There are a couple of predictable elements to the reporting of sex scandals involving a public figure, and both were in evidence when it was revealed that Stephen Crabb, MP, had sent ‘pretty outrageous’ messages to a woman he’d turned down for a job in his parliamentary office. When it came to the reporting, Mr Crabb was duly described as a ‘married father of two’, then as a ‘devout Christian’, which instantly raises the suggestion: ‘hypocrite’. So, you establish the individual’s respectability before proceeding with a story that suggests the contrary.
Quite what a devout Christian means in this context is hard to establish: it may mean clean-living or it may mean simply going to church, something that, a generation ago, would not have occasioned comment, being just normal. Similarly, any Catholic who goes to mass on Sundays is automatically billed as a ‘devout’ Catholic – which seems a bit cheap; personally, I’d raise the bar a bit higher, and require at least daily mass-going as standard, pilgrimages, prayer, lots of feeding the hungry, and pretty rigorous fast and abstinence during Lent (standard practice for Orthodox Christians), plus ideally charity in judging others. In short, I wouldn’t qualify, myself.
But what the ‘devout Christian’ aspect of the reports about Mr Crabb suggest is that he’s a bit of a fake: fancy going to church and then sending sex messages to a woman he’s just met. I’d say this betrays a misunderstanding about what Christianity is about, an increasing problem as churchgoing and knowledge of scripture diminishes. The whole point of Christianity is that it’s not for the perfect; it’s for the imperfect, which is why the Catholic church describes itself as the church of sinners. Indeed Christ had some rather harsh things to say about people who thought of themselves as a cut above others. He observed that he wasn’t concerned with summoning the righteous, but calling sinners to repentence. He didn’t seem to like the ostentatious clean livers in his own society very much; he was more of a tax collectors and prostitutes sort of person. And duly, sinners gravitated towards him and have done ever since, on the basis that it’s the likes of us who need forgiveness.
Personally, I blame Martin Luther, and no better time to do it, tomorrow being the 500th anniversary of the day he was reputed to have nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg (except he probably didn’t). It’s not that he didn’t think of people as sinners – he was obsessed with sin. Rather, it was he who insisted that if you were saved, you would not only feel the absolute certainty of salvation (something the church had never previously done), you would behave righteously as proof. So, the elect would give off good works as unproblematically as apple trees give off apples. (Richard Rex’s new book, The Making of Martin Luther, is brilliant in exposing the hair-raising character of his theology.) And if you don’t, it shows you’re not one of the elect, a proper Christian.
In the reporting of poor Stephen Crabb’s peccadillos, then, there is a whiff of this toxic notion that if you’re not perfect, you’re not a Christian. Au contraire, folks. And if this is our idea of what being a religious person is, small wonder so few parliamentarians feel able to out themselves as Christians.