Jacob Rees-Mogg wins praise, but unwittingly privileges tolerance over truth

Ultimately, tolerance must be balanced with discrimination, as it is impossible that society should equally accept all conducts, creeds, and metaphysical claims.

British parliamentarian Jacob Rees-Mogg in a recent BBC interview with Jo Coburn (YouTube)

British parliamentarian Jacob Rees-Mogg has won praise from Catholics for his conduct in a recent BBC interview with Jo Coburn, wherein he vigorously denounced those who scrutinize the religious beliefs of public officials. This acclamation is regrettable, as his argument is inconsistent with the Church’s understanding about society’s aims and obligations, which in fact require rational discrimination to secure and safeguard the common good. The Catholic reaction displays the concerning degree to which the faithful have absorbed the logic and rhetoric of liberalism, privileging tolerance above truth.

The contentious exchange began when Coburn asked whether Rees-Mogg’s conviction that marriage is meant for one man and one woman might be a “problem for many people.” Rees-Mogg replied by ridiculing the apparent limits of what he later dubbed, with dripping contempt, “liberal tolerance”:

You’re saying that tolerance only goes so far, and that you should not be tolerant of the teaching of the Catholic Church. So isn’t this stretching into religious bigotry?

After protesting this accusation, Coburn pressed forward with the assertion that some “find those views difficult,” again inquiring whether they could – or should – prove a “barrier” to high office. Rees-Mogg insisted: “If we are a tolerant nation, you have to be tolerant of the views that you don’t like as well as the ones that you do.”

In the wake of the interview, Rees-Mogg has been cheered and defended by Catholics across the Anglosphere. Mark Davies, Bishop of Shrewsbury, went so far as to raise the specter of a “new bigotry” in a statement to the Catholic Herald.

Davies’ anxiety is not baseless. The public square is secularizing at a fast clip. Traditional sexual morality is increasingly seen as offensive and demeaning, perhaps dangerous. Those who openly affirm the truth of marriage and gender may eventually find themselves unable to occupy prominent positions in business, politics, and culture.

However, in response to this serious challenge, Catholics should be wary of following Rees-Mogg in adopting rhetoric that relies too heavily upon appeals to tolerance, as if it were the goal and highest good of civil life.

Obviously, temporal peace demands that society patiently countenance diverse practices and opinions, affording freedom within reason, even if this means that some evils enjoy room to grow. Yet the allowances of prudence are not infinite. Ultimately, tolerance must be balanced with discrimination. This is not only a prescriptive statement, but a descriptive statement: It is impossible that society should equally accept all conducts, creeds, and metaphysical claims. Either by law or convention, it will inevitably privilege one vision of the good, penalizing those who dissent.

The venerable judgment of the Church is that the purpose of society is not tolerance, but the cultivation of virtue and the suppression of vice. Humans establish community precisely to assist one another toward the attainment of their final end: the eternal enjoyment of God. This is especially true of political community, for it is by means of politics that we produce legislation, the goal of which is to provide some pedagogy in righteousness by regulating the common life in accord with justice. As Aquinas explains, while “paternal training, which is by admonitions” suffices for some, many require the “force and fear” that comes only by “discipline of laws.”

Therefore, it is crucial that society be willing to identify and nurture goods conducive to human flourishing, and to identify and mitigate evils that thwart the same. This mission requires that boundaries for discourse, and criteria for participation therein, be firmly set. Whether these boundaries are legal or conventional is a matter of prudence, as is the severity of punishment for transgression, although it is preferable to err on the side of freedom, inclusion, and magnanimity, except in matters touching upon the essence of human well-being. For instance, if we sincerely maintain that the end of human existence is the knowledge and love of God, and if we further hold that society should facilitate this end (or at least refrain from hindering it), reason insists that we forcefully draw attention to the philosophical commitments of an atheist who pursues public office.

Despite the aggrieved cries of Rees-Mogg, it is not “bigotry” to question whether someone is ill-suited for high office on account of his beliefs, particularly if those beliefs concern the character of man, the ideal arrangement of society, and the very nature of reality itself. On the contrary, it is an act of supreme wisdom and love. Bigotry presupposes irrational antagonism. But what is more rational than to seek to elevate those who know and serve the good, and to disqualify those who encourage evil, either from malice or ignorance?

It would have been better if Rees-Mogg had taken his stand not upon the expectation of tolerance, but upon the rights of truth. It would have been better if he had stated plainly that the human vocation is to progress in the knowledge and love of God according to authentic religion, and that societies and their governments have a duty to respect this call. Instead, he became a half-witting champion of indifference, to the point of disingenuously evading tough questions about marriage under an ideal regime.

Tolerance, wisely applied, provides a modicum of harmony, even if it indirectly obscures our supernatural destiny. But truth: Truth sets free.

About Philip Primeau 2 Articles
Philip Primeau writes from Rhode Island. He holds a BA in Theology from Providence College and currently serves as a lay family minister at a Catholic parish. He can be contacted at primeau.philip1@gmail.com.

10 Comments

  1. I must say I think it all went well and the way it should.

    Truth was not on the agenda. But tolerance was.

    So rather than getting embroiled in a long discussion on what is and is not true, Reese-Mogg rightly hit the nail right on the head. Since the LGBT is about tolerance, then we have to address that. Only then can we talk about truth.

    If they will not tolerate your views in the first place, then there is no chance for you to expound why your views are far superior.

    If you’ve been gagged because you did not address your right to not be gagged, everything else you want to say cannot be said.

  2. Jacob Rees Mogg – what a great name.

    Almost – but not quite – as good as Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton.

  3. I think this article is overly nitpicky. Jacob Rees-Mogg did an admirable job defending his right to hold orthodox Catholic views in an inherently hostile interview. Faithful Catholics bravely giving witness in the secular public sphere do not need to be “Monday morning quarterbacked” by other Catholics (especially those who work from the safe harbour of a Catholic parish). Jacob Rees-Mogg should be lauded for how he handled the situation. Say a prayer for him.

    • Yes, this article is certainly quibbling. Jacob Reed-Mogg appealed to tolerance because that’s the last realm you can appeal to on matters like this. It’s also very relevant, the left is no longer tolerant of religious views. Which far from being progressive makes them share quite a lot in common with Oliver Cromwell if anyone who participated in the wars of religion back in the day.
      Apart from that, we’re certainly not at risk of Jacob Rees-Mogg leading us astray. He isn’t following some weird views not in line with the Church. He won’t be leading the UK anywhere except towards the Church, back to the kinds of values the writers of this website, and orthodox Catholics everywhere espouse. Is abortion or gay marriage going anywhere in the next 5 or 10 years in the UK? Absolutely not. One must pick ones battleship JRM does and wins them! Can’t clog the Mogg!

      Mogg for PM!

  4. Good comments.

    But the author is addressing the elephant in the room – truth.

    And yes, one needs to meet the ‘progressives’ on a level where they will still engage and not exclude one.

    At some point, though, one will be backed to the wall as ‘tolerance’ is only true to a certain point and it will be clearly be demarcated as it always was….truth versus desire.

    Using ‘tolerance’ as a means and not the end is the key and if Mogg has set this up with that in mind, then he deserves the accolades.

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