Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Beware the post-Protestant missionaries

Qataris are right — Western values are not universal values

The last World Cup hosts to treat homosexual relations as a crime were arguably even more controversial than Qatar. A repressive society where gay men were often driven to suicide by official persecution, where divorce and abortion were hard to access and strict decency rules governed what could be shown even on stage, this theocratic monarchy had a long history of colonialism and slavery, not to mention religious intolerance.

Still, we won, and that’s what matters.

The swinging London of 1966, of Bobby and Nobby, Revolver and Carnaby Street, was a different world, the early stages of a great cultural revolution sweeping across the west. Before this revolution — or transition — England was in some ways among the least tolerant of countries, one of just four World Cup host nations in which sexual relations between men were criminal offences, the others being Chile (1962), Uruguay (1930 – although it decriminalised only four years later) and, of course, Qatar.

France, the hosts in 1938, was quite conservative and 1934 host Italy was fascist, but homosexual acts had been legal in both Latin countries for a long time; in France since the Revolution and Italy from 1890. Although Mussolini’s regime persecuted gay men in various ways, it didn’t actually make homosexual acts illegal, as they had long been in Britain and Germany. Similarly, Argentina’s horrific junta of the late 1970s, while murdering over a dozen gay activists, didn’t outlaw relations.

In part this is the difference between Catholic and Protestant cultures. The former might disapprove of certain lifestyles, but the latter tends to be much more evangelical about it; if something is wrong, it must be illegal. It’s not enough that our house is in moral order, we must wipe sin out everywhere. It’s that almost literal-minded attachment to moral absolutes which makes the depredations of Protestant cultures gone wrong so much more extreme. (Chile was something of an anomaly, only legalising same-sex relations in 1999.)

Today, post-Protestant countries are similarly far more evangelical about homosexuality as a right, just as they are about progressive values more generally. It is why six of the seven countries that were planning to wear OneLove armbands to protest gay rights in Qatar are historically Protestant — England, Wales, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands, Belgium being the exception. It is why the BBC has focussed so much on the issue, and why one of its pundits actually wore the armband.

Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, was famously the son of a Presbyterian minister, and those high-minded values that came to be called ‘Reithian’ were obviously Protestant in tone, with its duty to inform and improve, and to speak peace unto nation. The Beeb has always had a somewhat missionary fervour, reflected in its Charter and Mission of values, and it’s the issue of values which has placed the broadcaster under such enormous strain as Britain’s diverge.

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