Should Christians support the idea of a Christian state?

There are currently two main religious political paradigms on offer in Western society, argues Jonathan Chaplin in an admirably crisp article in the latest issue of Crucible. There’s public secularism, which opposes religious influence in public policy and public affairs, and there’s neo-Christendom, which regards the Christian character of Western nations to be integral to them and to liberal democratic government and thus to be rightly protected by the state.

Chaplin wants to propose a third alternative, which he fashions the ‘Dissenting’ political theology of democratic pluralism. According to Chaplin, this model differs from neo-Christendom in repudiating all official public religious privilege for Christianity and defending the religious impartiality of the state. So far so familiar, and no different to public secularism. Where Chaplin’s model differs, however, is in welcoming ‘common good-oriented political engagement’ by religious people of all creeds, including those who make appeal to ‘openly religious grounds’. As part of this Chaplin advocates a ‘cooperationist’ model of church-state relations, in which a multiplicity of religious providers are welcomed in publicly funded education, healthcare and social services. Although he certainly envisages ‘certain minimal legal constraints’ on public religious engagement he is clear that the state must justify any infringements of religious freedom.

Chaplin sees this Dissenting political theology to emerge from three core principles. First, free faith, being the freedom mandated by the overriding importance of authenticity in religious commitment. Second, freedom of the church, extended to guarantee self-governance for all religious communities. And third, limited state, understood expansively to mean that the state may not impose any ultimate truths on its citizens, and indeed that all citizens, religious or otherwise, should repudiate ‘any aspiration to the monopolisation of the polity by their own faith or worldview’.

Despite this broad limitation on the ideological ambitions of citizens, Chaplin acknowledges that ‘there may, perhaps, be a restricted sense in which it could be permissible … to speak of an ‘officially’ Christian state.’ He is also not blind to the benefits of a Christian culture or opposed to conserving them, asserting that it is ‘entirely proper that Christians should work to sustain what remains of the positive legacy of Christian culture’. However, for him the critical issue is that the state must play no part in this, since he maintains a sharp distinction between the state (characterised by coercion) and civil society (the place of voluntary activity). It is therefore only by means of ‘education, persuasion and mobilisation in civil society’ that he thinks Christians (and others) may seek to sustain the positive legacy of Christian culture. The state, for its part, may only stand back and survey the efforts from afar, as ‘legal mediator’ of an ‘argumentative public square’ (Chaplin here citing Rowan Williams).

So does this work – is Chaplin’s democratic pluralism a viable alternative for Christians to ‘neo-Christendom’, to the idea of a Christian state and its intentional role in sustaining a Christian culture? I do not think so. Although at first sight it may seem to offer an attractive middle way between public secularism and neo-Christendom for those uncomfortable with the idea of ‘imposing’ Christianity on society, on closer inspection it differs from ‘neo-Christendom’ approaches only in ways which are logically and morally problematic. There are three ways in particular to which we should pay attention.

First of all, Chaplin’s democratic pluralism fails to be upfront (with itself or with others) about what it really is or what it entails. For the truth is, it is a Christian political theology and it will, in practice in a democratic society, favour the largest religious group, i.e. Christians, who will have much the greatest presence in political engagement and public service provision. Furthermore, there is no reason under the model why a successful Christian public presence in a highly Christian society could not come to dominate public policymaking and legislation. All of which would seem to be at variance with the model’s claim to repudiate official public religious privilege. In other words, the model consists of a Christian political theology which in practice in a Christian society will favour Christian ideas and Christian public engagement, and it needs to be honest about that.

Secondly, insofar as the model follows through in its repudiation of official state support for Christianity and Christian culture it will be self-defeating, since it will act to undermine its own social sources of sustenance. After all, it is, by its own account, a Christian political theology, and thus its repudiation of state support for Christian culture can only contribute to the dismantling of its own social foundations. Furthermore, it appears to suffer from a logical flaw, in that as itself an example of Christian political ideology it appears to counsel its own repudiation by the state.

Thirdly, and lastly, Chaplin’s democratic pluralism is harmful to society, since it fails to recognise that states have a legitimate interest in expressing and sustaining their main religious tradition for the sake of important social goods such as national identity, civic unity and social cohesion. This is an interest recognised by, for example, the European Court of Human Rights as falling well within the ‘margin of appreciation’ (i.e. discretion) of states in the application of human rights law.

For all these reasons, then, Chaplin’s democratic pluralism cannot be considered a viable option for Christians as they approach political questions. However attractive it might have seemed, we need to be upfront about the fact that our political theology is Christian and favours Christianity, that it needs to foster and not undermine the conditions of its own viability, and that it ought not to cause harm by denying states the ability to give proper support to the religious aspects of their national culture.

In criticising here Chaplin’s model of democratic pluralism I do not at all mean to be dismissive of the more general idea of democratic pluralism, which is an important aspect of any well-ordered Christian state. Christian states should be naturally supportive of democracy, meaning the universal franchise, and pluralism, meaning freedom for a diversity of views and beliefs to be expressed in society and politics. Christian states, properly constituted, are natural allies of religious freedom and other fundamental rights, not opponents of them.

Some might object that religious freedom in a Christian state will naturally favour the freedom of Christians, particularly in public life, even while it extends freedom of various kinds to adherents of other religions. That is surely true, but it is also unavoidable. No political ideology is neutral and any will in practice favour the freedom of those more closely aligned with it. This is no less true of Chaplin’s democratic pluralism, which also favours the freedom of the main religion, i.e. Christianity, and public secularism, which favours irreligious and atheistic approaches and sidelines religion. Similarly, Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu states which protect religious freedom will inevitably favour the freedom of their major religion, particularly in public life. This is unavoidable, but ought not to be regretted, provided religious freedom and the fundamental rights of all are protected – something which well-ordered Christian states, rooted in a commitment to the dignity of humankind made in the image of God, are particularly well-placed to secure.

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