Recently I wrote about the Not Ashamed Campaign where I problamatised the idea of a Christian Nation. In that context what I meant was that there is a difference between the earthly city and the city of God and one ignores the difference at ones peril. However, that does not mean I think Christianity cannot have a profound impact on a nation-state.
But I needed to spend some time distinguishing between what some might argue a Christian Nation is, and how the Judeo-Christian heritage of the UK has influenced what our country is like today. Moreover this distinction needed to be made within the context of the changing landscape of human rights law internationally particularly in relation to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is about religious freedom.
This post will also point to the important distinction between ‘common grace’ and ‘special grace,’ and highlight the need for Christians to recognize the existence of ‘common grace’ and by extension the work of the Holy Spirit, in the public square. This piece is a defence of principled pluralism, couched within two debates, one national and one which now is set within a globalised context.
What sparked the need for me to discuss the issue where two developments, both of which are a part of an ongoing dialogue among theologians and christian political players in the UK and abroad. They relate to the churches role in the public square today (the public square is a short-hand term denoting politics, the media, business and any number of spheres in which people meet and interact). These debates have historic significance and will shape the future in a very practical and real way. Take note.
What is a Christian Nation?
The first spark was an article in the Bible Societies news letter The Bible in TransMission, written by the eminently persuasive Nick Spencer (Director of Studies at Theos) entitled Shaping national sovereignty: The Bible and British politics. In the article he states:
For all that church attendance has fallen in the last half-century the UK remains officially a Christian nation. In the words of the House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales, ‘the constitution of the United Kingdom is rooted in faith – specifically the Christian faith exemplified by the established status of the Church of England … The United Kingdom is not a secular state.’
Interestingly the Committee did not say that the UK was a Christian nation, but rather they seem to have chosen the negative definition, namely that the UK is not a ‘secular state.’ Though they did say the constitution is rooted in the Christian faith. But what does that mean in practice? Does it matter? The idea that there are only two options, namely a “secular nation” and a “Christian nation” is a problematic one as Spencer indirectly points out in the article. But while he calls the UK a Christian nation the term needs to be unpacked a bit, particularly within the context of a globalized society.
Spencer’s use of the term is one on the constitutional settlement between the Church and the State, both of which are under the sovereigns rule, who is appointed by God. In practice, it is the Prime Minister who rules the country, and it is he who appoints the Archbishop and Bishops, though it is still the Church of England who make the proper recommendations by the usual mechanisms.
But in his article Spencer shows briefly the very large part Christianity has played in the political formation of the UK. He does so while upholding an appropriate historical gratitude to the Papacy. He also shows the development and non-uniform identity of the UK over time. However the most interesting point is when he shows two errors that we can fall into once it is recognized that Christianity has indeed had such a powerful influence on the UKs development as a nation:
The first is the idea that because it has always been thus, it should always be thus. We are a Christian nation, with biblical roots that are almost inconceivably deep, and attempts to change that are as malign as they are sinister… We may indeed be thoroughly Christian in our political formation but the nation is clearly not ‘thoroughly Christian’ today. And, in any case, there are good reasons, long articulated within the Christian tradition itself, to doubt the desirability of seeing national and religious identities as coterminous.
and in an parallel the second error he says:
is the idea that ‘that was then but this is now’, that history counts for little in our modern world and that we need to reinvent our ideas of sovereignty to fit in with contemporary culture. When combined with the fallacious belief that states can be thoroughly neutral in their formation, this idea usually sets people of in the direction of advocating American- or French-style secularism as the only legitimate political settlement… there is no good reason why the USA or France should provide the only legitimate political model to follow. Secularism – when rightly understood – has much to offer political thought, but simply to adopt another nation’s political model as our own is to imagine that nations are interchangeable and their histories immaterial, both of which … are untrue.
He is right to point these pitfalls out. Contextualising the importance of the history of the UK and our current constitutional make up (and what it will be in the future) is very important. However, the idea that the American settlement is on par with the French form of secularism is putting too very different forms of church/state relations in one bag. I am sure Spencer knows this, and while it is a subtle point, it is important to distinguish the two systems to deeper understand the concept of principled pluralism as I would like to see it applied in the UK within the context of a proposed declaration on religious freedom (see the later spark).
The American settlement is not one in which faith is privatised in the same way that faith is private in France. Far from it. Faith can and often is very public. The make up of the US ‘public sphere’ is formed by agreement on both moral and legal values which are shaped by an overlap between the “secular” or the “sacred” articulations (of what ever variety) of these values, and from where these values come. That is to say that the law in the US is shaped by both secular and sacred forces and that morality is shaped so as well. Though no one church is established.
Distinguishing law and morality is important because they are very much not the same thing, though they share overlap. Morals are spoken or unspoken guidelines about how we behave without the threat of punishment from the state, whilst the law is written and in some cases the non-written practice of force which literally ‘enforces’ how society thinks we should behave. In America both are shaped by deliberation in the public square and both secular, Christian, Muslim or Pagan people take part in these deliberations as Secularists, Christians, Muslims or Pagans.
In France the deliberation in the public square happens as well, however the necessity to privatize ones faith (whether secular or religious) is a prerequisite to take part in the formation of these values. In part this setlement is based on the strong tie the Church of Rome had to the French monarchy before the revolution. And so history develops. Rather the American Constitution needs to be seen within the context of a settlement not of ‘no religion in the public square’ but rather of ‘not one religion over any other.’
Strictly speaking neither of these are the case in relation to the formation of values in the United Kingdom, if indeed it is a ‘christian nation.’ We share a colague of various settlements, since the Bishops in the Lords hardly have the power to change a law, and have no power to introduce a law, but it is also true that a Christian can be a christian in parliament and ‘do God’ without having to privatize their faith.
Furthermore, Spencer is aware that calling a nation christian could cause confusion and problems, so he argues that a proper humility in recognizing the appropriate ordering of our nation to others is required if we are to call ourselves a ‘christian nation’, as he says in the article by quoting the Puritan Roger Williams:
Where hath the God of heaven, in the gospel, separated whole nations or kingdoms, English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, &c, as a peculiar people and antitype of the people of Israel?’ (Williams)
So while I disagree with the terminology of ‘christian nation’ for precisely the above reason (what nation isn’t Christian?), overall Spencer is fundamentally right. There is no reason that, in reshaping the constitution as will happen in the next 10 years and as has happened through incremental changes over the Blair years, that we necessarily need to adopt the US constitutional model. The French model is and should be absolutely out of the question.
However, does that mean we need remain a “christian nation” in word only? What I am after (and what I think most Christians are after) is the everyday practice of law making and morality articulating includes the opportunity of Christians to participate whilst being themesleves. This will go on whether or not the constitutional settlement of church and state works itself out in a legal and historical sence. The second spark which lead me to think about this a bit more is worth mentioning within this context.
Os Guinness and a (universal) deceleration of religious freedom
Spark two moves the discussion into a global context. The difference between a Christian Nation and our Christian heritage (if you like) was accentuated at a meeting I attended in Parliament organized by the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life where British born but US resident Os Guinness presented on the importance of upholding Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, who is no stranger to the fight for Religious freedom as understood in the wording of Article 18, responded to Guinness’s presentation. The crux of the response related to whether a declaration of religious freedom could be universal or not.
Guinness called for a renewal of the importance of Article 18 through a Declaration on Religious Freedom and thought it might be good for the Declaration ‘to be made’ here in London. Primarily his argument for Article 18 is because he believes religious people are being marginalized in the expression of their faith in practice. Moreover, he argues against a ‘naked Public Square’.
The naked public square is such that we cannot come to it with our clothing on, whether it is the Cassock, Turban, red shoes, Hijab, pin stripe suite, or Yarmulke. Rather we have to enter the public square as we enter the world, without cultural or religious perspectives, neutering our identities for the sake of a neutral (or a perceived neutral) public space. Guinness argued that the public square is never naked as even a ‘neutered’ identity represents an identity. Therefore it is right to meet at the public squre fully clothed, but with civility.
Civility reflects a moral not legal value. It means that disagreement, robust criticism and a thick struggle for what morality and the law should look like needs to happen. However, it needs not lead to violence or grief. That is if we can agree on a civility or as it is called else-ware, principled pluralism. I would go so far as to say that real tension needs to exist before agreement can be made. We need not fear tension, but that is another debate.
Nazir-Ali’s response focused mostly on one point, namely what is the root of ‘civility.’ What is it based on. Where did it come from? In other words, he said civility is grounded on the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Therefore Nazir-Ali believes that any Declaration on Religious Freedom needs to recognize the root of civility as comes from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jakob as revealed in the Bible and understood by the church, not the Koran and Imams.
At this point it is pertinent to say a number of things. Article 18 is about religious freedom. The title of the event in Parliament was “A world safe for Diversity: Religious liberty in an age of exploding pluralism.” Who ever chose that title was alluding to a number of phenomena that people who think about these things are aware of. The rather nasty word ‘explosive’ here might have partially referred to terrorism, but I will be civil and assume that it genuinely refers to a multiplicity of religions (including secularists) meeting each other in the public square, but also those whose behaviour or sexual identity might conflict with a religious world and life view.
The Declaration is being proposed for that very reason. Over the last couple of decades human rights law has seen the explosion of multiple conflicts within itself, whilst religious freedom under article 18 has been eroded in favour of a privatised faith in the west. In some parts of the Muslim word it has been ignored (as it always has been).
In the west a person is free to believe, but not always free for that belief to influence their behaviour. At the same time, some Muslims have been attempting to erode the value of Article 18 by introducing measures to protect ethnic rights which include elements of the Muslim identity (as in Islam all are born Muslim), to allow or legitimise the prohibition of conversion and to prohibit proselytism. This is in direct contravention to Article 18 (and other articles) which has been used to enshrines in law the right to changes ones religion and protects people from the state if they do so.
So a Declaration on Religious Freedom would add political value to Christians (and other faiths) in ensuing they are protected under human rights law in the UK and Europe, but also give a basis for religious conversion and human rights law to be argued for in countries that do not recognize Article 18.
Michael Nazir-Ali, Common Grace and the work of the Holy Spirit
So how then does Spencer’s article relate to Os Guinness’s proposed Declaration of Religious Freedom? In his response to Guinness, Nazir-Ali was in essence questioning whether Christians would be giving too much away at a negotiation table if the notion of ‘civility’ was not underpinned as being rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I am assuming (and I owe this point to a colleague) that as he is a former Bishop in the Church of England, his view of morality is rooted within the intermingling of an understanding of law and morality in the context of a nation-state structures under the settlement Spencer described in his article.
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights however is not legally binding, which has its weaknesses, but also its strengths. One of the strengths of the Declaration is that it is Universal, which means that it can be used as a benchmark in international diplomacy or global politics within a multiplicity of context, cultures and indeed historical and constitutional settlements. So while Spencer and Nazir-Ali are right to point to the importance of recognizing the historical significance of the Judeo-Christian tradition on the settlement in the UK, and while they are also absolutely right to point to the universal nature of morality (even as seen in the Universal Declaration), I wonder if their want to promote a Christian notion of both the UK settlement, and the Christian basis of a Declaration of Religious freedom misses the very fact that all good is God given?
This might sound a bit counter-intuitive but why is it important to emphasise the Christian roots of either a constitutional settlement, or of a definition of civility, if Christians are given an appropriate means to take part in the public square? If we know that the law is written on the heart of all humankind (though we do not always like or recognize it), why do we have to seek to enshrine the language of the roots of Gods law in either our national state settlement with the church, or within a Declaration that has global significance?
If the teaching on Common Grace is true, namely that God has provided a measure of grace to all of his creation by sustaining creation, including people who do not recognize Jesus as King, and if the Holy Spirit is at work actively dispensing that grace in helping people meet with civility, do we need to emphasise in word that civility can only be based on a Christian heritage or values? What is good is after all good, whether it is done by a christian or a non-christian. Which is precisely the basis on which Christians can work with non-Christians in the formation of good law, or in participation in the formation of good morality.
Pragmatically speaking the discussion that Guinness is trying to garner support for is one that is and must be bigger than the constitutional settlement of the UK. It must, if it is to have real weight, have more religions represented behind it and it must be supporting by atheists or agnostics to have any practical relevance to help the religious express their faith in practice in the west and be used to help protect those that want to convert from Islam to another religion in Muslim countries where Sharia Law is interpreted to mean that such conversions should be punished.
Finally, Spencer’s point about the roots of our nation must be taken very seriously by people of faith and of no faith, particularly in debates which shape the moral and legal structure of the UK. If as the House of Lords Select Committee mentioned above is correct and we are not a secular state, it is important and vital to add constructively to the debate the values that Christianity offer. This is a very important task, but it should not be confused with what a global and Universal Declaration is about.
May Gods special grace be upon those who make legal or moral decisions and may they make them with civility.