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Why radical humility challenges personality politics

Amid the political party conferences, George Pitcher searches for the flickers of radical humility.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A cropped image of the face of RIshi Sunak with colours of a flag behind him
Rishi Sunak at a previous party conference.
BNN.

As a glutton craves a fast, so might regular consumers of party political conferences, stuffed with a surfeit of arrogance, yearn for a display of a little humility. 

It would, admittedly, be a tough trick for a conference speaker to pull off, when the whole point is to achieve a standing ovation. Unlike his immediate predecessors, prime minister Rishi Sunak did try. Humility is an extra challenge for him, being a multi-millionaire former investment banker married to a billionaire heiress. 

But he raised his humble origins again, as he did in his party’s leadership contest, paying tribute to his immigrant parents, a GP and pharmacist in Southampton. Herein lies another problem: As the old saw has it, as soon as you claim humility, you lose it.      

So, one is left to wonder whether humility is a desirable quality in our politics at all, or even possible. Kenneth (now Lord) Clarke came close, in a number of Conservative ministerial positions, saying calmly and honestly what he thought. Labour’s Frank Field was another, possibly informed by his quietly devout Christian faith. 

Further back, Labour’s post-war prime minister Clement Attlee had a gentle and unassuming demeanour, which only led Winston Churchill to observe that he “had much to be modest about.” There’s the problem. Humility is seen as a sign of weakness.  

This is radical humility, a Cinderella quality to its ugly sister “radical honesty”.

But it can be found in politics. Baroness Cathy Ashton, whose many achievements include brokering an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo and negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, has written a memoir. 

She was a guest on The Rest is Politics, the podcast hosted by Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, of both of whom a neuro-surgeon might observe that humility bypasses have been a complete success. But she is a perfect exemplar of what Stewart called, towards the end of the interview, “radical humility”. 

This, Stewart observed, counters the “Great Man” theory of history, the super-hero who saves his people – the character currently channelled by so many populist leaders, with Donald Trump as its apotheosis. 

Ashton herself said things like “we do our best”, that there’s a web of small, interconnected acts that reach a successful resolution and that the deals aren’t hers to make, but belong to the people making them. A lesson that could be taken from Kosovo to complex circumstances such as British transport infrastructure, the nature of our union, or local governance from Birmingham to Newcastle. 

This is radical humility, a Cinderella quality to its ugly sister “radical honesty”, the latter developed since the Nineties by the American psychotherapist Brad Blanton, which is really a licence for being rude. Radical humility, by contrast, puts its practitioner firmly at the service of those affected by a political situation and enables them to resolve it.  

Impressed as he was by the concept, Campbell neatly summarised the problem of deploying it as a political slogan: “What do we want? Radical humility! When do we want it? Now!” 

But radical humility should be a given for the way we manage the administrative organs of our faith, the Churches. Cardinal Basil Hume, the Archbishop of Westminster who never forgot he was foremost a Benedictine monk, springs to mind. 

As does Rowan Williams, whom I observed from the Daily Telegraph and then as his principal spin-doctor between 2008 and 2011, holding the complexity of the Anglican Communion together by empowering its components. 

The point about radical humility is that it subsumes personality into the lives of those it serves.

Their aim, in perhaps unconscious application of radical humility, was like Baroness Ashton to give those they convened room to tell their stories, to take ownership of them and become co-narrators. And that has a central gospel provenance. Jesus of Nazareth led by story-telling, the parables inviting listeners to reach their own conclusions – even and especially today. 

Radical humility doesn’t invite servant ministry. It is service ministry, precisely because it puts the governed in charge of their own story, which in a grander context could be called their destiny. 

Whether that kind of liberation could be applied to our secular politics is a tall order. As I’ve said, there are flickers of radical humility in Sunak, but when he claims to be proud to be the UK’s first Asian PM and “even prouder that it’s no big deal”, he paradoxically feels obliged to proceed to slam Labour for its lack of diversity. 

It was telling that home secretary Suella Braverman, in her somewhat incoherent speech this week, widely cast as a leadership bid, claimed that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer didn’t have the “personality” to be prime minister. 

The point about radical humility is that it subsumes personality into the lives of those it serves. It’s one reason, perhaps, why we know so little of the personality of the Nazarene. But the likes of Braverman and other populist politicians can’t see beyond personality. 

Maybe she, like other politicians, wouldn’t recognise radical humility. And it can’t be transformative unless it’s listened to.   

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Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.