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The history of blasphemy.

Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History. David Nash. Oxford University Press. [pounds sterling]35.00. xvi + 269 pages. ISBN 978-0-19-925516-0.

In the United States, blasphemy effectively vanished from the law when, in the 1951 case about Rossellini's 'The Miracle', the Supreme Court declared that 'If there is any fixed star in our constitution... it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion'. It was one of the most potent illustrations of a constitutional principle (in this case the First Amendment) doing what it was always supposed to do.

It took a long time, and many martyrs, to get to this point. For millennia blasphemy laws have been used by rulers to stifle dissent. In the Western world St Paul handed oppressive rulers a splendid gift when (perhaps seeking to reassure the Romans that they need not worry about any trouble from the fledgling Church) he declared that all rulers were appointed by God. To the draftsmen of much subsequent legislation in many eras, it followed that to speak against the established order was to speak against God. If the regime was ostensibly a religious one, the crime was all the more blatant. What better way, too, to declare a government's divinely ordained legitimacy than to have a swinging blasphemy law? And it was a shrewd insurance policy: if the law scratched God's back, God might be expected to scratch the national back.

Blasphemy crept into the laws of the Christian world through iconoclasm. In AD 379 there was an imperial decree, making sacrilege and heresy capital crimes. It resulted in wholesale destruction of 'pagan' monuments. It was smiled on by some people who should have known better. Augustine, in City of God, noted that Christianity benefited when pagan images were smashed. It was a short step from smashing pagan monuments to forbidding pagan ideas. Anomalously, of course, iconoclasts within the Christian faith were frustrated at the Council of Nicaea in 787. It may have been that frustration, and the continued force of the rhetoric that led to it, that resulted in the relative silence of blasphemy laws throughout the Middle Ages, and the consequent deployment of the notion of heresy.

But blasphemy was not dead. It slumbered, content in the knowledge that its work was being done by the racks, thumbscrews and gibbets of the heresy hunters, and awoke, refreshed and invigorated, at the Reformation. Paul's connection between ruling and divine endorsement was spelled out more uncompromisingly than it had been for a millennium. Regimes sprang up (notably Calvin's infamous and notionally theocratic Geneva), in which the Christian God was given a more explicit place in lawmaking than He had previously had. To criticize the law of such a state was an express sleight on God the Legislator, and blasphemy was the remedy. Even now, conservative Western Christians talk about Christianity being woven into the fabric of the state, and about nations losing the favour of God if they do not preserve the honour of His name.

In constitutional monarchies (and particularly in the UK) arguments for the retention of the blasphemy laws often centre on the monarch's coronation oath: the UK's Queen, through whom all law is notionally made, has sworn to uphold the Christian religion; the Christian religion includes a prohibition against blasphemy, and accordingly any law that does not embody or uphold that prohibition is illegitimate. The argument crossed the Atlantic. Much of the debate about whether US states had lawful legislation about blasphemy turned on the extent to which the English Sovereign's oath had impliedly been imported into the respective states by their founders.

The great jurist, Sir Matthew Hale, opined in 1675 that: 'Christianity is a parcel of the laws of England, and therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law'. This formulation was of colossal, corrosive and persistent importance. It appeared to have been set aside in 1883 by Mr Justice Coleridge in the last trial of George William Foote. Intention to upset or wound seemed, for a while, to be the touchstone of the offence of blasphemy. But it was not to last. The statutory law of blasphemy was repealed in the UK in 1967, but it lived on in the common law, to rise again in 1977 to secure the prosecution of the editor of Gay News for printing a poem depicting a Roman soldier having intercourse and oral sex with the crucified body of Jesus. The best way of dealing with this was to ignore it, perhaps tutting gently and privately at the abysmal quality of the verse and the dismal taste of the editor. Instead the sub-amateurish poem is a world famous anthem of free speech campaigners. The Gay News case took the English law back to Hale's benighted formulation and there it rests, still to catch up with the Americans.

David Nash is the world's foremost commentator on the history of blasphemy. This astute, readable survey of the illuminating ironies of the subject deserves to become a classic. He ably and colourfully demonstrates the cynical and sincere use made of the notion of blasphemy by the very bad and the well-meaning. He points up the crucial political lessons to be learned, but never rams them down the reader's throat. This book will fascinate all interested in the uneasy relationship between state authority and individual freedom.

Charles Foster's latest book, Tracking the Ark of the Covenant, is published by Lion Hudson. His next book, In the Hot Unconscious: A Journey in India, is published this year.
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Author:Foster, Charles
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
Words:937
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