s views might endanger their rights.

Secular societies, however, must ultimately work for everybody in them, faith or no faith

It’s also worth contemplating what the reaction would be if a Muslim politician denounced same-sex marriage and abortion on breakfast telly. Would tweeters be so keen to emphasise the separation between his politics and personal beliefs? Would the papers be proclaiming his sacred right to free speech? Or would they call him a hate preacher, citing him as evidence that Islam is incompatible with British values?

This comes mere weeks after Tim Farron resigned as Liberal Democrat leader. He said he was “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader” after repeatedly struggling to confirm whether or not he believed being gay was sinful. Plenty believe that religion and homosexuality are totally compatible – leaders like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have strong religious beliefs yet remain liberal – so it’s a shame that Farron didn’t appear to agree, instead opting for a narrow definition of Christianity. However, he at least recognised the conflict between leading a liberal party and holding more conservative views. He also voted for marriage equality, placing party values above personal faith. Rees-Mogg has failed to do the same.

It brings the relationship between politics and religion back to the fore, making us question to what extent religious views should influence government (and making “do you think gay sex is a sin?” an unlikely staple in political interviews). Government does represent a wide range of people with a wide range of stances – some of those will be shaped by religion, and some might even seem regressive. It’s fair that they still get a hearing.

Secular societies, however, must ultimately work for everybody in them, faith or no faith, and denying the rights of one group to satisfy the beliefs of another simply doesn’t hold. That’s why Rees-Mogg’s convictions, no matter how deeply held, could never shape government policy.

This is probably all hypothetical. Rees-Mogg is unlikely to become Prime Minister, and even then he’d be unlikely to agitate for criminalising equal marriage or abortion. Still, perhaps he could use Tim Farron as a cautionary tale. Farron realised that outdated views, whether they spring from religion or elsewhere, have little place at the fore of a 21st century political party. Were a Tory leadership contest to arise, perhaps Rees-Mogg could have a similar revelation and avoid putting his hat in the ring altogether.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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