Developing a vision for Christian political engagement

Theos God Government ConferenceTheos 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.



Categories: Christian organisations, Faith in society, Theology

Tags: , , ,

7 replies

  1. Hi, I found this article very interesting and a personal challenge to my Christian faith, I was once again troubled by your statement that has confused me for many years regarding the ease with which we proclaim Jesus being Lord.

    “If we believe that Jesus is Lord of all this means that he is Lord over the public and political realm too”.

    I believe Jesus is Lord of all Lords and in the future will be Lord (over) All, but I struggle greatly with the in between bit of what we proclaim Him to be Lord over? I have seen people claim lordship of geographical places or situations and then disappointed expectations?

    Lord of all, Lord over all, Lord above all Lords are 3 very different things in my view, but we sometimes lose the power of the meaning in the small words used. I don’t believe Jesus is Lord (over) all yet? But am genuinely open to be convinced from scripture? I read that the god of this world has blinded their eyes…… I certainly don’t believe Jesus is Lord of politics, especially present British or Russian!

    My focus is to appeal to people to make the Lordship of Jesus Christ personal.

    Just a thought…..

    B Davis.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • I agree that words can sometimes be unclear and confusing. This is probably a case in point. What I think Jonathan is referring to is that there is no sacred/secular divide. There are no areas in life and the world that are no-go areas for God. If we see Christianity as a public religion then as individuals, God should be a part of our politics too. By doing so we take Jesus into the political realm and allow our theology to shape our political engagement with the intention of it influencing the way the state is run by working towards the common good and following sound Biblical principles. We do this because we believe that there is no higher authority than Jesus to go to in order to know how to live the best life possible.

      This is very different than saying that Jesus has control over politicians and states. Jesus Lordship comes through individuals and the body of Christ not through state structures.

  2. I’ve really appreciated this woke series in political engagement Gillian, and this latest installment is the most excellent of the lot so far :-). However, I do have a question. I agree in principle that any theologically grounded policy proposal needs to be justified according to facts and the common good. There are two difficulties with this though.

    Firstly, what constitutes the common good is hotly contested on issues such as same sex marriage, and family policy in general. Secondly, although some effort was made by social conservatives to factually justify their opposition to SSM legislation, it was very difficult to put forwards any arguments which were not simply statements of conviction that were not seen as (And perhaps actually were) contrived. How can one justify a religious conviction without reference to the religious conviction?

    It opens up a number of questions about the nature of the public square that theos often attempts to deal with, but I’d be interested to know if you thought there were or are actually any common good/factually based arguments against same sex marriages?

  3. I’ve really appreciated this whole series in political engagement Gillian, and this latest installment is the most excellent of the lot so far :-). However, I do have a question. I agree in principle that any theologically grounded policy proposal needs to be justified according to facts and the common good. There are two difficulties with this though.

    Firstly, what constitutes the common good is hotly contested on issues such as same sex marriage, and family policy in general. Secondly, although some effort was made by social conservatives to factually justify their opposition to SSM legislation, it was very difficult to put forwards any arguments which were not simply statements of conviction that were not seen as (And perhaps actually were) contrived. How can one justify a religious conviction without reference to the religious conviction?

    It opens up a number of questions about the nature of the public square that theos often attempts to deal with, but I’d be interested to know if you thought there were or are actually any common good/factually based arguments against same sex marriages?

  4. ‘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….’

    What irritates me about such partisan language is that it is presumed there is a one, unified ‘Christian approach’ – and that this has been continuous throughout history. Or that all humanists and secularists think ‘end of life care as degrading…’. Can we just remember that many of the advances in end of life care have been made by organisations and hospices that have sought to be non-religious. Christians have no monopoly on care – and please remember that for much of Western society’s history Christian societies were happy to allow huge swaths of its population to live in poverty and disease. Go and read some social history!

    I suppose it is tempting here to employ what I’ve termed in my own blog the ‘exception becomes the rule’ rouse: e.g. Octavia Hill was a Christian philanthropist who bettered the living conditions of the poor, therefore Christianity makes for a better society. It is a simplistic (and if you happen to be a Christian, self-flattering) syllogism; what is not said (or even considered – self-interest and self-affirmation eclipses any objective view) is that Britain was a Christian country at the time – lots of people (particularly the middle-class, those with social and political power) went to church – the vast majority not giving a fig about the urban poor. Mass Christian belief and practice HADN’T made for a caring and fairer society. Mavericks like Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Octavia Hill, John Groom, Lord Shaftsbury etc., were exceptions, not the rule (and it is noteworthy that a disproportionate number of them were non-conformists – Anglicanism was not a hotbed of social reform!). It is the exceptions that are held up as proof of religion’s worth in society… Alas, self-interest of the pious results in a cherry-picking of examples – and amnesia when it comes to the social reality of Christian society… There is a good deal of basking in the glory of exceptions while conveniently ignoring what was the rule…

    ‘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.’ For goodness sake, go and read some history! What was the first things Christians did when they got their podgy paws on political power? Ecumenical councils stating ‘This is what IS Christianity’ – and very quickly we saw a monoculture of religion and those who dissented usually came to a grisly end. As for Jews, I think they might not have such a rosy view of history and the ‘freedom of religious expression’ you eulogise about. It was certainly NOT allowed in many Christian societies until well into the 19th century.

    ‘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.’ – Have you no knowledge of how the Church of England was established or how it imposed a Christian monoculture on England until the Reform Acts and the repeal of the Test Acts in the 1820s and 30s? For much of Christianity’s history the Church sought to impose a religious monoculture – and that continued after the Reformation in many Protestant countries. Please stop indulging yourself in self-flattering, self-validating myths!

    ‘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….’ I’ll let others ponder the arrogance and implicit conceit of this statement!

    I’ve no problem with religion having a political voice, but please don’t paint it as a unified force, with one voice and one mind, that holds one set of values (history tells us the one thing Christians are good at is disagreeing with each other – and even better at disagreeing with people of other faiths and vice versa!). Nor should it be presented as the poor victim – maligned and marginalised. Religion and Christianity in particular still enjoys tremendous privilege in British society (especially the Anglican church, when nationally only around 1.4% of Brits regularly attend an Anglican Sunday service – yet it has 24 unelected peers in the British legislature – not to mention many financial and social privileges).

    If religion and Christianity in particular is to engage in politics then several things are necessary:

    1) Honest answers need to be given as to why Christians LOST the political power that they once had? There is little evidence to suggest ‘Christian societies are more wholesome societies – see: http://bornagainagnostoc.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/religious-societies-are-more-wholesome.html In Britain Christians had tremendous political power, if were so wonderful, why did they lose that power..?
    2) There has to be less of the ‘poor victim’ mentality. What you seem to be asking for in the above is ‘special treatment’ for Christians – politics is an ugly business. Name calling, bad publicity, partisanship etc. are all part of politics. If you don’t like being challenged, don’t go into politics!
    3) Stop this nonsense, that Christianity is a unified whole. It certainly isn’t – this has to be accepted – there is no such thing as a ‘Christian point of view…’. What one Christian sees as valid others will contradict (Northern Ireland represents this very well…).

    If you’re in London or its environs you might find the following useful in formulating a more balanced approach to religion and politics: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/department-of-theology-amp-religious-studies-kings-college-london-3194210042?utm_source=eb_email&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=event_reminder&utm_term=orgname&ref=eemaileventremind The lectures are free!

  5. Great write-up Gillan – in fact if I’m honest I think you present Jonathan’s ideas here better than he did himself!

    My main issue with Chaplin’s approach is that he seems to infer from it that state policy may not show favour to Christianity over other religions. But I can’t see how you can get to that from his principles. Moreover, it would seem quite unjust not to be able to favour Christianity in a country with a Christian history and culture, and with so many people who self-identify as Christians (59% at last count) and who participate (to varying degreees) in Christian practices.

  6. I too attended the THEOS day conference, and agree that the plenary inputs and seminars were high quality and thought-provoking. Chaplin is right to say that at the beginning the emerging Christian theology challenged the Roman theocracy, but in practice the Church, once it gained power, became as oppressive as the Caesars in claiming total authority. So it’s important to stress, as Chaplin did (although it’s not in the above summary), that the first Christians understood the Lordship of Christ to be that of a Servant, not an OverLord.
    Today we are faced with two problems. First, as Chaplin said, the claim of (liberal?) Secularism to become the state religion and the default position in political decision-making. Second, where the Church now is able to exercise secular power, as in Uganda and Nigeria (persuaded and funded by American right-wingers), its use of that power to oppress women, gays, etc. Christ is Lord, but his Lordship is that of the Servant.

%d bloggers like this: