Finn McRedmond: Boris Johnson, a man-child for all seasons

Cynics may snort at his Catholic wedding, but he is more complex than we think

British prime minister Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie Johnson (nee Symonds) in the garden of 10 Downing Street following their wedding at Westminster Cathedral on May 29th. Handout photograph: Rebecca Fulton/ Downing Street via Getty Images

British prime minister Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie Johnson (nee Symonds) in the garden of 10 Downing Street following their wedding at Westminster Cathedral on May 29th. Handout photograph: Rebecca Fulton/ Downing Street via Getty Images

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There are not many twice-married men with an unknown amount of children and a reputation for adultery who could wangle a Catholic ceremony for their third wedding. But British prime minister Boris Johnson often eludes normal rules and convention. And he has long gotten away with a uniquely mercurial approach to his private life.

In a surprise ceremony on Saturday, Johnson married Carrie Symonds in the seat of the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom, Westminster Cathedral. The ensuing raised eyebrows were largely predictable: how could divorcee Johnson be afforded a Catholic wedding when they are denied to so many others in his situation? What kind of casuistry has come over the Catholic establishment?

It seems, however, it was pretty easy for Johnson to pull off. Speaking in abstract terms, and not commenting on any specific marriage we may have in mind, the Archdiocese of Westminster explained that marriages that do not “observe the requirements of Catholic canon law” (Johnson’s first two, allegedly) are not officially recognised by the Catholic Church. For all concerned, Johnson was married for the first time on Saturday.

Maybe this was devious exploitation of a loophole, or a fair adherence to the rules. Whatever your take on the situation is will likely be dependent on how well disposed you felt towards the man prior to the nuptials.

Capricious

But it is very easy to be cynical about Johnson. And there is a tendency – overwhelming to some – to characterise him as a man uninterested in tradition and custom, lacking in any ideological conviction, with capricious motivations. Johnson is a man to whom nothing really matters, not least his religion, so the argument goes.

And Johnson has historically approached his faith with a degree of levity, once likening it to radio signal in rural England: “It’s a bit like trying to get Virgin Radio when you’re driving through the Chilterns. It sort of comes and goes.” Maintaining this spiritual ambiguity, he has cited his Muslim, Jewish and Christian heritage as the source of his discomfort with monotheism. Unlike many of his predecessors, and in stark contrast to American and Irish peers, Johnson rarely invokes religion in office. To him it may just not carry the significance we assume it ought to.

Johnson’s Catholic marriage could just be another indication that he is a more complex character than we are prone to give him credit for

But to suspend that easily held cynicism briefly, perhaps Johnson’s outlook has changed. It is certainly not an unreasonable supposition following a near-death experience from coronavirus, and the seemingly Sisyphean task of steering Britain through a global catastrophe and immense tragedy.

Nevertheless, his potentially casual relationship with faith throws into sharp relief a deeper anxiety we have with our own. Britain has many of the same trappings of more religious states – its anthem is titled God Save the Queen; the monarch is also the titular head of the Church of England. But YouGov last year concluded that just over a quarter of Britons believed in “a god”, in contrast to the 2016 census in Ireland that indicated 78.3 per cent of the population identified as Roman Catholic.

Shrug of indifference

And, invocations of religion from politicians in the UK are considerably rarer than elsewhere. In the United States, for example, every inaugural address in its history has made reference to God. Perhaps Britain’s relationship with Christianity is simply more informal than our own, explaining to some degree why so many greeted Johnson’s apparent new-found Catholicism with nothing more than a shrug of indifference.

Meanwhile in Ireland, thanks to Brexit, we had to confront Anglo-Irish history with a renewed vigour and laser focus. The recent violence in Northern Ireland and the endless tussling over the Border is constant and tangible evidence that religion is inextricable, and foundational, to that history. Of course the news that Britain may be sporting its first-ever Catholic prime minister would turn heads.

But in reality Johnson’s Catholic marriage could just be another indication that he is a more complex character than we are prone to give him credit for. A man who – for whatever reason – is not bound with the same cultural constraints the rest of us are burdened with. And a man with a distinctive ability to escape opprobrium for his fickle commitments.

Mostly it shows that attempts to categorise him neatly will always fall short. It may serve our narrative purposes to cast him as either a buccaneering ideologue prone to fits of jingoism, or a cynical nihilist only interested in attention and adoration. But in reality he is neither.

Johnson has always evaded simple pastiche, as a conservative mayor of a largely Labour city; a man whose Brexit was supposed to herald the era of a “truly global Britain” yet severely limited the ability for EU nationals to live and work in the UK; the leader who may oversee the collapse of the union despite riding the crest of a nationalistic wave into office; now three-times-married, the third time in a Catholic church; and perhaps the first Catholic prime minister of Britain.

It may scream historical significance for us. But to Johnson it may simply be not that big of a deal. And to observers it may just be another quirk of an already quirky figure.

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