A riveting hour of television

(Credit: BBC)

In November 1979, following the release of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, a remarkable debate took place on late-night British television. Forty years later, that debate, between representatives of the Britain’s Christian establishment and Python members John Cleese and Michael Palin, is just as riveting and relevant as the day it took place.

The film, which tells the story of Brian of Nazareth, unlucky enough to be born on the same day as the subsequently more famous Jesus of Nazareth. As the Irish Examiner summarizes:

After joining a Jewish, anti-Roman terrorist group, The People’s Front of Judea, he is mistaken for a prophet and becomes an unwilling Messiah. All this eventually produces the film’s most remembered line, courtesy of Brian’s mother Mandy (Terry Jones). “He’s not the Messiah,” she tells us, “he’s a very naughty boy”.

The movie was met with instant controversy when it was released. I remember local churches in my Florida hometown passing out leaflets denouncing the comedy as blasphemous. The film was banned in Ireland, Norway, and parts of Britain, and elsewhere in the US, crowds picketed outside theaters where it was showing.

With the controversy raging, Cleese and Palin, along with the Anglican Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood and journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, were invited on to the program Friday Night, Saturday Morning to debate the film and its merits.

What followed was, and remains, riveting viewing. Andrew Todd explains:

Perhaps the most famous element of Life of Brian blowback was a televised debate on talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning – a show whose host changed each fortnight, and whose hosts selected their own guests. Moderated by Jesus Christ Superstar lyricist Tim Rice, the debate pitted John Cleese and Michael Palin against Catholic bishop Mervyn Stockwood and broadcaster and Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge (both of whom were likely selected, in part, for their stubbornness). The topic: Life of Brian, and the accusation that it was a work of blasphemy.

the first section simply has Cleese and Palin discussing the making of the film, speaking as eloquently and amusingly as you’d expect from legendary comedians at, arguably, their peak (Cleese had just wrapped Fawlty Towers as well). Upon Muggeridge and Stockward’s entrance, things become hostile, as the two old men demonstratively expound on their own faith and fire veiled (and unveiled) insults at the two Pythons. Stockward in particular rarely makes eye contact with his ostensible opponents, instead preaching to the audience or into the ether, refusing to allow the filmmakers to respond.

Cleese and Palin do their best to keep their cool, continuing to defend their film as it’s labeled to their faces as “a little squalid number,” “tenth-rate,” “buffoonery,” and “unworthy of an educated man.” Closing out with Stockward proclaiming that the Pythons would “get [their] thirty pieces of silver,” the sham of a debate is a fascinating insight into both the Pythons’ vision for the film and the closed-mindedness of certain elements of the Church. Indeed, Muggeridge and Stockward, for all their bluster, end up proving Life of Brian’s thesis without even a hint of satire.

Cleese and Palin make a fundamental point that goes right over the heads of their interlocutors. Far from making a film that was intended to undermine people’s faith, they wanted to, and did, make a film that would make its audience laugh, and but more importantly even think a little bit.

It is the kind of debate that is frankly unthinkable on television today, with serious people (yes really) dealing with a serious topic in way that is, for the most part, intellectually and spiritually honest. If you ask me to score the event, my card gives it to the Pythons, hands down. But you should watch it and make up your own mind.

That’s what Cleese, Palin, and the other Pythons wanted you to do all along.

No religious test

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The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

So reads clause 3, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

James Madison, in Federalist 52, reiterates this in his discussion of qualification for election the House of Representatives, arguing that:

Under these reasonable limitations, the door … is open to merit of every description … without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith.

Later, in Federalist 69, Alexander Hamilton contrasts the powers of the office of the President with that of the King of England in part by noting the extreme difference in their spiritual roles:

The one has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction; the other is the supreme head and governor of the national church!

It is important for us to keep these documents in mind as we think about the recent controversy surrounding Ben Carson’s claim on NBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday that Islam, as a religion, is inconsistent with the Constitution, and his declaration that:

I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.

Despite the outcry from his political rivals and Muslim-American groups in particular, Carson has tried to clarify while refusing to back down:

I said I would support anyone regardless of their background if in fact they embrace American values and our Constitution and are willing to place that above their beliefs.

The problem, of course, is that Carson doesn’t believe Muslims are capable of doing so. I’ll leave aside the question of whether Carson himself, a conservative Christian Seventh-day Adventist and biblical literalist, is capable of suborning his own beliefs to the Constitution and the values of an increasingly secular America. Nor will I point out that the comments Carson directs at Muslims are reminiscent of the very sort of religious persecution that was once aimed at Adventists themselves.

Instead, I’ll point the candidate, who seems to believe that followers of certain religions can’t be trusted to serve America with honor and distinction, defending its values and institutions, to the Veteran’s Administration, which has no such qualms. As a meme which showed up in my social media feed put it this morning, any candidate who wants to bar members of certain religions from public service should take a walk around Arlington National Cemetery and see the diversity of religious faiths represented on the headstones of the fallen.

Or just take a look at the VA’s authorized “emblems of belief” above, which are allowed to be placed on government headstones and markers. Every flavor of faith, from atheists to Wiccans to followers of the Norse god Thor are represented. Right alongside Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’is …

And Muslims.