Picture if you can a country in which parents had to explain to children what “food bank” meant because a generous and savvy welfare system, working in tandem with well-resourced voluntary groups in support of strengthened families and households, prevented people ever falling so low that they couldn’t afford the price of a bag of sugar.
Imagine one which positively prided itself on being a global leader in welcoming refugees and asylum seekers and devoted substantial new resources to their resettlement and integration.
Try to conceive of an economy in which the principles of solidarity and justice had begun to transform the landscape of employment rights, corporate structure, investment priorities, and financial regulation.
Dream of a post-consumerist society propelled by a vision of global ecological stewardship where governments, businesses and individuals had drastically shrunk their carbon footprints, exceeding even internationally-agreed targets.
Fantasise for a moment about a nation in which the prison population had halved from its current 85,000: bold new sentencing laws would have meant that only those who were a danger to the public would be sent down, while the penal system shifted decisively towards restorative justice, compensation and community service.
Conjure up in your mind’s eye a state in which the human rights of the weakest, most vulnerable and least vocal of its citizens – the disabled, the orphaned, those suffering from dementia, the unborn, children at risk of abuse, women trapped in oppressive relationships and communities – were given priority in law and public policy over the preferences of independent, healthy, autonomy-craving (mostly male) adults.
That would be my kind of “Christian nation”. Or, to add an important qualification, my kind of Christian polity, since the nation is much wider and deeper than the political system that could deliver policies like those above. The transformation of the complex fabric of national life would involve many more changes to personal behaviour, family life and social mores than could ever be engineered by the state.
A “Christian polity” would be one aspiring, through its collective deeds, to practise the God-pleasing virtues of justice, solidarity and compassion. Call it, more inclusively, a “righteous polity”. Working for such a goal is something I’d be heartened to see political leaders across the board get “evangelical” about. I’d rather see them expend their energies on such a goal than haplessly cling on to the increasingly hollow, distracting, top-down constitutional ceremonials of a vanishing Christendom, as if these were any guarantee of righteous deeds.
To edge closer to such a righteous polity would take the concerted, cooperative and decades-long efforts of large swathes of an increasingly diverse citizenry. Citizens in such a plural society would find inspiration in a wide range of partly convergent, partly clashing, worldviews, faiths, cultural traditions, and ethical visions. The route towards it would be full of boisterous, passionate, angry, and sometimes stalemated public contestation in which no viewpoint would enjoy official public primacy. It would presuppose what Rowan Williams has called “an argumentative democracy”.
I’d certainly hope that in such a noisy democratic movement of political renewal Christians would act as enthusiastic contributors, alongside many others. They would play an active part, sometimes a prominent part, and perhaps occasionally even a decisive part, in its various campaigns. They’d also work for and positively affirm a level playing field for adherents of all worldviews, one evident both in processes of democratic deliberation and in the public policy outcomes of such processes. In doing so they’d be working for a representative system in which the voices of many minorities – sometimes polyphonic, sometimes cacophonous – were attended to as possible conduits of public wisdom, rather than being ignored or silenced by gatekeeping majorities as if they were political irritants or epistemological deviants.
What’s more, while Christians would join energetically with other religious minorities in making use of new openings for authentically “faith-based” voluntary social service in such a regime, they wouldn’t seek any privileged standing over against secular providers.
Indeed not only would they disavow any new public privileges that might be dangled in front of them by governments seeking to curry their favour, but they’d have the nerve to take the initiative in offering to relinquish any inequitable financial or constitutional advantages they’d inherited from the legacy of Christian primacy. They’d be much more concerned that the common good of their society actually be advanced than that their own contributions – or indeed the surviving spiritual capital and cultural memories on which they and others continued, perhaps unwittingly, to trade – be flagged publicly as “Christian”.
Beyond whatever kinds of social or public service they would engage in, Christians, like other faiths, would continue, of course, to set about their own distinctive mission of communicating and practising the truths they adhered to in ways they thought appropriate by their own lights. But they wouldn’t expect any help from the state on that front. The “Christian polity” I’ve sketched wouldn’t be a neutral state but nor would it be a confessional one.
I’d wager that many people of faith – and perhaps plenty of those of none – could rally behind a project like that.
Jonathan Chaplin is Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics
Image from wikimedia available in the public domain