Can States Be Christian?

Political philosopher Jonathan Chaplin helps us think about civil religion by making things more complicated.
Appears in Summer 2017 Issue: Rethinking Civil Religion
May 25th, 2017

If Cardus were posh enough to have a chapel with stained-glass windows celebrating the saints we hope to emulate, on one side would be those who've gone before us: Saint Augustine, John Calvin, Pope Leo XIII, Abraham Kuyper, Jean Bethke Elshtain. On the other side, as long as they didn't feel like we were hastening a coming day by doing so, we'd feature the living intellectual heroes who inspire us: Calvin Seerveld, Albert Wolters, Margaret Somerville, and others. And without question, Jonathan Chaplin would get a window: he would be standing on the hefty volumes of Dooyeweerd's New Critique, holding a copy of the Magna Carta in one hand and the Bible in the other, crowned with a beret (just to toy with him). In this conversation, Comment senior editor Brian Dijkema sits down with Chaplin, a Cardus senior fellow and, until recently, long-time director of the Kirby Laing Institute, for a candid, ranging discussion about the role of Christianity in our public life. The result is a crash course in public theology delivered in the form of a convivial détente between friends.

Brian Dijkema: In 2009, you wrote an article in Comment titled: Can Nations Be "Christian"? And you answered that question with a resounding no. Tell us why.

Civil religion comes in different forms. Some are menacing. Some are totalitarian. Some are only modestly hegemonic. Some are almost invisible.

Jonathan Chaplin: Well let me immediately add a qualification to that.

BD: Classic Chaplin!

JC: There is one important sense in which it's perfectly legitimate to talk about nations as "Christian." And that is simply the historical claim that particular nations have, over centuries, been deeply formed at multiple levels—culture, society, the economy, and institutions—by Christianity. In the West, that's pretty hard to contest; even most secular humanists would just accept that as a historical truth, whether they like it or not.

My problem comes when that descriptive historical claim is made to do work it can't really do, which is to justify a continuing constitutional privileging of Christianity in the nation's political institutions. That's the step that I want to challenge.

Now of course in the past, in much of Christendom, the two worked together. For much of Christendom, Christianity has had constitutional privilege, indeed often constitutional dominance or hegemony. It's one thing to say we have been historically Christian. That legacy is valuable. It has bequeathed us essential practices, norms, institutions that are of value and that we must defend and uphold and develop and reform. In that sense I'd certainly want to argue that we should draw on that legacy of Christianity in culture and politics to inspire our reforming efforts today. No problem with that. But that does not itself justify the claim that Christianity ought to have privileged constitutional standing today.

BD: Is privileged constitutional standing what you mean by a Christian nation? I don't think many people would define, or understand, it that way. Others would say there's something else going on. That there's a civil religion—a civil Christianity—that can't simply be summed up in the constitutional privileging of Christianity, as it is in Britain for instance. It's very different from the United States in particular, where there is no established church. But many people would still like to think of, say, America, or Canada, as a Christian nation.

JC: So now you've raised the concept of civil religion, which is a distinct concept. The notion of a Christian nation is one instance of civil religion, you could say. The notion of a Christian nation itself comes in various forms. Civil religion is a large concept because strictly speaking a civil religion can be secular, or, to be more precise, secularist. Or it could be Confucian or it could be Buddhist. In India now, for instance, there is an aggressively nationalist Hindu-dominated party that is seeking to create a Hindu-based civil religion. In Sri Lanka there's a Buddhist civil religion that is bidding to play that role. Civil religion doesn't have to be Christian.

Indeed it doesn't even have to be "religious" in the traditional sense. In France it's clear that the civil religion there is, and remains, a version of secular humanist republicanism, which amply fulfills the conditions for a civil religion. Civil religion comes in different forms. Some are menacing. Some are totalitarian. Some are only modestly hegemonic. Some are almost invisible. Take England for example. By virtue of being an established church, the Church of England still has constitutional privilege and still is interwoven into national life in a number of ways; it is part of a sort of thin and receding civil religion that is not in any sense hegemonic. It does not intrude. It doesn't control anything. It is now one minority voice, but it is part of what you might call the ceremonial legacy of English civil religion. That's relatively inoffensive, some would say. Some would say it has positive dimensions. You have to define specifically what variant of civil religion you're talking about.

But generally speaking, we should be suspicious of civil religions because they are constantly prone to be overambitious, to be imperialistic, to silence minority or dissenting voices with various divisive and exclusive consequences. We need to adopt a fundamentally critical stance toward the very concept of civil religion while recognizing that not all examples of it are as damaging or dangerous as others.

BD: So you are hesitant—even opposed—to the idea that a nation can exercise religious agency. But let me ask a slightly different question. Can a state be Christian?

JC: The state is an institution that does have a corporate identity. It has corporate agency. It can do things. It's an actor. It's a very complex actor, but it can make decisions. A nation is not like that. A nation is a much more amorphous assemblage, an amalgam of many, many difficult-to-define cultural, historical, social, moral, religious influences and forces and dynamics. Take Quebec: it's a historical people with centuries-long history and characteristics that mark it off from much of the rest of English Canada. It's a nation in the cultural sense, an evolving nation, a complex nation, and in many respects a divided nation like many nations, but a nation nonetheless. But there is a difference between culture and institutions.

Take yourself back to the early church. What did they have going for them? Well, everything and nothing.

Culture is porous, evolving, and difficult to pin down. But it can be characterized by means of what you might call thick description in a narrative form. You can tell a story of a nation, and you can provide a thick description of a nation, but you can't capture it in a few propositions or "values" summarized on the back of an envelope. You cannot attribute to it agency. There is no single centre of decision-making in a nation as there is in a state.

Now this is all made more complicated because in the modern world, the primary expression of the state has come to be the "nation-state." On this view, the state takes itself to be coterminous with, and the representative of, a particular cultural nation. Now that's almost never actually strictly correct, but that's the predominating view in modernity. And it leads to the ideology of "nationalism," which in some forms can be very pernicious and in other cases not all: Scottish nationalism is a form of inclusive "civic nationalism." Which is why we have to take care to distinguish "nation" from "state."

A nation in this cultural sense cannot exercise corporate religious agency. It can be preponderantly formed by a religious tradition. It can even be to an extent represented religiously by a certain denomination or tradition. You could arguably say that Russia is a Russian Orthodox nation—that the Russian Orthodox Church, in a certain sense, is a privileged religious spokesperson for the nation. Note that the church, like the state, can exercise corporate agency and so can seek to assume that representative role. But no single church can in fact ever claim to represent the entirety of a nation because all nations are religiously diverse, hence the danger of the Russian Orthodox view.

So the key point here is that nations don't have agency. In order to "be Christian," you have to have agency. And nations aren't agents. But states do have agency; so they can as a matter of fact aspire to be Christian, and there are such things as Christian states. As an empirical fact, that's true. The question is, is that legitimate? Here's my argument: states that aspire to exercise corporate religious agency are doing something illicit. They're reaching beyond their proper bounds of competence. Religious agency is not something that states should aspire to express. They are political and legal agents, and they should stay within that remit. This remit does not include defining or endorsing religious identity or religious confession. This is partly simply because most states—perhaps all states—contain religiously plural populations so that a single state-endorsed identity or confession could not as a matter of fact embrace every citizen. That's an empirical point. But I want to go further and say that, normatively, seeking to act as a confessional agent is a breach of the state's proper constitutional competence.

Now some would disagree with that. Why shouldn't states exercise that competence quite properly? They have in the past. Why can't they today? Here we have an argument about what kind of competence actually attaches to states. This is not to say that states cannot be subject to Christian influence. This is absolutely legitimate, and necessary. We need more of it. In that sense I'd want to call for more democratic Christian influence on states and on national policy and legislation, lawmaking, through many different channels, including lobbying, protests, campaigns, and so on.

But that's not the same thing as the state itself being officially Christian. The state can be subject to Christian influence, quite properly so through democratic channels, but refrain from declaring itself officially as an institution that has a religious affiliation. That's the problem I have with the notion of a Christian state. I'd argue—on theological grounds—that it's beyond the competence of states to know religious truth, to determine what is religiously true, or to adjudicate among different claims to religious truth. And that, of course, extends not just to traditional religions but also to secularism, Marxism, and so forth. It's not the task of states to make official judgments on the truth of these larger worldview commitments. That's beyond their bounds. So, insofar as religion influences states, it has to come from the bottom up, through democratic channels. And let it be so! It's going to be a messy business, but democracy is a messy business. It's unpredictable.

De facto, law and policy can be, and should be, influenced by people's worldviews, including Christianity. To try to prevent that, as liberal secularism does, is actually illiberal since it restricts the representative process. But de jure, states should refrain from officially identifying themselves with any one of those worldviews.

BD: But is this a distinction without a difference, that between culture and institutions and law? Take the Crown. It is an institution that without Christianity would be entirely meaningless. And if the Crown is the font of sovereignty in our nation, and in yours, and all other institutions including our courts and our constitutions derive from that, is it fair to say that your distinction between culture and institutions is not as clean as you'd like it to be?

JC: Well let me say straight away in practice, no, of course it's not. But, in a sense, this is part of the problem. Historically the English and then the Canadian tradition that emerged from it are inextricably implicated with the church and with the wider history of Christendom. Absolutely. What you just said about the monarchy is correct in strict constitutional theory. The question is, is that justifiable? Was it ever justifiable to have such an intimate intertwinement between church and state? What I want to argue is no, it was never legitimate to have that formal constitutional intertwinement, but we're handed that legacy and, as a matter of fact, it's not all bad. Thus, in the Middle Ages, spiritual leaders, bishops, clerics, scholars performed the function of advising temporal rulers, occasionally also criticizing them. That's part of our legacy. And, in that way, the general idea that the Christian church, and of course today other religious communities, ought to be permitted and encouraged to offer constructive advice and critique to governments is absolutely right.

We want to protect that possibility and enhance it where necessary. That would mean resisting the kind of French-style secularism that wants to delegitimize religious voices in the public square. It also involves, on the other side, making sure that minority religious voices today are not ignored. And if that's successful over time (that is, if such religious voices actually do work for justice rather than self-interest or exclusion of rivals), we would hope and expect that that would lead to more just laws and public policies, a better democracy, better protection of human rights and so forth. It would lead to good outcomes in terms of public justice.

But none of that requires that the state officially give constitutional recognition to Christianity or any other religion. It was thought to require it in the past. It was assumed that without the territorial principle (that there should be in a single state, a single dominant religion) the fabric of a territorial state would unravel. This was, and is, a very powerful assumption. But it's not a Christian assumption. It's not a New Testament assumption. It's actually a pagan assumption that was reincorporated into Christianity at the time of Theodosius. Constantine granted religious toleration to Christianity, which was a fantastic breakthrough for a persecuted minority church. But Theodosius's assumption that there needs to be a single religion in order to maintain the stability and order of a single state, and that that religion should be Christianity, is where the trouble started.

If the church, as an institution, sees itself as having a mission to do “bottom-up public theology” for the common good, all sorts of creative possibilities open up. You don’t need the state to help you.

It's false both empirically and normatively, but Christians today still struggle to cast it off. We find it very difficult to think ourselves into a situation of, for example, what it would have been like to be a member of one of the earliest Christian churches that was not part of the establishment; never the official church. Or think of many other countries in the world today where Christianity has always been a minority faith, such as Malaysia, which I just visited. The church has never been the dominant political religion there, but a minority in a Muslim-majority state. Because we in the West have come out of Christendom we find it so hard to shake off the legacy of that Christendom mentality.

There are a number of reasons for this. And one is this: there's this terrible fear, I think, in a lot of Christians, that if we let go of the formal constitutional ties, and even historical non-constitutional privileges, that somehow the fabric of society will unravel beyond our control. The fact is, it already unravelled beyond our control decades ago! What I'm calling for is a recognition that that age has gone and it's not going to come back. And further, that normatively we should not seek to restore it.

Another reason is this: I wonder if part of the fear derives from a suppressed awareness that if the church were to lose its remaining public privileges, then it would be all up to us as Christians to work to keep Christianity in the public square. It would involve the hard slog of working from the grassroots, from the bottom up, over the long term, doing public theology over ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years, with many failures but perhaps a few successes. The fear is that it's all going to come down to that hard, and possibly unsuccessful, work, and that we're not going to get any help from the state in that task of missional transformation. People I think at some visceral level cannot quite bear that thought.

But take yourself back to the early church. What did they have going for them? Well, everything and nothing. Nothing in the sense that they were powerless, often persecuted, marginalized, scorned, but in another sense everything because they were the location of God's redemptive work. They were the vanguard of the kingdom of God. They were the mustard seed that grew into the tree that houses many birds. In that sense we have every reason for being hopeful in a truly biblical sense for the future. But we'll have to do it with no constitutional props to do our mission work for us. I think that's the rub. We need a missiology that does not depend on the artificial and in many cases inequitable and distracting props of constitutional support.

BD: I think you're on to something, and I wonder if there is a generational divide here as well. I love my country, but Canada is a country where Christianity is, well, not so much hated as simply unknown, though there are some who fundamentally oppose it. But in my time I have come to expect no privilege for, or even basic knowledge of, Christianity. It's uncomfortable, but there's also something liberating about that. But I think you're right, speaking personally, to identify that as a worry, because it means hard work. We all hate working out our faith, and we all hate bearing our cross, to be honest. I don't think I'm alone here.

JC: It also involves uncertainty and a sense of no longer being in control. Many Christians still live with the memory of being in control and can't quite shake off the final remnants of that mentality, but let's be honest: we haven't been in control for a long time. Let me give an example here to illustrate what I'm saying but also to show its complexity. I lived in Canada at the time of 9/11. People observed at the time the stark contrast between the different ways Canada and the United States came together ceremonially and symbolically to mark that moment. In Canada as I recall, there was a purely civic ceremony that took place in Ottawa. Government leaders were present, as were various others. It wasn't a religious ceremony. Many Christians at the time pointed out that Canada was so secular that it denied itself the possibility of a national moment of remembrance in which Christianity was present.

Contrast that to the event that took place in Washington National Cathedral. Ironically you have a constitutional separation of church and state in the United States but there are all sorts of civil religion washing around. The national memorial took place in a church; it was a Christian ceremony. A lot of people remarked, "Well wouldn't it be great to have had that?" and "What a shame in Canada we can't have that."

But here's a third option. It was quite proper for the Canadian state to hold a civic remembrance service that was not itself a religious ceremony. But inevitably it was rather thin in content because it lacked the rich liturgical resources and sense of transcendence that religion brings. But what if a number of churches had said, "Look we're going to throw open our cathedrals for a moment of national remembrance. Everybody is welcome." What if the whole Christian church had got together, across the denominations, Catholic, Protestant and so on, Anglican, and said, We're all going to meet in this cathedral," perhaps province by province? That would have been an opportunity for the church to offer to society, to anybody who wanted to come, a moment of national remembrance where you could have a full-on expression of faith, transcendence, prayer, lament, and so forth.

That could have been a fantastic testimony of the distinctiveness of the gospel as a way of healing in the days after a national tragedy. Perhaps some local churches did that. In this case, you wouldn't go to the national civic ceremony with great expectations. But you would go as people of faith to a Christian commemoration with high expectations, and those would be fulfilled. Wouldn't that make a statement? Politicians would be invited, but they'd sit in the pews like everybody else. They'd not be given the front seats. The people in the front seats would be the victims and the victims' families, those affected by it. That would be a fantastic statement of gospel priorities. Put the victims at the front. This is where the church needs to be imaginative, creative, innovative.

If the church, as an institution, sees itself as having a mission to do "bottom-up public theology" for the common good, all sorts of creative possibilities open up. You don't need the state to help you.

BD: This would be the church doing civil religion in the proper sense of the term—acting as a civic player. As one community within the public community of the state, exercising a civil role. There is something political going on there but in a unique way. I think your comments about the victims can be extended as well. Whether it's dealing with poverty or with lending or with mental health.

The emergence of a culture shaped pervasively by Christianity could only start with mission.

JC: Let me give you an example from last week. We had a terrorist attack in Westminster. Parliament as you know is situated right next to Westminster Abbey. So from a pure security point of view, the first thing that happened was MPs and people working in the House of Commons were escorted across to Westminster Abbey to be safe.

Fine. That's already performing a certain civic role. But then the abbey offered itself as a place of prayer for anybody who wanted to stay and to be quiet and to pray. That's exactly what the church should be doing. It could do it because it's right across the street, but you could replicate that in all sorts of other places, and that has been the case. When there are tragedies or crises, local churches around the country do this spontaneously and there's no reason why they shouldn't continue to do that, irrespective of the established state of the Church of England. That's just what Christians do when communities are hurting. Do we need state help for this? No.

BD: Let me ask you one more question. Our constitutions have very strong protection for religious freedom. When I ask you, Jonathan, as I asked Andrew Bennett in this same issue, why you support a robust, expansive conception of religious freedom, your answer is going to sound pretty Christian to me. Doesn't your vision of religious freedom leave us with the very thing you asked us earlier to avoid? That is, the embodiment of a particular vision within the institutions and laws of the state. Is that true? And why should we avoid that?

JC: Yes, to some extent it is, but it's not a problem. I don't think it's in tension with what else I've said. We are right to seek and expect a significant de facto shaping effect of Christianity on culture and on our institutions. Christian citizens and political leaders and organizations should project their views into the public realm and seek to get them realized, within the constraints of constitutional and democratic procedure.

Of course religious freedom is hugely important to Christians. It's not important to Christians only for Christians, but it's a principle that we want to guarantee for everybody. We recognize the existential importance of faith in our lives, and by analogy recognize the importance of fundamental convictions in other people's lives. They may explain those convictions and defend their claims of religious freedom in different terms from ours. They probably will, but that's okay.

Supposing somebody proposed a new religious freedom law for Canada or for the United Kingdom, I would resist including a preamble that said, "Because Jesus is the Son of God, therefore we need to protect religious freedom for all Canadian citizens," or "Because the Qur'an is divine revelation. . . ." That's the only point at which I would as it were pull back from invoking one or other ultimate worldview to justify religious freedom. As it happens there are too many fights about preambles when the real beef is in the contents of the law. So you could draft a law that would consist of legal language setting out rights, duties, obligations, and the rest of it regarding religious freedom. Ninety percent of that is going to be technical legalese, with perhaps 10 percent being a statement of constitutional principles. But there's no need to state the worldview justification for such a law in a preamble.

Now, in the debates leading up to the passing of such a law, in the deliberative process of democratic decision, you can—and sometimes should—articulate your Christian reasons for the law. These could quite legitimately be the motivating reasons for the MPs who vote on the new law. That's all perfectly fine with me (although many liberals secularists would already object to that—they'd insist you should be driven by "secular motivations" alone).

But what would be improper, I'm arguing, is for the government minister charged with presenting the bill to Parliament or defending it to the public to say: "As an official representative of the state, Canadians, here is your new law on religious freedom. The reason why the government is supporting this is because Christ is the saviour of the world" (or some such language). That's really the only restriction I would place in terms of official language in justifying that law.

BD: Am I right to say that you are advocating us not to place our energies in securing the identification of Christianity with a particular law, but rather on shaping the demos out of which law arises? That because we are involved in a constitutional democracy, the laws arise out of the demos and, if we want Christian laws, that is where the work needs to be done. What is needed here, it seems, is a vital church driven by mission that shapes the demos. The attention should be placed on cultivating a vital Christian community driven by the Christian mission to proclaim the gospel to all nations, to serve the poor, the widow, the orphan; and if that is not existent and vibrant the laws are not likely to be reflective of that part of the demos. If people want a Christian nation so to speak, perhaps the place to start is in mission.

JC: That has always been the case. This is the great argument that Oliver O'Donovan put back on the table. He said, and I paraphrase, "There are an awful lot of myths and mistakes talked about Christendom, but whatever you make of how constitutional church-state relations developed later on, Christendom arose out of mission." The emergence of a culture shaped pervasively by Christianity could only start with mission. That's the only place you can start. Of course it doesn't start there and then stop. That mission has to go on. It has to be sustained. It has to be renewed. It has to be challenged. It has to be worked out in all kinds of ways. Mistakes have to be repented of. So in that sense, the fundamental mission of the church to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations stands, and that's what the church should be doing, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in all areas of personal and public life.

On the good days, that's what it actually does. Sometimes it does it very well, and sometimes it does it appallingly badly. Dong it well involves multiple things, but it really does include bringing individuals to faith in Christ. There's no shortcut around that. The old evangelical dualistic mistake was to assume that that's all it involved. Once you got converted individuals, in a sense the mission of the church was over because those people would just know what to do when they went into society to transform it, without any catechism, without any education, without any training, without any political theology, or without any cultural analysis.

Many, including Cardus, are attempting to remedy that deficit valiantly, but it has to start with mission. And mission cannot proceed apart from bringing individual people to faith in Christ.

That's incredibly tough to do. Most Christians in the West hate it. They feel uncomfortable with it. They don't know how to do it. That's partly because we have lost a sense that we need to really understand the culture, the heartbeat of the culture, and partly because we've forgotten that becoming a Christian is about becoming more, not less, human, about pointing people to the renewed experience of fulfilled humanity that we ourselves have begun to experience and that is available for them too.


Dr. Jonathan Chaplin is currently Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, a position he took up in 2006. From Fall 2017 he will work as an independent scholar and writer. He is a Member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, has served as a faculty member of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto and as a visiting lecturer at the VU University, Amsterdam. He is a specialist in Christian political thought, and has authored or edited ten books and reports in the field, and published many articles, including “Liberté, Laïcité, Pluralité: Towards a Theology of Principled Pluralism” (International Journal of Public Theology, 2016). His latest book is God and the EU: Faith in the European Project (Routledge, 2016), co-edited with Gary Wilton.


Brian Dijkema is Program Director, Work and Economics at Cardus and senior editor with Comment. Prior to joining Cardus, Brian worked for almost a decade in labour relations in Canada after completing his master's degree with Cardus Senior Fellow, Jonathan Chaplin. He has also done work on international human rights, with a focus on labour, economic, and social rights in Latin America and China.


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