What Role for Christianity in 21st Century Politics?

In January 2103, Cambridge University hosted a debate about the future of religion in public life. The speakers included the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the world-famous atheist, Richard Dawkins. Not surprisingly, it was extremely well-attended.

The specific proposition for the debate was "This House believes religion should have no place in the 21st century". Although I wasn’t there to confirm them, reports suggest that Richard Dawkins’s side had the better jokes, but Rowan Williams’ side had the better arguments. Either way, the motion was rejected by 324 votes to 136.

One of the speakers at the event was Douglas Murray, a contributing editor to the British Spectator magazine, in which he subsequently wrote a response to the debate.[1] Mr Murray is an interesting figure. The first thing to note about him is that he is an atheist; by no means a tub-thumping fanatic of the New Atheist variety, but an atheist nonetheless. The second is that he had originally intended to speak on Dawkins’ side of the debate, along with the head of the British Humanist Association.

However, as he said in his article, what had, at first, been a more moderate motion was changed into a harder one, namely that religion should have no place in the 21st century. This was something that Mr Murray, as an atheist, found uncomfortable, and so he changed sides. This was not, of course, because he thought theism was true but because he believed it would – and should – play some part in the 21st century.

I want to use Mr Murray’s article as a way of talking about the future of religion generally, and Christianity specifically, in public life today because it makes two key and relevant points: firstly, that religion should have a public presence in the 21st century – that God is back, in short; and second, what role and what form that presence should take. So, first: God is back. Discuss.

Mr Murray’s view was that the position of the so-called New Atheists was extreme. In the debate, he explained, "religion was portrayed as a force of unremitting awfulness, a poisoned root from which no good fruit could grow."

The problem with this view, he noted, is simply that it isn’t true. Now, this kind of defence is usually the cue for some warm and cuddly words about religion contributing a great deal to the wider social good through soup kitchens and food banks, and while this is important it wasn’t where Murray’s arguments went.

Rather, he was making a more interesting point that religious myths – as he would see them – speak seriously to our sense of who we are. "You can be in agreement with Professor Dawkins that Adam did not exist", he wrote, and "yet know and feel that the story of Eden speaks profoundly about ourselves."

There are several valuable points here.

The first is that we should all learn how to read texts. Lampooning Christianity because Genesis begins with a talking snake might seem extremely witty for to a fifteen-year-old who has just discovered Voltaire but it wears a bit thin after that. Similarly, if you read Genesis as if it were scientific paper; the Book of Kings like it is a newspaper; Paul’s letters like they were an attempt at systematic theology; or the Gospels as if they were modern biographies, you have no-one to blame for your incomprehension than yourself. We need to respect genre for what it is.

A second, less obvious but more important point is that human nature is hugely complex and that religions, which have spanned millions of people over thousands of years, are very unlikely to have nothing profound to tell us about who we are. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor put this well in his influential 1992 essay 'The Politics of Recognition', in which he argues that we should have a "presumption of equal worth" – by which he does not mean moral relativism or indifference – when we approach other cultures. In his words:

[I]t is reasonable to suppose that cultures that have provided the horizon of meaning for large numbers of human beings, of diverse characters and temperaments, over a long period of time – that have, in other words, articulated their sense of the good, the holy, the admirable – are almost certain to have something that deserves our admiration and respect even if it is accompanied by much that we have to abhor and reject.[2]

Mr Murray’s point in this specific context was that what the Eden story speaks to us about is our sense of fallibility deep within the human character. All societies recognise that something is wrong, and most recognise that there is something we can do about it, but where they locate the problem, and hence the solution, differs enormously. For enlightenment thinkers, the faults lay in ignorance, or backwardness, or superstition, or political oppression. And each of these could be cured – whether by education, by reason, by science, by technology, by secularism, or by political reform.

John Gray has attacked the myth of progress and the unthinking faith of secular humanism

In contrast to this, the Christian view, as rooted in an anthropology descended in part from Eden, is that whilst all these are problems that are open to amelioration, there is a more profound problem with human nature, which is such that even when we are well-fed, well-educated and well-governed, we do not necessarily seek our own good, let alone the common good. And as Murray pointed out, this was not a view shared by the atheists he opposed.

My fellow atheist opponents … portrayed the future – if we could only shrug off religion – as a wonderful sunlit upland, where reasonable people would make reasonable decisions in a reasonable world.

But why draw this conclusion?

Is it not at least equally likely that if you keep telling people that they lead meaningless lives in a meaningless universe you might just find yourself with at best a vacuous life and a hollow culture? My first exhibit in submission involves turning on a television.

Murray is making a point that has been made powerfully recently by British philosopher John Gray. In a series of books over the last twenty years he has attacked the myth of progress and the unthinking faith of secular humanism. "The return of religion as a pivotal factor in politics and war is one of the defining features of the age", he has written. "It is time Paine, Marx and other secular prophets were gently shelved in the stacks … the books that have most formed the past, and which are sure also to shape the future, are the central texts of the world religions." [3]

So, God is back in public debate because religion, whether you are yourself religious (like Charles Taylor) or not (like Douglas Murray and John Gray) not only offers people the opportunity to explore the big questions that can’t be dismissed with a casual wave in the direction of Charles Darwin, but presents answers that do indeed speak to our most profound and disquieting senses of who we are, why are we here, where are we going, and how we should live.

There is, however, a complicating factor here, which is this. To those with ears to hear, God never went away. Human beings have never stopped asking profound questions of identity, purpose, destiny, and ethics. And Christianity has been a living presence in Europe and elsewhere in the 20th century, just as it was beforehand. How, then, do we come to be talking about God coming back?

The answer is less to do with God or religion, and more to do with the social and intellectual context in which he has operated for the last three generations. Nearly forty years ago, the sociologist Peter Berger wrote in The New York Times, "[By] the twenty-first century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture."

It surely ranks as one of the worst predictions in the history of sociology. Thirty years later, in 1999, he wrote a book entitled The Desecularisation of the World, in which he said, "The assumption that we live in a secularised world is false: The world today, with some exceptions … is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever."

The ‘return of God’ is not actually about the return of God so much as the changes to which Peter Berger was referring. Several stand out.

One is the death of secular ideologies. It is hard for people born in my generation to grasp how much serious hope was invested in programmes of economic reform earlier in the 20th century. Better organisation, more information, clearer reasoning: between them these would restructure economies and societies along rational and just lines. There would be no poverty, no crime, and no unfulfilled lives because social reform would abolish them all. Moreover, humans were not so irrational as to rebel against a society that so self-evidently served their good.

One can question how deeply held these views were, and one can question how and when they collapsed. But it is beyond serious doubt that the political ideologies that appeared to promise salvation earlier in the 20th century are only now to be found at the periphery of society.

Marxism died in theory and practice, and with it went the deep, motivating sense that salvation lies in political action alone. In the UK at least, it has been replaced, with an almost suffocating cynicism about politics. Attitudes to politics and politicians are frankly abysmal. We are contemptuous of our politicians, especially after the expenses scandal of 2009. We are deeply sceptical about organised party political activity and we frankly disbelieve all government promises. Some of this can be put down to the scepticism necessary for living in a free democracy, but its extent is unhealthy, and is reflected in low voter turnouts, and unprecedentedly low levels of party membership and donation. We have, in short, lost our faith in politics as a means of delivering what it once thought it might do.

This does not, of course, mean that we have lose faith in earthly salvation altogether. Many have pointed out that when capitalism became the last man standing in 1989, faith in capitalism and globalisation replaced faith in central planning. The market would deliver where planned economies had failed. This faith certainly wobbled considerably in 2008/09 but no one should imagine that financial utopianism died with the great crash. Our local, national and global life is shaped by market interactions in incalculable ways.

The issue here, though, is that outside university economics departments and free-market think tanks, no one really gets their sense of identity and purpose from globalisation and market exchange. It doesn’t motivate loyalty and commitment and belonging in the way in which religions, political movements and national identity have long done.

That recognised, capitalism and globalisation have at least generated unparalleled prosperity in the West. This is undeniable and to be welcomed, but even here there is a caveat, which I would like to illustrate with a literary example. In 1888 a book appeared in America, called Looking Backward 2000-1887. It was by Edward Bellamy and was one of the great, utopian novels of the age. In it a wealthy Bostonian Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and awakes in America on September 11th, 2000. The country he finds has left behind the industrial nightmares of the past, and is a utopia of socialist co-operation.

Now, the prediction that America would by the 21st century be a utopia of socialist co-operation is about as accurate as Peter Berger’s that it would be thoroughly secular. But what Edward Bellamy lacked in political prophecy, he made up for in technological forecasting.

At one point West is introduced to a device called music-by-telephone, in which fine music, played by classical orchestras is piped into people’s homes by means of a telephone. It was a brilliantly far sighted piece of writing. Edward Bellamy has effectively predicted the radio, more than 10 years before it was invented. What is more interesting is what his character Julian West said when he saw it.

It appears to me that if we could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes … we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained, and ceased to strive for further improvements.

In other words, he was so impressed with the idea of a radio that he believed that as soon as anyone had a radio in their house, they would be as happy as it was possible to be and they would never again want for anything.

getting and spending we have laid waste our powers

I would hazard a guess that most people here own a radio. In fact, I would guess that they also own a television, or cable television or satellite television, not to mention an iPod, a computer, a phone, a mobile phone, a smart phone, or an iPhone. And that’s without even going into the kitchen and seeing what modern conveniences lie within. In other words, we live in visions of material paradise that even the far-sighted Edward Bellamy could not possibly have predicted. We should, in his words, "have considered the limit of human felicity already attained, and ceased to strive for further improvements."

But we haven’t. Indeed, it’s worse than that. Not only have we not attained the limit of human felicity, but there is good evidence that we are no happier, and possibly even less happy than we were a generation or two ago. To paraphrase the English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, getting and spending we have laid waste our powers.

The wealth generated by capitalism, consumerism and globalisation, which replaced socialism and central planning as the great earthly hope at the end of the 20th century, is to be welcomed. But we should not be blind to its costs.

It does not generate loyalties. Indeed, it arguably dissolves them. It does not generation happiness. Indeed, it arguably needs some sense of unhappiness, or at least dissatisfaction, on which to draw, a sense that it will create it if it can’t find it naturally. And it doesn’t answer the big questions that nag at all humans wherever and whenever they are.

The former Chief Rabbi in the UK, Dr Jonathan Sacks, put this well in his book The Dignity of Difference.

[Humans] are uniquely a meaning-asking animal. Our most fundamental questions are Who am I? and To which narrative do I belong? The great hope of the liberal imagination, that politics could be superseded with economics, replacing public good with private choice, was bound to fail because economics as such offers no answer to the big questions of ‘Who’ and ‘Why’. Religion does, and that is its power in the contemporary world. The politics of ideology may have died, but it has been replaced not by ‘the end of history’ but by the politics of identity.

What we see is an emergence of a public discourse, and sometimes even a politics, in which identity and well-being (beyond simply economic health) are judged valid. The decline of older, secular narratives of progress and the decoupling of wealth and life-satisfaction have oriented public thought and rhetoric towards the idea of what it is to live well for a human being.

The sharper among you will notice that this return of God to public life is not because of, and has not resulted in, revival. God is not back in public life because public life is swarming with countless more believers than it was two decades ago.

Rather, what we have and are heading towards is thoroughgoing pluralism, ethnic and cultural, as well as religious and ideological. The future is no more secular than it is religious. It is profoundly mixed, which presents us all with challenges and which leads me to the second point of the talk: what should it look like? If God is back, what form should religious or Christian commitment take in public life?

Let me return here to what Douglas Murray has to say on the subject. Having established that religion is not just to be tolerated but actually enriches public discourse, Murray proceeds to look for a truce between believers and non-believers. In order to achieve this, he "suggests a deal" in which the religious and non-religious agree to certain terms. I want to look at the terms for the religious:

Religions must give up the aspiration to intervene in secular law in the democratic state. In particular they must give up any desire to hold legislative power over those who are not members of their faith. In much of the world the Christian churches have already done this. Of course there are other religions and places where this separation has not been so nearly achieved. But the concession is vital, not least because the ability to dictate politics or law is the ability that most rightly concerns the non-religious about religions.

Now, there are a lot of things going on here and not all of them are clear or complementary. We might ask, what does "give up the aspiration to intervene in secular law in the democratic state" actually mean? What does giving up "any desire to hold legislative power over those who are not members of their faith" mean? When Murray says "the ability to dictate politics or law is the ability that most rightly concerns the non-religious about religions", he is entirely correct on a factual level but the statement still invited the question what does ‘dictate’ mean?

what form should religious or Christian commitment take in public life?

What is actually in focus here? What is the right role for religion in contemporary public life?

When Murray says that religious people – let’s be specific here and talk about Christians – should not try to influence the law, does that mean they can’t vote, which is, after all, the fundamental way in which most of us try to influence the law? I’m sure he cannot mean that. In fact, I have never heard even the most rabid of New Atheists say that Christians should actually be disenfranchised.

So let’s assume he is talking about some more substantial, organised political activity. Does he mean that Christians should not group together and try and influence policy and election outcomes, such as by campaigning, lobbying, door-knocking, etc? I’m sure there are secular groups who would wish religious groups did not do this kind of thing but I don’t know of any who think it right to limit the civil freedoms of religious people in principle.

Perhaps, Murray’s – and other’s – concern is not about corporate effort of this nature, but at the prospect of their success. In other words, it’s fine to campaign to reduce the time limit for abortion, unless it looks as if you might win the argument, in which case it because an illegitimate interference in ‘secular’ politics. Or, it’s fine to talk about inherent human dignity, until it interferes with others’ attempts to revise the law on assisted dying, in which case it becomes an unacceptable attempt to stand in the way of secular progress.

This is where irregular verbs like “dictate” or “impose” are brought into play, usually in highly irregular ways. Thus: “I advocate, you request, but they demand”, or “I propose, you require, but they dictate”. Again, if this is what secularists believe, no one says it out loud, because it is similarly indefensible.

Adopting such a position is like saying you can take part in political activity just so long as you don’t want to win; or, more accurately, you can take part in political activity just so long as you are prepared to be window dressing to show off the liberal credentials of a free society. Again, though, this is hardly a tenable position for a genuinely democratic society. If society is open to people campaigning, it should be open to people winning their campaigns.

This is where an important distinction can be drawn. We can and must be open to any group, religious or otherwise, campaigning vigorously on abortion, or climate change, or the living wage, or asylum policy, or trade liberalisation, or whatever. Each of those policy objectives may be reached through democratic means without impairing that democracy. However, campaigns which seek to significantly curtail the franchise, or severely limit people’s freedom to speak, assemble or campaign do need to be policed much more carefully and, if necessary, disallowed, as they would saw through the democratic branch on which they, and all of us, are sitting.

So, my initial answer to the question of what role religion should play in our public square is a simple one: basically, no different from any other commitment, providing the basic principles and processes of deliberative democracy are preserved.

However, this clearly isn’t enough because people are concerned about the way religions engage in public life, because, it seems, religions are different species.

In one respect, then, it is actually quite obvious what Murray is advocating, or rather criticising in his comments, even if he is not 100% clear in his phrasing. He is saying no to theocracy; no to the political settlement in which priests either dictate civil laws directly or indirectly through public authorities whom they control, or in which civil laws are drawn exclusively from the scriptures, dogmas and doctrines of a particular religion.

If this is his point, it is worth saying that it is not exactly controversial in Christian spheres. Outside a tiny number of theonomists on the very fringes of Christianity, no Christian advocates theocracy today.

It may be, of course, that Murray’s comments were targeted not at religion generally, nor at Christianity specifically, but at Islam, and it is certainly true that there are serious questions that need to be posed to and by Muslim scholars about the legitimacy of the exercise of independent political authority over Muslims when that authority is not Islamic. However, if this is the case, and Murray is attacking the idea of Islamic theocracy, or the imposition of sharia law on an unwilling public, or the unwillingness of some Muslims to recognise the legitimacy of non-Islam political authority over them, he – and we – need to be much more specific about the issue.

So, theocracy is a non-starter. But then, as I say, few in the Christian world, disagree with that. Murray may, however, be signalling a different king of concern. When he says that religions "must give up any desire to hold legislative power over those who are not members of their faith", he goes on to say that "In much of the world the Christian churches have already done this. Of course there are other religions and places where this separation has not been so nearly achieved."

The key word here seems to be ‘separation’, referring, presumably, to the US political settlement, in which there is complete separation of church and state. In other words, Murray (and others) may be saying that the only reasonable and just political settlement is one in which churches are disestablished and the polity is secular in the American sense of the word.

theocracy is a non-starter

If this is what he is getting at, it is a different and very interesting debate, one that is predicated on the idea that only with complete secularism, in the US sense, can we achieve a fair political settlement. This is certainly a commonly held belief, but it is worth noting that were it the case that we needed a clear division of religion from politics for a healthy political culture, the evidence would clearly say so.

In other words, those countries in which there was no such line of separation, let alone a wall, would be politically less healthy than those, like the USA, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands, which have a comparatively high degree of separation of religion and state. However, this is clearly not so.

The Economist’s Intelligence Unit (EIU) publishes a Democracy Index every two years or so, which measures the state of ‘electoral processes and pluralism’, ‘civil liberties’, ‘the functioning of government’, ‘political participation’ and ‘political culture’ in 167 countries worldwide. It splits the results into four categories – ‘full democracies’, ‘flawed democracies’, ‘hybrid regimes’, and ‘authoritarian regimes’. In the first category of full democracies you do indeed find USA, Japan, Australia, and the Netherlands. But you also find Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Malta and Britain, and just in case you didn’t know: in Iceland, the constitution declares the Evangelical Lutheran Church as the state church and requires all adults to pay the annual church tax (with exemptions available); Denmark has an established Evangelical Lutheran Church which is supported as the state religion, with the government collecting taxes on behalf of the Church, and subsidising clergy salaries and pensions; Finland maintains two state churches, Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox, and the state collects taxes on their behalf; in Switzerland, the majority of the 26 cantons give financial support to a form of Catholic or Protestant Christianity, and collect taxes on behalf of either; in Germany, those religions with 'public law corporation status' can have the state collect taxes from their members; Spain allows for "no religion [to] have a state character" but gives the Catholic Church a privileged position as defined by four accords between Spanish government and Rome; in Malta, Catholicism is the state religion, and the constitution gives the church "the duty and right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong".

all the substitute answers to our nagging questions of identity, purpose, and destiny have fallen away or proved inadequate

In other words, the idea that a clear dividing line between politics and religion is needed in order to maintain a fully-functioning and fair political culture is simply, factually, not true. That does not mean that nations with close and privileged ties between a church and the state are necessarily healthier than more obviously secularised one. Rather it is to say that Separation of Religion and State (SRAS) is not pre-requisite for a healthy polity.

You will find Christians and non-Christians on both sides of the establishment argument in most countries, because there are good arguments on both sides. But, whichever side you sit on, disestablishment is clearly not the deal-breaker when it comes to the role of religion in public life.


Let me summarise what I have so far said before putting a more positive conclusion before you.

God, or religion, is liable to play an increased role in public life, even in comparatively secular Western democracies, in the 21st century, not because of any massive religious revival – though I would never want to rule that out – but for a number of varied reasons. These include trends of immigration, demography, and civil society, which I have not touched on in this talk. However, underlying all these is what I think is the most significant reason, namely that religious faith speaks to and about our humanity in the most profound ways, and all the substitute comprehensive answers to our nagging questions of identity, purpose, and destiny have fallen away or proved inadequate of late.

Many people are understandably nervous about this return, although their fears are often amorphous and badly, or disingenuously expressed. In as far as those fears are about a creeping theocracy, they are, from a Christian point of view, unnecessary. There would be as many Christians against any form of Christian theocracy as there would secularists.

In as far as they are about church establishment, they are irrelevant: establishment is a debateable issue but not a major factor when it comes to political health.

Once these two concerns have been swept away, the role that religious groups play in society becomes a comparatively straightforward question. Such groups may be older, wider, deeper and more resilient than other bodies within civil society, but that does not change in principle their manner of engagement. They can assemble, organise, speak, campaign, vote, and lobby just like any other groups.

Does that mean, therefore, that there is no difference between, say, churches and trades union groups or small business confederations?

Christianity carries with it a conception of the human that is essential to our public life

The answer to this, I would suggest, is no. There is a difference, but it is a difference borne of what it is that lies at the heart of the organisation in the first place. Trades union groups, and small business confederations, and NGOs, and the like exist for specific purposes, to further the shared interests and objectives of their members.

Churches do not. This is not the time or place to get into a detailed ecclesiological discussion, not least seeing as that is one of the things about which different churches most disagree. However, for the sake of our subject of public engagement, I would suggest that Christianity carries with it a conception of the human that is essential to our public life, and it is this that will make the Christian presence in public life qualitatively different.

As the Harvard professor, Michael Sandel, among others, has argued, politics is invariably moral, predicated on conceptions of the good that cannot be excluded from debate, no matter how ‘rationalistic’ we are. In his words:

It’s not possible to decide these big questions of policy, law, justice and rights without presupposing some account of the good life or of the goods at stake in particular social practices… It’s not as if … we have available a safe, risk-free, neutral alternative. The [only] alternative is to decide these questions in a way that presupposes some answer to big moral questions without acknowledging it, and without subjecting those underlying moral assumptions to critical examination and democratic deliberation.

Conceptions of the good, however, are invariably based on conceptions of the human, as to know what is good we need to have an idea of who it is good for. This is where, I believe, Christianity has an important and distinctive role to play.

Christian thought, across the denominations, contends that humans are relational beings before they are autonomous ones. The final human good is a relational one. From the Fall of Genesis 3, to the reconciliation of the Cross; from the purpose of the Exodus, to the logic of the Torah; from the meaning of the Hebrew word for righteousness, to Paul’s song of Christian ethics in 1 Corinthians 13, Christianity is about the rupture and reconciliation of relationships. Freedom and choice are critically important in this but they are means to the ends of relationship, not ends in themselves.

There are a number of quotations I might offer to support this, from conservative evangelical Protestants to liberal ones, and not just the Protestant tradition. Catholic Social Teaching puts it this way:

Being a person in the image and likeness of God … involves existing in a relationship, in relation to the other ‘I’, because God himself, one and triune, is the communion of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. [4]

all choices are embedded in relational contexts and carry with them irreversible consequences that must be taken into greater consideration

This, I think, is the distinctive voice that Christianity can bring to public discourse today – a clear and relentless focus on our relational nature, and the need for social structures to recognise, reflect and enable that. This should not – must not – abolish our present concern with freedom and choice. After all, being able to shape your own life is a crucial element in living a dignified life.

But it may undermine it, presenting us with the disquieting fact that all choices are embedded in relational contexts and carry with them irreversible consequences that must be taken into greater consideration.

Quite in what direction such a concern for our relational wholeness takes will be open to much dispute. Being a Christian in public life does not give you in the inside track on the technical details of policy goals. And, nor, to return to our earlier discussion, does it give you any particular privileges within the political process. Theologians are not natural economists. And the Church is not a political party.

What the return of God to public life does offer, from a Christian point of view, is the opportunity to articulate a vision of the human being, the human good, and the common good that might, if it proves persuasive to those beyond the Christian borders, serve as a lodestar for our political navigation.


[1] http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8839081/call-off-the-faith-wars/.

[2] Charles Taylor, 'The Politics of Recognition', in Charles Taylor, Philosophical Arguments (Harvard University Press, 1995), pp.225-256.

[3] ‘Battle of the books’, New Statesman, 31 July 2006. http://www.newstatesman.com/200607310052 [No longer available at this address - Ed.]

[4] Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the [Catholic] Church, para.34.

© 2013 Theos (www.theosthinktank.co.uk)

This paper is reproduced here to assist those involved in politics, or considering it, to think through the place of Christianity in the political world. UCCF do not endorse any particular political perspective and the views expressed in this article are the author's own. It was originally given as a public lecture at the launch of God is Back, a series of essays published in Norway by the Christian think tank Skaperkraft. We are grateful to the thinktank Theos for making this article available.

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