Can Nations Be Secular?
Can Nations Be Secular?

Can Nations Be Secular?

Confining government to doing justice emphatically does not amount to saying that governments must "neglect all thoughts of God."

October 9 th 2009

I ended "Can Nations Be 'Christian?'" by saying that because there are no "covenanted nations" in the New Testament era, nations today cannot be, and should not claim to be, corporately "Christian."

Does that mean, then, that nations can or should be "secular"? That depends on what "secular" means. In clarifying the different senses of the term, it will help to refer from now on not to "nations" but to "states"—the political organs of nations. (For an explanation of the difference, see David Koyzis, Political Visions and Illusions, chapter on nationalism.)

Let's compare three different understandings of "secular" operative in current debate: secularist, neutralist and pluralist.

A secularist state—like China or the former Soviet Union—is a state officially committed to propagating a secularist worldview throughout all areas of society. Such a worldview is just another form of religious confession, and for a state to officially uphold and promote any religious confession—Christian, secularist, Marxist, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic—is, I argue, to exceed its limits.

I proposed in the previous article that nations do not possess "religious agency;" the point applies to all religious confessions. When states try to exercise a capacity they inherently lack, trouble usually ensues, and the temptation of political idolatry lurks round the corner.

By contrast, a neutralist state regards itself as treating all confessions equally. Religious believers and institutions are granted a wide measure of legal freedom, and the state (neutralists say) does not advocate a worldview of its own.

But—contrary to what neutralists claim—in practice this often goes together with a tacit secularist prejudice against allowing religion any meaningful place in the public realm, effectively secularizing politics and privatizing religion. Religions are certainly treated equally—they are all equally pushed to the margins.

This is what a "secular state" has come to mean in France, typified by the paranoid overreactions to a tiny minority of Muslim girls wanting to wear headscarves in public schools. This censorious reaction reveals the influence of a very deep, if publicly denied, secularist prejudice masquerading as equal treatment of women.

There is also a very powerful secularizing neutralist current in intellectual, judicial and bureaucratic circles in Canada and the USA. And countries like the UK and the Netherlands are now busy introducing "equality" laws which are beginning to have the same chilling effect on religion in public places.

A pluralist state treats all confessions equally, not by marginalizing them all, but by allowing all to participate on equal terms in the public realm. It favours not a separation, but a cooperation of religious communities and the state. Unlike the negative neutrality of the previous position, this has also been described as a stance of positive neutrality towards religious confessions.

At its constitutional best, this is the preferred model in the USA (where pluralism jostles uneasily alongside a secularist neutralism). But it is also realized to a considerable extent in several European states such as Belgium, Germany and the UK, albeit compromised in the latter two cases by lingering official privileges for certain churches. It was most consistently worked out in the Netherlands between the 1920s and the 1980s.

As some readers will know, a pluralist model is strongly favoured in neocalvinism. Its most energetic formulations emerged from the movement of that name led by Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Reacting to the marginalization of orthodox Protestants from the public realm by liberal political and church elites, Kuyper initiated an eventually successful campaign for genuine equal treatment.

It was therefore a sobering experience recently to be reminded, while I was re-reading Calvin's own writings on the matter, of the importance of the "neo-" in "neo-Calvinism."

Calvin held that the divine mandate of government included the establishment of justice and peace in society. But he also said that "civil government is designed, as long as we live in this world, to cherish and support the external worship of God, to preserve the pure doctrine of religion, to defend the Constitution of the church." Moreover, government was duty-bound to ensure "that idolatry, sacrileges against the name of God, blasphemies against his truth, and other offenses against religion may not openly appear and be disseminated among the people . . . in short, that there may be a public form of religion among Christians, and that humanity may be maintained among them." (Institutes IV:XX:2)

Lest his readers be in any doubt about his meaning, Calvin goes on about "the folly of those who would wish magistrates to neglect all thoughts of God, and to confine themselves entirely to the administration of justice among men, as though God appointed governors in his name to decide secular controversies, and disregarded that which is of far greater importance—the pure worship of himself according to the rule of law." (Institutes IV:XX:9)

Isn't "confining government entirely to the administration of justice among men" exactly what I, following many neocalvinist pluralists, have just argued? Indeed it is. Although I disagree with John Locke's views of faith, church, knowledge, natural rights, and several other things, I concede he was right in declaring that "neither the art nor the right of ruling does necessarily carry along with it the certain knowledge of other things; and least of all the true religion . . . The public good is the rule and measure of all law-making."

But confining government to doing justice emphatically does not amount to saying that governments must "neglect all thoughts of God." If, as I argued in my previous article, governments do not possess "religious agency," how can this be?

The answer is that while governments may not officially (as collective entities) take a view on the truth of religion, they can be substantially influenced by the political convictions of their believing citizens and individual officers. Where such believers have a clear view of the political implications of their religious beliefs, the official acts of governments can reflect "thoughts of God" even if such thoughts are not officially endorsed and even if their source is not recognized (indeed, even if it is officially denied).

For example, suppose that the majority of Christian citizens or political office-holders in the UK had possessed in 2003 a clear understanding of the contemporary implications of the Christian "just war" tradition. Imagine they had launched a concerted attempt to get the debate over the invasion of Iraq framed in terms of just war criteria rather than national self-interest or strategic geo-political calculation. Some might have announced such a stance as "Christian," some not; that is a secondary matter. But either way, they might have collectively succeeded in bringing to bear "thoughts of God" upon the most important British foreign policy decision of our times. And the outcome might have been a better approximation of "the administration of (global) justice" than the one that transpired.

Contrary to what is often asserted, then, "pluralism" does not at all imply either a "secular state" or a "neutral state." Or, if those two unwelcome outcomes are indeed the consequence of "pluralism," the fault lies as much with Christians who fail to take their political responsibilities seriously as it does with their secularist opponents who are supposedly trying to shut them out of the public realm.

When church or organizational leaders lament the "secularization" of public life and the "marginalization" of religion from Christians, we are entitled to ask them if they are prepared to put the required energy and resources into the kind of sustained Christian political education that Christian citizens so desperately need today. The result of not doing so is either muteness or mimicry: Christians either stay silent in the face of such pressures, or they merely echo an off-the-peg secularist stance with no Christian content. Unless we are all prepared to put our money where our mouth is, our nations will indeed be more and more "secular."

Topics: Justice Religion
Jonathan Chaplin
Jonathan Chaplin

Dr. Jonathan Chaplin is former 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.


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