Tag Archives: secularism

Secularism and Christianity: A Round-up of the Week

Few weeks pass by with such an intense succession of stories about the relationship between Christianity and the state, and about the (a)political role of Christian values and practice.  Perhaps there is something to be said for new stories in quick succession; this week has not felt like the classic outworking of a set piece confrontation.  While the first story of the week, concerning prayer at Bideford council, showed all the promise of a standard set-piece conflict between secularism and the praying Christians, this story was quickly overtaken and cast in a changing light by subsequent events.  Here is a round-up of events this week, with some of the most thoughtful or agenda-shaping articles penned in their wake.

Bideford Council

Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that Bideford town council acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said at formal meetings.  Eric Pickles was among those quick to criticise the move, and the point was made by several commentators including Jonathan Chaplin that the ruling was in fact a setback for secularism rather than a success.  As Elizabeth Hunter of Theos suggests, the judgement perhaps showed more confusion about the nature of secularism than an enforcement of it.

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Could this be the church to calm secularist outrage?

John Harris, a self proclaimed “unshakeable agnostic” over at the Guardian, has filmed a fascinating video, and written an accompanying article, about Liverpool’s Frontline Church.  The work done by the church for the local community is remarkable.  John Harris’ closing comments in the article offer a fascinating insight into a frequently ignored and often unspoken secularist dilemma:

The next day I meet a former sex worker, now apparently off drugs, set on somehow starting college and a regular Frontline worshipper. “I was a prostitute and a drug addict for 11, 12 years – maybe more,” she tells me. “God is so forgiving – he wants me to win.” Wider society, she says, is “too judgmental … it’s: ‘That’s a prostitute, that’s a drug addict.’ They don’t want to know.” And how has the church helped her? “Oh, it saved my life,” she shoots back. “I would be dead if it wasn’t for this church.”

A question soon pops into my head. How does a militant secularist weigh up the choice between a cleaned-up believer and an ungodly crack addict? Back at my hotel I search the atheistic postings on the original Comment is free thread for even the hint of an answer, but I can’t find one anywhere.

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A Postsecular Politics?

Luke Bretherton, Senior Lecturer at Kings College London and a Fellow of the Contextual Theology Centre, has published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion entitled A Postsecular Politics? Interfaith Relations as a Civic Practice.

In it, Bretherton critiques the way in which interfaith dialogue is often abstracted from the reality of the social, economic and political contexts in which it takes place.  Instead, he restates interfaith dialogue as being explicitly political and civic.  It is rooted in the desire to forge a common life among disparate communities; something which, Bretherton believes, requires an acute sense of place and context.  What is needed are “civic practices of listening, a commitment to place, and the building and maintenance of institutions as central to the formation of a politics of the common good”.

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Cameron: Jesus founded the Big Society

The Church Times has reported that David Cameron used an Easter reception at Downing Street to welcome the role of Christian organisations in building the Big Society.

Describing himself as a “wishy-washy sort of Christian” he nevertheless spoke of the need for committed involvement of Christian groups in public and civic life.  He said:

“You’ll all say that our Lord was really dealing with, starting, the Big Society two thousand years ago, and you’re absolutely right. I’m not saying we’ve invented some great new idea here.

“What I’m saying is that one of the best things about our country is that people step forward as individuals, as families, as communities, as organisations, as churches, and do extraordinary things in our country in terms of helping others and helping to build a bigger, richer, more prosperous, more generous society; and all I’m saying is wouldn’t it be great if we did even more of that.”

Yet the question which most politically aware Christians are concerned with is not whether their role in “helping others” is welcome or not.  The sheer number of services provided in this country by Christians – both through explicitly Christian organisations, or as private individuals motivated by Christ’s teachings – is staggering.  The question is whether the Church might be allowed to engage in public life as more than a service provider.

On this, the Prime Minister had even more encouraging words:

“I’ve never really understood this argument about ‘Should the Church get involved in politics? Yes or no?’ To me, Christianity, faith, religion, the Church, is involved in politics because so many political questions are moral questions. . .

“So I don’t think we should be frightened about having these debates, and these discussions, and frankly sometimes these arguments about politics in our country and what it means to be a Christian and what faith brings to our politics.”

As some commentators have pointed out, however, it is not clear that we have a sufficiently robust public discourse to allow these arguments.  The fear of appearing sectarian too often means Christians fall for the secularist line that we can only speak to each other in politics through an apparently ‘neutral’ common language.  (You could write at length about this topic here, and others have done so elsewhere.)  Yet language which seeks to be neutral necessarily avoids speaking about the things we feel most ardently about and, therefore, the things which matter most to us.  Values are thrust out of the public square.

This is really a topic for a future blog post (watch this space), but it does shine an interesting light on the PM.  Those who sought to dismiss David Cameron as nothing but a PR man appear to have misread his character.  Of course, his comments might be pandering to an audience.  But they don’t feel like words spoken from a script.  There seems to be a deeper reflection on morality and public life going on here.  The question is whether his words will remain verabl encouragement, or be translated into something more tangible as the Coalition’s policies shaping the Big Society gradually become law.

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Andrew Brown: Behind the Burqa Ban’s Reasoning

Andrew Brown has posted a characteristically balanced and intelligent article on the Guardian website about the ban on women wearing the burqa or niqab in public just introduced in France.

He is caustic in his argument that the ban is not about free speech as such, but about the state’s right to make and promote value judgements:

This seems to me to be less about speech than about beliefs: it implies a claim that French citizens believe – or at least live as if they believed – in particular values. Is that something that a state can legitimately ask? The question is idiotic. It is something that all states do, in fact, demand. In the case of France, there is a well worked-out set of principles to which all citizens are expected to subscribe. This is more than Charles de Gaulle’s “certaine idée de la France“: it is a particular idea of being French. Values and people cannot be disentangled. A state that is grounded on particular values demands that its citizens live by them, too.

Though this remark evokes a fair degree of chagrin in the comments section following his article, Andrew Brown’s argument has a touch of the Emperor’s new clothes about it.  It is incredibly hard to sustain a convincing argument that the state can be genuinely neutral. Indeed, Britain may not be the ‘Christian’ society it once was but it remains heavily value-laden. Laws against discrimination – especially when some rights are decided to trump others – or the expression of hatred, for example, clearly express values.

Yet acknowledging that our society remains underpinned by values – however opaque – is an uncomfortable truth for many to hear when set alongside the liberal mantra of free choice. It is a truth which exposes those values to scrutiny. That is not to say they are necessarily wrong, but it does caution us to not see them as immutable.

This is particularly important when it comes to the issue of social cohesion. If we lose sight of the values underpinning the state and therefore stop articulating, justifying and defending them, then we should not be surprised when people ‘turn off’ from politics.  As Andrew rightly observes, a state that rules by force alone is tyranny.

A constant refrain among critics of the current government is that people did not vote for them. That may be true, but it exposes an ignorance of how a plural democracy is supposed to work. Competitive electoral systems like ours often have a fragmentary impact on political and social divisions, breeding a ‘winner takes all’ attitude. In the absence of a shared conception of the common good for which our government should strive, a democracy gives the victor all the power and all the decisions. Opponents feel powerless in response.

Losing a sense of the values underpinning our state may well be a contributory factor feeding the current sense of political discord and disillusionment. The answer to that will not be a change of government. It may be to recognise once more that our state, like any state, is based on values. Identifying, sharing and defending those values might just be a step in the direction of a more consensual system and more empowered electorate. And it might help us think more clearly about what is going on elsewhere in Europe.

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Human Rights and the Crucifix

Andrew Brown on the Guardian Comment is Free website has posted an interesting piece on the use (or abuse) of human rights in political struggle over religious symbolism.

Commenting on the recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights to continue allowing Italian schools to display the crucifix, he says that “the idea that human rights legislation should be used to prevent children from being exposed to a crucifix is a profoundly totalitarian and superstitious perversion of one of our civilisation’s best inventions.”

Procedural secularism – the neutrality of the state towards religious (un)belief – is not the same as promoting atheism.  Andrew Brown suggests that trying to use human rights legislation to advance a political (or indeed religious) agenda risks undermining the broad popular support on which human rights, which are essentially artifical constructs, depend.

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