Even at Easter, pronouncements from the Anglican synod are not normally of great concern to most Prospect readers. But this year’s presidential address by the Right Rev James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, contains a striking statement of “modus vivendi” liberalism. Aware that people are wearying of esoteric debates about Jesus’s attitude to same-sex love, he suggests that sex should be treated like war. Or, rather, as he puts it: “In our synod there is a… spectrum of moral conviction about whether or not it is ever justified to take the life of another. But on this, the most fundamental of all ethical issues… we sit comfortably with each other, recognise each other’s integrity, respect one another’s faith and moral judgement and enjoy communion with one another.” If live and let live can be applied to killing, then why not to homosexuality?
It’s a persuasive analogy and one we may have increasing recourse to if, as Eric Kaufmann predicts, once-secular Europe finds religion again in the coming decades—thanks to immigration and higher birth rates among the pious. But we are also likely to discover the limits of live and let live. Many Muslims in Europe, for example, cling to a literalist and conservative reading of their religion because they see a frighteningly faithless world around them and view liberal Christianity—with its flexibility both about doctrine and contemporary morals—as partly to blame. Clearly a degree of modus vivendi is essential for any society to function peacefully, particularly in relations between classes, generations and ethnic and religious groups. (We are not that bothered if intolerance rules within a small group like the Anglican church, which has little bearing on social peace.) But live and let live is easiest to apply when you don’t really need it—when passions have been stilled by decades of peace and affluence and there is already a high degree of consensus about how things should be. When that consensus breaks down and identity politics and fundamentalist religion are stalking the land, then what you need is not so much live and let live but laws for regulating conflict. Even liberals in recent years have come to see the limits of the relativism implicit in absolute tolerance and to embrace the idea of clear moral and political rules that everyone in a society has to sign up to. Europe’s coming culture wars will revolve around what those rules should be. European liberalism—and the Anglicanism that is its most friendly religious expression—may turn out to have been a short interlude between long eras of strong belief. And if you find that a frightening thought, read Eamonn Fingleton on “seasteading”—your salvation may lie on a floating micronation way out on the ocean.