Theos is a fantastic Christian think tank that seeks to inform the debate about the place of religion in society and does so with a good deal of intelligence and credibility. Yesterday I attended their God and Government conference, which gave a rare chance to hear speakers from across the political spectrum and academia exploring what Christian thought has to say about the role of government in Britain today.
I’ve chosen to write up one of the plenary talks that I found the most thought provoking. Entitled God Talk: How can Theology Go Public?, it was given by Jonathan Chaplin who is the director of the Kirby Lang Institute for Christian Ethics.
Despite what some secularists might think or argue, theology is necessarily public. The Gospel by its very nature cannot be turned into a set of internal beliefs. It is intrinsically outward looking, bringing God’s Kingdom into the world. Jesus called his followers to go out into the world and make disciples. That’s impossible without engaging with others and sharing your beliefs. The whole story of the New Testament is of Jesus and then the apostles going out into the world and spreading the Good News of God at work in and around us. To contain their beliefs would have been totally alien to them.
When Paul visited Athens in the book of Acts, he spoke about an unknown god whom he identified as Jesus, but he didn’t go to the people there just to add Jesus to the long list of gods in their pluralistic pagan society, but to present him as The God who is above all other things.
If we believe that Jesus is Lord of all this means that he is Lord over the public and political realm too.
Chaplin argues that this need to put Jesus over the political sphere should not take the form of an oppressive theocracy where Christianity becomes the only acceptable form of religion, but actually a limited state that allows for freedom of religious thought and belief and fights against religious compulsion.
When the early Church was spreading it became known for its subversiveness and was persecuted as a result. It challenged state control of religion relegating the Emperor from a divine entity to a normal person and believed that a religious state had no compulsion to dictate an individual’s beliefs. Freedom of religious expression and destroying religious conformity was of paramount importance to early Christians along with the freedom to pursue the truth as they took on the Roman state.
This Christian belief that the state does not have the authority to dictate or limit religious expression has filtered through our political system over the centuries. For Chaplin this also means that the state cannot use religion to justify its actions. The state is not there to pass judgements based solely on legislators’ interpretations of religious truths and texts. To do so would put the state above its level becoming the judge of truth and therefore acting in a theocratic manner.
This is not to say that religious arguments and beliefs cannot be used to inform and determine policy and law. If it can be shown that a Biblical view works for the common good and will bring about justice (as is often the case) then there is every reason for it to be acceptable. The point is that what one particular religious or world view brings to the table should not be favoured without having to prove its worth. So politicians may well introduce a law that has been influenced by theology, but this is not the same as them on behalf of the state making theological claims to justify their decision.
This approach to the state’s relationship to religion has a flip side. What we are now seeing in politics is not religion being used to justify actions but secularism and secularist worldviews. Liberal secularism increasingly looks like a state religion and is being used to dismiss and constrain religious language. There has been a growing attitude from some secularists that it is illegitimate to appeal to religious belief as it is seen as irrational, poisonous and bigoted. However, stifling debate in this way is undemocratic, illiberal and oppressive. We have seen something of this through Lord Falconer’s bill on assisted dying. His approach with support from secularist and humanist groups is presenting end of life care as degrading, whereas a Christian approach which considers such dependence to be a potentially ennobling experience has been promoted as illegitimate and backward.
In light of this pressure there is a need for Christian voices to think politically and intelligently. There is no good reason why religious views and theological convictions should not be aired in the political arena, but the nature of how they are presented does need to be considered carefully to maximise their legitimacy and coherence. Jesus talked about avoiding throwing pearls to pigs and the receptivity of an audience makes choice of words and strength of argument crucial if they are to be accepted as valid.
Chaplin cites the poor reception and lack of success of church leaders’ arguments in the same-sex marriage debate as an example of lack of preparation. It is not good enough to put your convictions on display. The engagement needs to look to win just outcomes that appeal to the common good using language and arguments that can be understood by the non-religious even if they have theological foundations. With low levels of religious literacy increasingly common, Christians need to be flexible and adapt their language to different settings. They also need to be careful to uphold an authentic Christian voice and not be dragged down by the tactics of others.
Those who engage in the political arena, but also seek to be faithful to the Gospel will inevitably find themselves as dissenting voices from time to time. The technocratic language and managerialism that pervades much of modern politics has the effect of shutting out those who disagree, which makes it even more important that Christians look to find their place as unreliable allies who think critically and work to develop a theologically grounded coherent vision for society where need comes before politics and there is a God centred hunger and thirst for justice especially when it means being a voice for the voiceless.