25 July 2011

Theocracy and secularism: confusion in high places?

The Chapel in Sidney Sussex College this afternoon ... Dr Jonathan Laing identified five features of what he called a “Christian democracy” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

At the summer school this afternoon we heard a call for response to modern secularism with a spiritually that is alive and a faithful Church that is equipping its members “to be wise and effective Christian democratic citizens and office holders.”

Dr Jonathan Chaplin, who is the Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics in Cambridge, and a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, was speaking at the 12th Summer School of the Institute for Christian Orthodox Studies in Sidney Sussex College.

Dr Kirby, who describes himself as part of the Neo-Calvinist Movement, said he found a number of convergences between the ways Orthodox and neo-Calvinist theologians read secular modernity. He was speaking on: “Between Theocracy and Secularism: Religion and the State in Britain Today.”

Examining the relationship between religion and state in Britain today, he said there is widespread confusion in Britain today about the meaning of the terms we use in this debate, and this confusion is widespread in intelligentsia, media and legal classes.

Referring to the controversy three years ago that arose after a lecture by Archbishop Rowan Williams, when the Archbishop of Canterbury was interpreted as advocating a place for sharia law in Britain, Dr Chaplin quoted Janet Daly, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “In the contest between principles of modern democracy and doctrine of faith, democracy and the rule of secular law must always win.”

He said she had made the assumption that there is a straight choice between faith and democracy, and had then argued for the primacy of the latter.He also quoted too from Baroness Warnock during in the debate on Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (2008), and the ruling by Lord Justice Laws in McFarlane v Relate Avon (2008).

Dr Chaplin then discussed what he identified as four varieties of secularism:

● Militant secularism, such as atheism, secular humanism or fascism;
● Exclusive secularism, such as French secularism;
● Impartial secularism, example in the US, which he says in its original expression flows logically from the Reformation tradition of religious toleration;
● Justificatory secularism, where a state refrains from officially offering religious justifications for its laws and policies.

Justificatory secularism restrains the state, but it must not restrain members of the public offering a faith-based critique of society, he said. Otherwise, Archbishop Desmond Tutu should not have campaigned against apartheid on the grounds that it denied we are all created in the image and likeness of God.

Religious language is not necessarily inflammatory, but secular language as expressed in fascism and communism can be deeply divisive, “even demonic,” he said.

Exclusive secularism is based on two false assumptions, he said: that secular reasoning unites people, while religious reasoning divides them; and that secular speech is rational and objective, while religious speech is irrational and subjective. Reason and faith have always gone together in Christian theology, he said.

He identified two damaging consequences of exclusive secularism: it violates the norms of liberal democracy; and it deprives democracy of an indispensible resource.

Church and State in Greece ... Dr Jonathan Laing identified five features of what he called a “Christian democracy” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He listed five features of what he called a “Christian democracy”:

1, an impartial secularism that gives religion no constitutional privilege, yet where the state remains open to co-operation with religious organisation for the common good.
2,it implies justificatory secularism on the part of state officials.
3, a presumption that the state accommodates individual religious conscience as far as possible.
4, a presumption of autonomy for faith-based organisations in the private and in public sectors.
5, there should be full freedom of expression for citizens and representatives.

But all this presupposes a spiritually alive and faithful Church, equipping members to be wise and effective Christian democratic citizens and office holders.

Dr Chaplin has been the Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics since 2006, and is a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University. He is a visiting lecturer at the Free University of Amsterdam and an adjunct faculty member of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) in Toronto.

A specialist in Christian political thought, he is the author or editor of seven books. His latest publications include: God and Government (London: SPCK 2009), co-edited with Nick Spencer; God and Global Order: The Power of Religion in American Foreign Policy, co-edited with Robert Joustra (Baylor University Press, 2010); and Herman Dooyeweerd – Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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