The Daily Mail’s attack on Ralph Miliband as a man who “hated Britain” has prompted a number of responses, including a reply piece from Ed Miliband, a number of hashtag games on Twitter, and the inevitable – and warranted – suggestions that the Mail were simply bitter because Miliband served in the armed forces which defeated their Fascist chums. The paper has since doubled down on the original article by publishing Miliband’s reponse, and reiterating (in a response to the response) that they definitely do think his father DID hate Britain.
There’s been a lot of discussion online about the right way to respond to the Daily Mail’s slur. Should this sort of piece be unacceptable because it is factually inaccurate and therefore criticised by advancing better historical evidence? (If so, does that mean that someone’s father “hating Britain”, whatever that might mean, is a reasonable criticism of them, so long as the facts support it?) Is it repulsive because it is a personal attack on a family member of a politician, and should therefore be inadmissible as a piece of political journalism? (If so, is pointing out the remarkably wealthy parents of the Conservative front bench an unacceptable tactic?) Is it wrong because the Daily Mail were on the wrong side of that fight in the 1930s and yet bang the jingoistic drum continually? (If so, does that rule out anyone who made wrong calls during the Cold War a priori? And is it buying into the Mail’s framing of 1930s and 40s as the era which should define modern society?)
I want to concentrate, however, on one particular – and bizarre – couple of sentences. It sounds like a rhetorical flourish, the kind of heavy-handed clause opinion writers bring out when they want some cheap gravitas. But actually I think it reveals a lot about the Mail’s ideology. It justifies their claim that they are defending Britain’s Christian heritage, but shows them clinging onto the least creditable parts of that history. The passage runs thus:
We do not maintain, like the jealous God of Deuteronomy, that the iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the sons. But when a son with prime ministerial ambitions swallows his father’s teachings, as the younger Miliband appears to have done, the case is different.
As I said, this might sound like a bit of Bible-thumping brought in for ballast. Conan Doyle does something similar with the same passage in the letter which warns of the curse in The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s an attempt at nineteenth-century heft, like those political writers who do their best to sound like Trollope when they get a sniff of a book deal. In fact, however, this is a very old and particularly nasty strain of Christian tradition. Perhaps it is better described as a mutation which Christianity is prone to developing, and which it has never managed to eliminate or entirely guard against. It’s the heresy of Marcionism, one of the Church’s original sins.
Marcion, a second-century bishop in Turkey, developed a theology which denied that the God of Christianity and the God of the Jewish Scriptures were the same being. He didn’t deny the existence of the God of Israel, but believed that the Jewish holy books referred to a lesser deity who created the world but does not redeem it. He contrasted this jealous, blood-thirsty, vengeful God with the God revealed in Christianity. He discarded the Jewish Scriptures and worked from a much smaller canon of the New Testament, attempting to purge it of “Jewish influences” which he believed had obscured the truth about God. This eventually led to him splitting from orthodox Christianity, which insisted that the two sets of writings witnessed to the same God, and to Marcion being regarded as a heretic.
But Marcionism, or the strain of thought he represents, keeps cropping up in Christian history. It can take the form of explicitly anti-Semitic railing against “the Jews” and their supposed obsession with vengeance, or a more “progressive” version which stresses that Christian culture should “move beyond” its connection to the Jewish Scriptures, whilst always using them as a contrast to define itself. My ear may be overly tuned to this kind of rhetoric because I’ve just finished a section of my book which deals with the way Christian writers use the Pharisees as straw men to critique other Christians. The Jewish heritage of Christianity is all too often presented as historical embarrassment, or worse, as a handy definition of moral failure.
When a fundamentalist preacher describes an earthquake or a school shooting as the judgement of God on America, I’ve seen too many progressive Christians identifying this attitude with “the God of the Old Testament” as a way of discrediting it and distancing themselves. (They tend to forget the existence of actual Jewish people who worship that God and are equally appalled by the preacher’s statement.) When legalism or hypocrisy within the Church are discussed, whether in the fifteenth, the nineteenth or the twenty-first century, there’s a recurring tendency to associate these with Jewishness. It happens at the other end of the ideological spectrum too, with right-wing Christians using “the Pharisees” or “Jewish religion” as bogey-men against which to define their own beliefs and practices.
So I don’t think we can read the Daily Mail’s weird lurch into pseudo-theology as just a rhetorical flourish. By this overt rejection of “the God of Deuteronomy”, they tap into both centuries of prejudice against Jewish people and a persistent strain in European thought which asserts that the defining mark of a Christian is their difference from a Jew. In one way it validates the newspaper’s claim to value the nation’s Christian heritage, but it selects one of the nastiest strains in that history to propagate.
It’s a strain which sees Jewishness as a taint which has infiltrated Christianity and must be cleared away, which associates Jewishness with vengeance and hypocrisy. The passage justifies the Mail’s criticism of a Jewish intellectual who escaped Nazi persecution via an insinuating reminder of what it thinks “we all know” about Jewish people. It’s a reminder that the attitudes the Daily Mail promotes are still embedded in our culture, in our history, and in the arguments we hear from much more reputable media outlets. They need to be exposed and refuted wherever they appear.