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What sort of ‘secular state’ should religious citizens support?

What sort of ‘secular state’ should religious citizens support?

In the fourth in his series on ‘Faith in Democracy’, Jonathan Chaplin argues that the secular state is not something religious citizens should fear – just as long as ‘secular’ is understood in the right way. 01/07/2021

 ‘We are secular judges serving a multicultural community of many faiths sworn to do justice to all manner of people… We live in this country in a democratic and pluralist society, not a theocracy’. 

 So declared Sir James Munby, then President of the Family Division, in a 2013 lecture on ‘Law, Morality and Religion in the Family Courts’ to an assembly of the nation’s lawyers.  

 Public figures, when addressing the role of faith in public life, who suggest we confront a straightforward choice between a ‘secular’ state and a ‘theocracy’ are either guilty of culpable ignorance about the meaning of such terms or are engaged in a rhetorical sleight of hand to deprecate public religion.  

 ‘Theocracy’ literally means ‘the rule of God’. But God doesn’t have a habit of showing up in person to order people around. And when God did show up in person (so Christians confess), the result was not quite what most of us would think of as ‘theocracy’ (‘Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant’ (Mark 10: 44)). 

 A more precise, if less elegant, term would be ‘clerocracy’ – the conferral of state power on religious officials. We know how that goes in Iran, where a council of senior clerics vets legislation for conformity to (their reading of) Islamic law. And we know we don’t want anything like it here. Bishops in the House of Lords – the only memory of ‘clerocracy’ still left in the British constitution – may occasionally exercise marginal influence on legislation, but hardly qualify as bullying Ayatollahs. 

 But what might it mean to say we prefer a ‘secular state’? Contrary to the impression given by some Christian critics of ‘secularism’, there are in fact powerful strands of Christian political thought that should lead us to affirm two senses of a ‘secular state’.  

 First, we can endorse a state as ‘secular’ if what is meant by that is a state confining itself to the affairs of the saeculum, meaning ‘this age’, rather than the ‘age to come’. Under Christendom, this was traditionally seen as including matters of ‘earthly justice’, or the ‘temporal common good’, such as lawful order, security, civil justice, and public morality. Today, we would include within it matters such as the guaranteeing of essential human needs like minimum income, housing, schooling, and a sustainable environment.  

 A ‘secular state’ in this sense was not traditionally seen as operating in a realm divorced from God or immune to the influence of religion. For ‘this age’ was also God’s age. It was the time of God’s providential upholding of a fallen creation, of the unfolding of God’s redemptive activity and of God’s patience while ‘wheat and tares’ lived alongside each other prior to final judgement. While the state could not administer saving grace, its being ‘secular’ did not mean its actions were immune to the influence of religious norms. 

 Second, we might affirm a state as ‘secular’ in the sense of its adopting a stance of impartiality towards diverse religious beliefs. This, it hardly needs adding, was not the dominant practice during the age of Christendom. But it was powerfully affirmed by ‘dissenting’ Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as the radical Puritan Roger Williams (who, exceptionally and prophetically, granted religious freedom to ‘pagan’ American Indians in Rhode Island).  

 A key theological argument for this stance was that, contrary to centuries of erroneous interpretation, the New Testament after all conferred on the state no authority to determine which religion was true or to grant civil privileges to any of them. A compelling practical argument was that repeated attempts by rival Christian communities to impose their view of truth on others had fuelled religious hostility, social division, periodic persecution, and protracted war. In this view, ‘impartiality’ does not necessarily mean state indifference to or distance from religion – only that the state should aspire to engage with plural religions even–handedly as far as possible. 

 Sir James Munby seems to be reaching for something like this sense of the secular state.[1] Judges in a pluralist society are thus ‘sworn to do justice’ to people of all faiths and may not privilege one over another. And the point applies not only to courts but to any organs of state. It was asserted authoritatively by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in 2003 when it declared that ‘the State’s duty of…impartiality [among beliefs] is incompatible with any power on the State’s part to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs’. Courts have also rightly held that secular faiths (or ‘beliefs’ as UK law calls them) are entitled to similar impartial treatment.  

 We should thus not seek to emulate the recent French ‘anti–separatism’ law which, responding to egregious acts of Islamist terrorism, imposes draconian new controls on Muslims and their families and associations. Even though it does not single out Islam by name, it clearly amounts to an adverse judgement of the French state against key aspects of French Islamic belief and practice. It has also evoked deep concern among the French Evangelical minority, which fears it could find itself entangled in the new restrictions. 

 The precise implications of state impartiality towards plural faiths are not always immediately obvious. Does the principle necessarily rule out even an unimposing established church such as the Church of England, or guaranteed seats for bishops in the House of Lords (both of which are forms of state privilege)? Does the public standing of minority faiths need to be ‘levelled up’ in order to meet the demands of impartiality? How can Islamist–inspired terrorism be countered without stigmatising the entire Muslim community – as the UK government’s Prevent programme has been accused of doing? What exactly would it mean for a state to renounce what Rowan Williams calls a ‘programmatic secularism’ [2] that seeks to banish faith to the margins of public life?  

 These are matters of legitimate debate. But when we hear someone defending a ‘secular’ state in the sense of a religiously impartial state, we have sound theological reasons to support them. 

 To affirm a ‘secular’ state in these two senses, however, does not remotely mean that the public realm generally must be ‘secularised’ – subjected to a ‘programmatic secularism’. A religiously impartial state can still make ample space for openly religious voices and protect them against those who would silence them. It can create wide avenues for the mobilisation of religiously–motivated citizens behind various political causes. It can, and should, establish effective channels for such citizens to use these kinds of democratic power to shape law and public policy – on the same terms afforded to all.  

 To place asymmetric burdens on citizens on account of their religion (or lack of it) within a pluralist democracy would be a direct breach of the impartiality principle. It would also breach the obligation affirmed in a 2012 ECtHR judgment that the state should respect minority religious groups so as to ‘ensure cohesive and stable pluralism and promote religious harmony and tolerance’. 

 But while state impartiality towards faith would rule out an officially Christian (or Islamic, Hindu, Jewish or Secular Humanist) state, it would not exclude a potentially substantial influencing of state activity by faith–motivated citizens. On the contrary, as liberal theorist Cécile Laborde puts it: ‘The state should be secular so that citizens do not have to be secular’. [3] 

 The state’s securing of democratic opportunities for such influence is itself a matter of ‘doing justice to all manner of people’. Political justice calls not only for just outputs of the democratic process – the fair treatment of plural faiths in law and policy – but also just inputs into it – fair arrangements for diverse faith–based contributions to that process.  

 Whether such inputs would turn out to be effective is a distinct question. It is not enough for faith communities simply to claim a seat at the table. They need to have something pertinent and substantial to say when they get there – and not only on their own issues but also on matters of the public good. Thereby lies a good deal of hard work. Religious citizens worried about the secularisation of the public realm might begin not by criticising the state for failing to meet religious expectations but by equipping their own communities better to fulfil that task. 


Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity is published by SCM. 



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[1] So is Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK, in Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2017). 

[2] Faith in the Public Square (Bloomsbury, 2012), 26.

[3] Cécile Laborde, Liberalism’s Religion (Harvard University Press, 2017), 125.

Jonathan Chaplin

Jonathan Chaplin

Dr Jonathan Chaplin is a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University and a Senior Fellow of Cardus, a Canadian public theology think–tank. He was first Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics from 2006–2017. He is a specialist in political theology and he has taught at higher education institutions in the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. He is author of two Theos reports, and of ‘Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity’ (SCM 2021).

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Posted 1 July 2021

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