God in Public? Reflections on Faith and Freedom in Society Part 1

‘Law and Faith’: Lecture 1

LondonSchool of Economics, February 14 2008

Introduction: Signs of the Times

I am grateful for, and honoured by, the invitation to start off this series on law and faith. A theologian lecturing in the London School of Economics feels much as an economist might if invited to preach in Westminster Abbey: it’s quite a challenge. And when it comes to God in public we may note that today, February 14, provides that odd phenomenon, a saint’s day which is also a major public, indeed secular, festival. And with those confusions we get down to business. First, some signs of the times.

(i) Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable for the New Statesman to run a cover story with the word GOD in massive type. Time magazine and Newsweek do that sort of thing quite frequently but then, as we know, America is different. The Economist had a similar feature last November, and others have done the same. Clearly there are some raw nerves being touched. Issues thought to be long dead and buried are knocking on their coffins and threatening to emerge, skeletons at the feast of contemporary secularism. Since I believe in resurrection, I am not surprised at this, but clearly many today, not least in the media, are not only surprised but shocked and alarmed. Most of the articles in the New Statesman reflect that; only one, that by Sholto Byrnes, gets near the heart of the matter. In my judgment, we are seeing at last a late and panicky attention being given to issues that should have been part of public debate all along. As Professor John Bowker argued twenty years ago in his book Licensed Insanities (1987), the reason our leaders can’t even address the world’s problems, let alone solve them, is because none of them read Religious Studies at university. An indication of this incapacity was the substantial debate in the House of Lords two weeks ago on the reasons for the war in Iraq, in which speaker after eloquent speaker addressed all kinds of issues but none thought to raise the question of the religious reasons why so many Americans supported George W. Bush, and the particularly religious paradox of our own Prime Minister being carried along on that tide.

(ii) The second sign of the times has come this last week, when a well-argued lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury caused a massive media fire-storm. The Archbishop was addressing the same question as I am tonight, though from the more specific angle of the relation of Islam to public law. Three issues seem to me to be raised by the speech and its aftermath.

First, quite simply, the Archbishop didn’t say what the media said he said. His real offence is that he has presumed to challenge the media’s vice-like control on public opinion, and so is being called arrogant and patronizing by people who don’t want reasoned discourse and prefer only catchy soundbites.

The second issue raised by the Archbishop’s speech is his careful deconstruction, in line more or less with that of Professor John Gray of this institution (Straw Dogs, False Dawn, Heresies, etc.), of the Enlightenment myth of secular progress and its accompanying political discourse. He has pointed out on the one hand the religious and indeed Christian roots of the Enlightenment’s vision of justice and rights, and on the other the way in which the secularist rhetoric, growing ever more shrill these days, effectively cuts off the branch of Reason on which it claims to be sitting – as, again, we see in the media reaction. And with this deconstruction he is challenging the monopolistic idea of a secular state, in the name not of an arrogant faith elbowing its way into the public domain but as part of the inner logic of the Christian-derived Enlightenment vision itself. The danger he has in mind is that of a state which can pass ever more draconian laws to constrict not only what religious people may do but what they may say and how they may think. The slogan ‘Vox populi, vox Dei’ may have begun as a cry for liberty from clerical oppression, but it quickly turns into a new form of self-justifying tyranny, seeking to prevent religious belief from having any effect on public life (see below). One of the ironies here, of course, is that the very secularists who are insisting that there must be one identical law for everyone about everything do not want to live by that when it comes to, say, the blasphemy laws, the fact of the Established church, or the present ban on euthanasia.

The third issue raised by the Archbishop was the more specific one of the place of Islam and its legal codes within a contemporary plural society. He was arguing against a state-sponsored and state-regulated form of multiculturalism in which only those aspects of cultures which fit in to current secular thinking are permitted, and for a recognition of ‘multiple affiliations’ within what he calls an ‘interactive pluralism’. He was not recommending parallel jurisdictions, but simply suggesting that some aspects of traditional Islamic law might find their way into the realm of permitted local options.

The questions that then arise are familiar to the Anglican Communion from our own recent internal debates: How do you know which local options are to be allowed, and Who says? Those are important questions, but at a second stage. In addressing them, the Archbishop raised the notions of ‘human dignity as such’ and of ‘shared goods and priorities’, all the more disturbingly because he has set them within a larger universe of discourse than that of secularism. Secularism invokes the grandiose vision of the Enlightenment. But, as the Archbishop’s deconstructive argument has shown, it loses its apparent moral force by claiming too much (that it will solve all the problems of cultural plurality) and by denying the very ground (that of western Christian tradition) on which it stands.

(iii) I have spoken at some length about the Archbishop’s lecture and its aftermath because it seems to have touched several raw nerves in our culture. When that happens at the dentist, we know it’s going to be painful but we also know we need to get things sorted out.The third sign of the times to which I draw attention is another of this type, namely the decline of democracy.

Last year Professor Vernon Bogdanor sketched, in the Times Literary Supplement, the ways in which contemporary western democracy is under threat, not so much from absolutist terrorism, which threatens life and limb but not systems of government, but from within. Democracy is the current western answer to the problem of how to avoid chaos without lapsing into tyranny, and vice versa. But we cannot assume (as the present government assumes in its proposals for constitutional reform) that just because people are able to vote every once in a while that means that we have the balance right.

In fact, there are several signs of chaos on the one hand, the unfettered rule of multinational companies and banks being one example, and of tyranny on the other, such as the imposition of new and fierce regulations designed to stop people living out their faith. (In discussion after this lecture was given Lord Hoffman asked for examples of this. The Church of England Newspaper for February 15 gives an immediate and obvious one: the Sheffield magistrate who appealed for the right not to have to co-operate with same-sex couples adopting children, and whose appeal has been turned down by the Appeal Court. Some newspapers have now picked up on this kind of thing, and, suspecting that the Archbishop had this in mind as well as Sharia, have insisted all the more strongly that the same law must apply to all – even though the laws in question are newly minted.)

Certainly the way in which western democracies currently operate – one need only look at the enormous time, attention and money devoted to an entire year’s worth of electioneering in the USA, not to mention the fact that, though the new President of the USA will have effective power over the whole world, it’s only Americans who get to vote – calls into sharp question the normal western assumption of recent years, that if only we could export more western-style democracy to more parts of the world all problems would be solved.

I believe, on the contrary, that as the Archbishop said about law, human dignity and shared goods and priorities, so it is with democracy. Democracies, like all other rulers, need to be called to account, as Kofi Annan said in his retirement speech, both in what they actually do and in what they actually are. We will only recover a sense of genuine participation, and hence the reality of democracy, when we deconstruct some of the grandiose claims that have been made or implied and rethink our social and political practices from the root up. And part of that root, in the western world at least, comes from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in ways which I shall explore presently. (I know of course, to anticipate objections, that within the Christian tradition there has been a good deal of tyranny and other horrid things. But I remain convinced that that same tradition enshrines the resources we need if we are to refresh our political discourse, never mind our practice.) Only when we get our democracy in better working order will the rule of law again be felt as an appropriate framework for civil life rather than an arbitrary and potentially unjust imposition.

Three signs of the times: I could have instanced many more, such as the sacking of a British Airways employee for wearing a cross (this, I learn, was the initial stimulus for the present series of lectures), or the French banning of Muslim headdress, or the recent debate about government funding for theology degrees, or – since 9/11 stands inevitably behind much of our current fresh questioning – the worrying spectacle of western leaders, in the aftermath of that horrible and unimaginably wicked event, reading the Koran to see what was going on. Frankly, one might as well offer a New Testament to an Iraqi civilian staring at the bombeddevastation of her home and family and suggest that she read it to find out why America and Britain were smashing her world to bits. But it’s time to move on from these straws in the wind, first to analysis and then to proposal.

Analysis: History and Postmodernity

I regard it as a hopeful sign that we are today being more explicit than we were a generation ago about the ambiguous nature of the European and American Enlightenment. Many have highlighted the way in which our perceptions of that many-sided moment and movement have themselves turned into carefully constructed myths, such as that of the great victory of reason and science over ignorance and tyrannical tradition. It is no longer possible simply to say ‘we are the children of the Enlightenment, therefore we must think and behave thus and so’: any movement that gave us, so to speak, the Guillotine as one of its first fruits and the Gulag as one of its finest cannot simply be affirmed as it stands. This is not, of course, to suggest that we unthinkingly embrace a postmodern, still less a pre-modern, viewpoint. To refer again to dentistry: I have no desire to have my teeth hacked about by either a postmodern or a premodern dentist.

But the myths of the Enlightenment have given birth today to the widespread phenomenon of a worrying stand-off between an increasingly shrill secularism and an increasingly powerful fundamentalism, whether Christian, Muslim or some other. In that stand-off, as with many such polarizations, any suggestions of a nuanced approach which redraws the map are rejected and vilified as straightforward capitulation to the other side in the assumed battle, as the Archbishop found last week. Shades of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where Cinna the poet is mistaken for Cinna the conspirator, and when the mistake is discovered the mob goes ahead and lynches him anyway. Once the blood-lust is up, saying ‘that isn’t what I said’ is met with a shrug of the shoulders.

This stand-off between secularism and fundamentalism takes many forms. There is, for example, the well-known fresh attack on religious belief of all sorts launched in the name of empirical science by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others. I say ‘in the name of’, but actually the rhetoric used by those three goes way beyond empirical science itself and into the realm of good old-fashioned mud-slinging. Just as the media refused last week to engage with what the Archbishop actually said, so Dawkins and others refuse to engage with real theologians, not to mention real communities of faith that are making a real difference at places where the world is in deep pain, a pain which the great advances of science have if anything exacerbated (through weapons technology and the like) rather than alleviated. Just as European science in the nineteenth century was anything but politically neutral, but must be understood within the Enlightenment-based projects of imperial and technological expansion, leading inexorably to the First World War, so the present anti-religious scientific protests must be understood within the multivalent culture of late modernity. That, however, is a subject for another day. (The recent books by Tina Beattie (The New Atheists) and Becky Garrison (The New Atheist Crusaders) at least get some sort of debate going.)

More important for our purposes, and indeed going to the heart of tonight’s topic, are the tricky interfaces I’ve highlighted between faith and public life. We need, very briefly, to set them in historical context.

As various writers have pointed out, the earlier eighteenth-century belief (expounded by one of my most famous predecessors, Bishop Joseph Butler) that intelligent people could more or less read off Christian theology from observation of the natural order had been blown apart by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (three years after Butler’s death). That event was one of the major drivers for the way the Enlightenment gathered steam. This generated, initially at least, a Deism in which God was removed from the natural world and so unable to be blamed for its horrors.

Religion then became a matter of private spirituality in the present and an escapist heaven in the future. (Theologians will note that prior to this many had embraced a postmillennial vision of a coming earthly utopia, and that it was after this that the premillennial, dualistic vision ofArmageddon and ‘rapture’ began to be popular. This is discussed, though not I think always understood, in the interesting but to my mind flawed first chapter of Gray’s new book Black Mass.) But the shift to Deism wasn’t just a matter of solving a tricky metaphysical problem, namely the involvement of the supposedly good creator with the apparent arbitrary violence of the present creation. It correlated exactly with the politics of the day.

Remove God from involvement in the world, and we can then carve up the world without interference. The clergy are there to tell people how to go to heaven, not to lecture them about slavery or profit margins or manufacturing techniques. Many today still assume that position, seeing any involvement of God within the public world as a straightforward category mistake, with no awareness of how culturally and historically conditioned, and indeed how culturally bizarre, such a perspective actually is – let alone how much manifest wickedness has been perpetrated in its name.

The Enlightenment precipitated several attempts at addressing the question of God in public. We here glance at four. To begin with, the United States enshrined a complete and formal separation of church and state, to which appeal is constantly made today, for instance in the debates about prayer in schools and about the propriety of printing ‘In God We Trust’ on dollar bills. (When I go to the States I astonish people when I speak about the massive involvement of the English church in public education.) This didn’t at all mean the suppression of the churches, but rather the insistence that the churches should not deal in politics.

Not long ago a preacher who insisted on talking about current political issues was threatened that his church might lose its charitable status. However, over the last thirty years, at least since Ronald Reagan made ‘God Bless America’ his campaign song, it has become increasingly clear that you can’t keep faith and politics separate in the United States, and for many there the question now is how to hold them together. The last few years have not made this any easier.

The second example, France, is superficially similar, with a revolution around the same time, but quite different underneath, reflecting the fact that whereas the American revolution was more anti-British than anti-clerical (and the latter only insofar as it was getting rid of the bishops sent over by George III), the French revolution was explicitly and avowedly anti-clerical: Ecrasez l’infame! The American settlement was therefore a post-Protestant Deism, perhaps particularly a post-Anglican one, the French one a post-Catholic variety. And the perception there of Catholicism as a heavy-handed system, determined to dominate the whole society, has generated, in reaction, a much more overt and insistent secularism in which the way things actually work is disconnected from what everyone has to go on saying about a united uniform republic, and questions of reform are difficult to raise because the system is supposed already to be perfect. The Enlightenment-driven privatization of religion and faith has thus taken very different forms in America and France.

Third, there is the straightforward replacement of religion by the state, as in the old Soviet Union. The idea of an atheist state didn’t just mean, of course, that the leading communists happened not to believe in God, but rather that the role of God within the entire system was actually taken by the State, more particularly by the Party. This is Vox Populi Vox Dei with the lid off – or rather with the lid clamped firmly down on the system, so that whatever is deemed to be good for the State or the Party is deemed to possess the kind of self-evident rightness which no-one in their right mind would challenge or question. The answer to God in public is both that there is no God as such and also that the State has become divine.

Fourth – and this will surprise some, but I am quite clear that it belongs on the same map – there is the present English system which we still call the Established Church. (I speak only of England. Scotland, Wales and Ireland have their own stories to tell.) The present system goes back of course to the sixteenth-century reformation, with one major rupture in the mid-seventeenth century. But the present mode and working of Establishment owes just as much, I suggest, to its Enlightenment reshaping as it does to its Reformation origins.

Many people today don’t understand this, imagining that Establishment makes the church simply a branch of the state or even vice versa. (Indeed, some who argue against Establishment do so on the basis that it gives the church too much power in the state, others on the basis that it gives the state too much power over the church. These cannot both be true, and in fact neither is.) But the realignment of power within England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, producing parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy as we know them today, has radically changed the mood and flavour of Establishment from anything that would have been recognised in, say, the 1660s, let alone the 1580s.

Though at some levels church and state in England remain of course confusingly intertwined, in many other ways they are just as carefully distinguised as in the United States, albeit by steady implicit secularisation rather than by sudden constitutional pronouncement. (And, for the record, the place both of the free churches and of the Roman Catholic church within this country are also, by reflex as it were, to be understood within the same cultural setting. And that whole complex position of church and state, given the post-enlightenment understanding of ‘religion’ as something people do in private, away from public life, then frames the more recent perceptions of the so-called ‘other faiths’, making it exceedingly hard for people in this country even to conceive of the kind of worldviews represented by, say, Judaism and Islam, far less to understand what it might mean for their adherents to belong to, or to flourish within, the England of today.)

So much for a very brief analysis of where we are and how we’ve got there. I now have a threefold proposal.

(i) The confusions we have observed are indications of an increasing instability which has generated the present stand-off between secularism and fundamentalism, as the two sides in the Deist divide now perceive themselves as fighting for their lives against a suddenly awakened foe.

(ii) The chilly winds of postmodernity, blowing their deconstructive gales through the entire eighteenth-century settlement, are threatening the Enlightenment systems themselves and the secularism and fundamentalism to which they often seem reduced.

(iii) Out of this postmodern moment there might yet emerge, as the Archbishop has been suggesting, new paths towards a wise and civil society in which the genuine values for which the Enlightenment was striving can be preserved and enhanced while the excesses to which it has given rise can be avoided. The first two parts of this proposal will complete the middle section of this lecture, and the third takes us forward into the final section.

Nobody familiar with England or America, to look no further, could doubt that the eighteenth-century settlement has become increasingly unstable. This is not just because of the large-scale migrations of people who hold to very different religions. It is, rather, that the neat separation of religion and culture, church and state, faith and public life, upon which the settlement was predicated simply isn’t true to religion, church and faith on the one hand or to culture, state and public life on the other. Keeping them apart is artificial and sometimes impossible.

I remember watching with fascination after 9/11 as George Bush led a great service in Washington National Cathedral: what on earth did that mean, granted the American Constitution? Faced with such scenes – and our own great tableaux of civic religion often have the same feel – one is reminded of those moments in older romantic films when the hero and heroine, who weren’t supposed to be entangled with one another, emerge from a sudden kiss or clinch and stare at each other with awkward embarrassment. What was that all about? Does it mean we do belong together after all? If so, how, and when? and what will our own partners – the secularist myth on the one hand, the fundamentalist dream on the other – have to say about it when they find out? To be sure, the secularist, looking on, is furious at the unfaithfulness of the state, and the fundamentalist at the church’s apparent compromise. And so the battle is renewed.

But, meanwhile, and more hopefully, there are many places – my own diocese is certanly one of them – in which everyone takes for granted a cheerful co-operation of church and state, not just the Anglican church either, on a hundred matters of public life. The church is perceived as an intelligent and valued partner in housing, education, the care of the elderly, the plight of the hill farmers, the challenge of asylum-seekers, and much besides. Likewise, in America, many churches are extremely active in areas which the state, in its hands-off anti-communist mode, has been reluctant to touch, particularly the provision of social, medical and similar help for those who can’t afford it. The lines are (in other words) increasingly blurred, and the implicit settlement in which ‘God into Public Won’t Go’ is more and more obviously called into question.

This, as I say, has merely increased the sense that the Enlightenment split no longer corresponds to reality – which in turn increases the fury of the secularists whose cherished rumour of of the complete demise of religion turns out to be exaggerated and premature. They then behave like a maverick doctor, faced with the apparent recovery of the patient he had pronounced terminally ill, who turns to euthanasia to justify his diagnosis.

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