Wright on Church and State
Trevin Wax: You have been critical of the post-Enlightenment secularization of government and society. What is the proper relationship between a church or a faith and the government? What is the proper status of minority faiths in any given society?
This is a very tricky one. I’m not an expert on this. I merely observe it going on in my culture and get echoes of it from other cultures.
It seems to me that the attempt to separate faith from public life, while I understand why that happens, is usually a matter of buying time to allow things to settle down. But when you say buying time, there is a price to be paid, and when that price is called in, it can be quite ugly.
Example: Turkey at the moment faced with possible Islamic fundamentalism is saying, “No, we are determined to be a secular republic.” And frankly, if I was faced with the choice of living under Sharia law or being a secular republic, I think I’d rather be a secular republic, thank you very much.
But of course precisely that choice was what was faced in the 18th century by many people in Europe after the wars of religion, where you’ve got different bits of Lutheran, Calvinist, Catholic, etc. Europe literally killing each other. And of course, one says, “Well that was for political reasons and these religions were kind of excuses, like in Northern Ireland. The Catholic-Protestant thing is actually a sociological, socio-cultural economic divide with religious labels on.” But the religions were fueling it. They were inciting and egging people on. “You must do this because they’re wicked, they’re filthy, rotten Protestants!” “You must do this because they’re awful, they’re the Pope’s armies,” you see. All that was going on to help the energy.
So, faced with that, you can understand why the Enlightenment said, “Kick God upstairs! Make religion a private matter! And then, we can organize the world much more sensibly down here, can’t we?” But of course, the trouble is, what was the next thing that happened? The French Revolution, where they killed thousands of their own secular people, in order to prove the point about liberte, egalite and fraternite. Sorry, but you’ve just falsified your own thing.
In other words, religion has killed its thousands and secularization its tens of thousands! That’s the way it goes. Look at the Gulag. Look at all of that stuff. That was not done in the name of religion. That was done in the name of atheism.
So the “Let’s buy some time by putting religion on hold” actually may give you a breathing space, but you may store up trouble which will come back and bite you… and that’s happened massively. 9/11 is obviously the symbol of that. Stuff that should have never been off the public agenda, namely how you do religion in the public square, came back and bit us horribly.
The trouble is, we in the West are reacting in horribly immature ways to that by this polarization of secularization and fundamentalism. We’ve sort of forgotten that there are wise ways between.
For half of the Middle Ages, Christians, Jews and Muslims – OK, there were some tensions, but often they could live side by side in communities and negotiate how to be a good community with these different religions. It’s been difficult, but it’s not impossible. We just have to learn to do that again.
Here, the great thing we have to work at (and a tip of the hat to the Catholic bishops ten years ago who wrote a document called “The Common Good”), we’ve got to rediscover that there are, as Oliver Donovan says, “common objects of love.”
The great majority of Muslims want to live at peace, want to bring up their children in security, want to be able to worship in the way that means what it means to them, and they really don’t want to be terrorists. However, if we persist on treating all Muslims as if they are basically like Al Qaeda, which is a horrible, vicious, wicked organization… (I’ve been accused of going soft on Al Qaeda… come on, give me a break!). The Muslims I know are not only not like that, they are horrified at that. But they will say, “But I’m afraid what you guys have done in the Middle East has been the best recruiting agent for Al Qaeda that there could have been.” That’s my government as well as yours.
So, yes we have to make it clear that discussions about whether Jesus is the Son of God or not are not discussions about immigration policy. And that to say that if you’re a Muslim you’re not welcome to live in this town or whatever is simply devastatingly bad, because the gospel is about the recreation of the whole world and included in that is lots of stuff about common good which we can actually agree on. And we have to work on that locally, culturally, nationally – to build relationships of trust and mutual respect.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t do evangelism. Paradoxically, it means that if we show that we respect people, we actually earn the right to be heard. If we show that we don’t respect them, we will never be heard.
Continue reading: >> Upcoming Writings and Conclusion
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