When religion and politics collide: are there lines that need to be drawn?

Durham CathedralThe recent great debate over the relationship between politics and religion appears to be showing no sign of losing steam. We might now be more inclined to define this country as post-Christian as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams asserted over the weekend, but judging by the media coverage, there is still plenty more debate to be had, which is all rather good as far as this blog is concerned.

Today’s guest post tackling this issue further is by Will Jones. Will holds a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Reading and a diploma in Biblical studies from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He currently works for the Church of England in diocesan administration in Coventry.


Diversity, we all know, is one of the great facts of modern life. Government to a much greater extent than in the past must negotiate the challenges of governing a society made up of people different to one another in all kinds of ways. Not least in religion: a country which was once predominantly Christian is now home to a great variety of faiths, and no small number of people with no faith at all.

How then should these diverse religious and non-religious traditions relate to government? That is one of the key questions which Jonathan Chaplin – director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics and author of Talking God (Theos 2008) – seeks to answer in his political theology. Approaching the question from a context of political philosophy, in which some prominent voices have argued that religiously-based positions have no place at all in political debate, Chaplin is keen to stress that, to the contrary, religion has a very valuable contribution to make to politics. And not only, as some contend, when “chaperoned” by some kind of proper secular reasoning. But in its own right: religious reasoning, such as citing the Bible and espousing theological principles, constitutes, Chaplin contends, a legitimate form of political contribution, albeit one he says best handled with care.

Chaplin does draw a line though. For him, that line runs squarely between the “representative sphere” of political debate, the place of discussion and deliberation, and the sphere of the state itself, of government, in its decisions, judgements and official pronouncements. Religion has a very valuable contribution to make to the former, but from the latter it must be absent. Entirely. On this Chaplin is uncompromising: however religious the debate has been in the lead-up to a decision, when it comes to the point of the state actually giving approval to a decision and justifying it to the nation it must adopt a stance of confessional silence: no religion allowed. The officers of the state must refrain from appealing to any religious arguments or reasoning in what they say or write, and must appeal instead to reasoning based only on the public good, understood by Chaplin as wholly distinct from religious-based reasoning.

Thus while political debate may, according to Chaplin, be as religious as you like (subject to prudential considerations such as the kinds of argument that will actually be effective or persuasive), the state itself, in its official decisions and justifications, must be secular – no Bible citation or theological adventuring allowed. This, Chaplin suggests, is Christian secularism, and it is he argues the most legitimate way to manage the relationship between religion and government.

How does Chaplin justify his key principle of confessional silence? The principle follows, he explains, from the idea that the state should not be considered competent to judge or adjudicate the truth claims of religion; such matters are to be held beyond the state’s remit, outside its jurisdiction. The principle follows therefore from a basic limitation on the power of the state with respect to religion: the truth or otherwise of religion is not a matter on which the state may legitimately take a position. To appeal to religious truth in an official decision, justification or pronouncement would be tacitly to endorse that truth, and thus to contravene the limitation. Confessional silence must therefore be observed by government at all times, even while religion plays a strong role in society and its politics.

This is a very neat argument, and undeniably attractive. We are acutely aware after all of the dangers that can arise when a state becomes captive to a religion, and have a healthy wariness of governments which claim to be doing God’s work. Chaplin is surely right then to give serious thought to the limitations that ought to exist on the involvement of religion with government, and to seek to protect populations from the over-zealous designs of religious adherents.

But even so, could it not be said that Chaplin’s position is something of an over-reaction to such dangers? Is it really necessary, we might ask, to observe a complete ban on the state forming a view with respect to religious matters? Apart from anything else, such a policy would entail an end to the historic Christian settlement in this country, with a Christian monarch at the head of an established church. Chaplin is upfront about this implication and seems content to accept it. But is this right? Is a principle with such drastic consequences really what justice requires of us? Or is there a more moderate path, one which allows us to respond to the diversity of modern society other than by effectively privatising some of our cherished national institutions and traditions?

My feeling is that there is indeed a more moderate path, one in which the relationship between religion and state is governed not by a principle of exclusion but by one of moderation and restraint. It begins with the observation that it would seem a strangely absolutist principle of government to insist that the state may never take any view on a religious matter. For is such a principle not in fact breached every time the state restricts or bans a religious practice because it is deemed harmful to the public good? Chaplin argues in favour of such state action, on the grounds that the public good overrides freedom of religious expression. Which would seem fair enough. But is this not a clear example of the state taking a view on a religious matter? Does it not suggest that the state must have some competence in this area after all?

We might follow this line of reasoning further and note that in taking such a view about a religious practice the state implies a judgement about the truth of the belief which underpins the practice. For if the state bans a practice because it is deemed harmful to the public good then it necessarily implies that, in its view, any belief, religious or otherwise, which holds that the practice in fact contributes to the public good is in error. Judgement of practice entails judgement of belief about practice in this respect – the two cannot be separated.

In consequence, must we not conclude that it is in fact impossible for the state to avoid adjudicating on religious matters entirely, for it must adjudicate at least on those religious matters which impinge on the public good? This might seem like a relatively innocuous proviso, mere common-sense even, but it does prompt a key question about the public good, namely what exactly it is, and more specifically, why it is to be thought that the public good may not contain any religious elements. For if the state may take a view on religious matters which impinge on the public good, why should it not also take a view on religious matters within the public good as well?

We might think that we know the answer to this, but actually once we are prevented from making a straightforward appeal to the state’s non-competence with respect to religion it becomes much less obvious. For what now is the basis on which we exclude religion from the state’s understanding of the public good? To assert again that the public good must be without religious elements only begs the question – we want to know what the grounds are for this restriction, not simply a restatement of it.

Perhaps the most plausible candidate here, where an appeal to the non-competence of the state in respect of religious matters has been ruled out, is protection: protection of religion from the state, and perhaps most especially protection of society from religion. The thought is that where state and religion mix they tend irresistibly to fashion one another in their own likeness, to the detriment of both. The state begins to dictate to religion what it should believe, and religion begins to try to make society conform by force to its beliefs and practices. Any mixing of religion and state should therefore be kept – the argument runs – if not to zero because not possible, then to a minimum. At the very least the state should keep religion out of its conception of the public good.

This argument, which is much stronger than that based on competence, is perhaps what most people have in mind when they seek to keep religion and state separate. It highlights some of the principal dangers of politicised religion, and provides a clear basis for moderation and restraint in the relationship between religion and state.

What it does not do, however, is what was being asked of it, which is to rule out all religious elements in the state’s public good. Such a policy would go well beyond protection and stray into over-protection, almost paranoia even, by treating religion as though it were an inherently undesirable presence, something which can only do harm to society and from which society only needs protecting.

Such a negative view of religion and its capacity to contribute to the public good is not consistent with how many religions understand their own public role. Many Christians, for example, would understand their faith to provide part of the key explanatory underpinning for a range of elements of the public good, such as equality and freedom, good and stable government, care for the environment, personal responsibility, and family values, not to mention public worship and prayer. On what basis is this explanatory underpinning to be excluded from the state’s account of the public good? Once we are denied appeal to the state’s non-competence in respect of religion we are left only with arguments from protection. But protection can only counsel moderation and restraint with respect to religion, not total exclusion, which would seem much too harsh a remedy for the problem at hand.

To put this another way, it would not seem fair to religion to single it out for special exclusion in this manner. We do not after all exclude philosophy from the public good, we do not exclude culture, yet both these things can be at least as dangerous as religion in the hands of the state. Indeed, it might be observed that the boundary between religion, philosophy and culture can hardly be said to be well-defined – one person’s religion is another person’s philosophy, and both these things are part of culture. Such distinctions can be helpful of course in certain contexts, but not too much should be made of them – certainly short of using them as the basis of absolute principles of government.

By all means then let us exercise moderation and restraint with respect to religion and government. But let us not overreact to problems real and perceived by insisting that the state become entirely secular – a policy ultimately recommended neither by prudence nor justice.

Categories: Faith in society, Government

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5 replies

  1. Will’s position here is both persuasive and pragmatic.

    Some time back there was a documentary on TV about the structure of Government. The documentary makers interviewed many people to find out the best system of rule for the public good. Many views were given before the documentary makers decided to visit an elderly intellectual who had removed himself from society and who was living almost as a hermit in a ramshackle cottage. When they reached the old man they asked him if he would say something in support of democracy (which they had concluded was the best system) for the cameras. Instead, the old man said: “You don’t need a democracy, you need a benevolence.”

    He left the documentary team (and everyone else) to figure out just what ‘a benevolence’ actually was.

    I’m trying to say that well-reasoned, persuasive and pragmatic arguments for a new system are great (and in a way more likely to change things than idealistic positions). But sometimes, when a system is not willing to change in any way, an individual can afford to hold an idealistic position.

  2. The trend in Norway for some years now has been towards greater secularisation, and the place of the church has been significantly reduced in the new constitution. Christian groups have long ago given up the use of ‘religious’ argument in politics, using secular arguments to promote the common good whenever they can. This may have made us more effective in debate – but we have certainly lost something significant on the way.

  3. Will Jones’s arguments against the view that the state should never take a view on a religious matter – the same position as long established for the courts, on the compelling grounds that there is no basis on which they can decide on the truth or falsehood of religious claims – are singularly weak and based (I suggest) on a view of religion that is both self-important and seen through rose-tinted spectacles. The ‘cherished’ establishment of the dwindling Church of England is a matter of historic accident and matters to very few, while the ex officio position of the bishops in Parliament (a theocratic anomaly the UK shares only with Iran) is opposed by the great majority. Jones’s ‘moderate’ anti-reform position here is the route to utter separation of the formal and the real disposition of constitutional power in the country – a dangerous situation.

    His suggestion that “every time the state restricts or bans a religious practice because it is deemed harmful . . . the state tak[es] a view on a religious matter” is either empty (the state in this view is doing religion whenever it concerns itself with anything that any religion has ever concerned itself with) or else is nonsense: what the state is in fact doing is purely and simply taking a view on the public good. Examples abound: that beating children is harmful, that women should have equal rights to men, that contraception and abortion should be available to those who want them, that education should include evolution, and so on. To see laws covering such matters as religious statements is to inhabit a very strange world in which a law against infanticide is seen primarily as a judgement against the Inca religion. “Judgement of practice entails judgement of belief about practice” is a neat slogan but imposes the believer’s mindset on third parties who do not care two sticks about the religion in question – or maybe about any religion at all.

    Jones compounds his muddles when he says that “to rule out all religious elements in the state’s public good” implies treating religion as harmful. What it implies is that the state as such makes no judgement on religion because the state as such has no beliefs, only policies, and that these have to be justified on the basis of notions of the public good that are accessible to all and cannot be justified by reference to the highly disputed tenets of the many competing religions. He goes on to argue that we do not exclude philosophy or culture “from the public good” (presumably meaning “as justifications for public policy”). I suggest on the contrary that any politician suggesting laws – restrictions of freedom – based on some view of philosophy (Plato’s Guardians or Ayn Rand, anyone?) or culture (we have always practised FGM – it is part of our culture) would get short shrift. Happily those who would support such approaches to politics have little power or influence – in contrast with religion.

    • The notion that those who support certain approaches have ‘little power or influence’ because they come under the banner of philosophy and not religion is patently untrue. Philosophical influence can certainly be more subtle perhaps but it’s not absent from policy. You mention Ayn Rand. Some trace the roots of neo-liberalism to her extreme views on self-interest and many of influence have been inspired by her philosophy. It has clearly had an impact on modern capitalism,one of which we’re still feeling the adverse effects.

      I agree that there are holes in some of Will’s arguments but the implication from your response that the influence of religion on public policy in an overt sense is necessarily pernicious, seems to me weighted and unbalanced in its own right.

      • I did not mean to imply that “the influence of religion on public policy in an overt sense is necessarily pernicious”: that is plainly sometimes – even often – untrue. What I wish to distinguish are (on the one hand) interventions by religious people motivated by (not necessarily only by) their religion but supported by arguments that can be understood without reference to religion and (on the other) interventions motivated and supported only or substantially only by religion, where the arguments are unpersuasive without religious assumptions.

        Take the disputed topic of assisted dying. Many religious people (though only a minority!) oppose it on grounds such as that mankind should not presume to ‘play God’. Without a belief in God, that argument carries no weight. However, if the same people with maybe the same motivation argue instead that assisted dying could lead to abuse, that safeguards can never be adequate and so on, those are accessible arguments and public discussion can proceed, and the decision can be made on the basis of how far those arguments are found to hold water, religion or no religion.

        Politicians – and citizens – inevitably have their personal beliefs, religious or non-religious, but states have no beliefs and state decisions should not be made on the basis of religious (or atheist) beliefs, only on the basis of arguments and evidence accessible to all, whether they are persuaded or not.

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