Saturday, 26 June 2010

Politics, establishment religion, & outsider religion

(I'm afraid this post is rather long. In fact, it should keep readers going until the middle of July. Before reading it, make sure you are sitting comfortably, preferably with a mug of cocoa and a supply of buns.)

I’m still on the subject of the way that Christians in Britain see political issues, with particular reference to the recent election. This post follows from my last post, in which I considered the list of questions that the Rev. Guy Davies, a Baptist pastor, put to the candidates in his constituency.

One of the things that interested me about the questions that Mr. Davies chose to ask was that his concerns were remarkably similar to those that the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales expressed in their leaflet “Some issues and questions for Parliamentary Candidates.”

While Mr. Davies had 12 questions for candidates, and the bishops dealt with five areas, both basically had nine areas of concern, and of these nine, six were common to both.

Common concerns

1. Secularisation and the place of religion in society.
Guy Davis: Do you believe that Christian values have a beneficial role to play in contemporary society?
CBCEW: What do you think is the place of religion in society?

Notice the difference in phrasing. The Catholic bishops speak about the place of religion, Mr Davies about Christian values. I think that bishops have asked the better question. It is more open ended, and more likely to get a candidate thinking. It also has the potential to get a more interesting response.

But I suspect that the underlying concern is the same. Both clearly feel that the Church and the Christian faith are being marginalised in modern Britain by aggressive secularism (and also, perhaps, ‘multi-faithism’). The Archbishop of Canterbury has the same feeling. In his recent sermon for the new parliament, he spoke about the way our society has been “regarding religious communities with the mixture of patronage and nervousness that has become uncomfortably common of late.”

This is not just a question of Christians to ask of politicians. It is also one that we Christians need to ask ourselves. What should be the place of religion, and specifically Christianity, in our society? Should Christianity have a privileged position? Does Luke 6:22 have anything at all to say to us on this subject?

2. Religious freedom
GD: Do you accept that people who believe that heterosexual marriage is the only proper context for a sexual expression should be free to say so without falling foul of the law or loosing their jobs? Do you believe that churches should be free only to employ people whose beliefs and lifestyle are in accordance with Christian teaching?
CBCEW: Religious belief is not just something private: it helps create a society that wants to see everyone flourish. It has a contribution to make and must be allowed to do so in accordance with its teachings.

This is closely related to the first point. Indeed, the words “and must be allowed to do so in accordance with its teachings” come just before the question “What do you think is the place of religion in society?” bishops’ leaflet.

Notice that both Mr. Davies and the bishops use similar forms of words about religious groups being allowed to operate in accordance with their teachings. Mr. Davies only asks about freedom for Christian churches, the bishops (in rather curious phrasing), say that “religious belief” must be allowed to make its contribution in accordance with its teachings. While that is rather inelegant, I like the fact that they request this freedom for all religions, not just one. (If you want freedom for yourself, you should be prepared to give it to others, on the “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” principle.) In addition, I feel that it might have been wiser for Mr. Davies to ask “Do you believe that churches should be free only to employ people whose beliefs and lifestyle are in accordance with their teaching?” After all, different people have different views about what constitutes “Christian teaching”.

3. The place of marriage
GD: Do you believe that ...it is the duty of the State to do all it can to strengthen and encourage the institution of marriage?
CBCEW: Families are the basic building block of any stable society. Marriage provides the best context for bringing up children and must have the clear support and encouragement of Government. What will you do for marriage and the family? What practical measures will you take to encourage and support stable family life and the institution of marriage?

The phrasing is remarkably similar. But why do they believe that it is the duty of the State to strengthen and encourage the institution of marriage? What is the particular concern? The rising divorce rate? The rise in cohabitation? Do they really believe that anything that the state is likely to do will have any significant effect on divorce or cohabitation rates? The Labour government abolished the married couples’ tax allowance in 1999, but cohabitation and divorce rates was rising long before that. (Of course, it would be completely wrong to have a tax and benefit system that actually penalised married couples.)

4. Abortion
GD: Do you believe that the law on abortion is too lax, too restrictive or about right?
CBCEW: valuing life. That means opposing abortion ....What does respect for life mean to you? Do all lives have the same value? ... the unborn?

It’s no surprise that abortion is a political issue for Christians. The bishops, however, are careful to avoid being seen as single issue fanatics, and put opposing abortion together with opposing euthanasia, and life-cramping poverty, and the neglect of the elderly.

5. Euthanasia
GD: Do you think that the law on euthanasia should be changed?
CBCEW: valuing life. That means opposing ...euthanasia

Again, no surprise.

6. The environment

GD: How does your Party propose to protect the environment both at the local and international level?

CBCEW: Our care for each other is also shown in how ...we use – or abuse – the environment we share. We must be good stewards of God’s creation, not selfish exploiters of it. What is our responsibility to safeguard and protect the environment?"

This is an interesting one. It is something that Christians speak about a lot these days - but which, historically speaking, has not been a major concern of Christians. This, of course, is because during the 20th century, people have become a lot more aware of the potential for pollution to permanently damage the earth. Over the past 50 years, the environment has become a major political issue, and curbs have been put on air and water pollution in the western world.

I have a problem with this issue. It is summed up by the way Mr. Davies begins his question. “How does your party propose...?” Mr. Davies’s first seven questions are all “Yes or No” questions. They all begin with “Do you believe?” or “Do you accept?” or something like that. This one doesn’t. And I suspect Mr. Davies knows the answer that he is looking for in the first seven questions. He knows what he wants the law to say about abortion and euthanasia and freedom of religion. I suspect that when it comes to the environment, he doesn’t know what legislation he wants. He knows that protecting the environment is important, and so he includes a question on it. I even have my doubts that the Catholic Bishops know exactly what sort of environmental protection legislation they want. So I guess if Mr. Davies were to ask me, as a hypothetical libertarian candidate, how my party proposed to protect the environment both at the local and international level, I’d probably want to return the question and ask him what exactly he thought should be done, and why.

Other concerns

In addition to the 6 common concerns, Mr Davies and the bishops each had three additional concerns.

In the case of the bishops these were the treatment of immigrants (an issue that was clearly very important to the bishops judging by the amount of space they gave it), neglect of the elderly (this was covered very briefly), and poverty (both nationally and globally). In my opinion, the issue of poverty is like the question of the environment. We all know it’s an important issue - it’s just that we don’t know what to do about it. (And anyone who thinks they do know how to solve the problem of poverty is, in my view, hopelessly deluded.)

In the case of Mr. Davies, the three additional concerns were homosexuality (in particular the recognition of homosexual marriage), sex education in schools, and the local issues concerning hospital and swimming pool closures.

Should we expect so much common ground?

As I say, I was interested that there was so much agreement between Mr. Davies and the Catholic bishops in the concerns that they raised. One might say that this isn’t so odd, since these are issues that one would expect Christians to be concerned about. But we should bear in mind that there are two big differences between Mr. Davies and the bishops. First, they are Roman Catholic, and Mr. Davies is a staunch Protestant - he works part time for the Protestant Truth Society. Second, the bishops are a collection of people with a large organisation behind them, which includes people with political expertise, who have the resources to put together a carefully crafted and thought out document. Mr Davies is simply an individual with, as far as I am aware, no particular expertise in politics. And yet he and the bishops came up with a very similar list of concerns.

(By the way, if we wanted to compare like with like, and were looking for a large Protestant organisation which reflects the theological viewpoint of Mr. Davies, one could do worse than looking at the Christian Institute. They produced an election briefing, which Mr. Davies recommended on his blog, in which they stated “The Christian Institute believes that there are three touchstone issues for Christians in 2010: religious liberty, the sanctity of marriage, and the sanctity of human life.” In other words, they share four of the 6 concerns common to Mr. Davies and the Catholic bishops: freedom of religion, the place of marriage, abortion, and euthanasia. The two that are missing are the place of religion in modern society - probably because they felt that this was simply too general a point - and, very interestingly, the environment.)

The outlook of the ecclesiastical establishment

And what makes this even more interesting is that when I looked at the political concerns raised by members of the ecclesiastical establishment in Scotland in the run up to the election, the picture was entirely different. Not one of the six figures from the ecclesiastical establishment mentioned abortion. Not one mentioned euthanasia. Not one mentioned marriage. Not one mentioned the place of religion in society. And, note this, not one mentioned concerns about the erosion of freedom (religious or otherwise) in Britain. (The four issues that they particularly highlighted, by the way, were the treatment of immigrants, poverty, disarmament, and the environment.)

I find this interesting. Mr. Davies, as a Baptist pastor, has far more in common with the Catholic bishops of England and Wales than he does with his six fellow-Protestants from Scotland. And it seems to me that this is because he and the bishops are outside the establishment, whereas the six Scots are part of the establishment. It could be argued the difference is actually that Mr. Davies and the bishops stand for traditional Christianity, whereas the six Scots do not. But surely traditional Christianity is not so completely marginalised in the Church of Scotland that not a single traditional Christian was selected when six people were to be asked about their thoughts on the election?

Which is why I propose an alternative way of categorising Christians - those who follow establishment Christianity and those who are outside the establishment. The six Scots are comfortable in modern Britain, and one of the reasons they are able to feel comfortable is that they see no signs that our traditional freedoms are disappearing. They are basically optimistic about the political future of British society. Mr. Davies and the bishops are not comfortable in modern Britain. They appear to have a feeling of foreboding about the future. And one of the reasons for that is that they have at least some awareness that freedoms long taken for granted are being taken away by our political leaders. Whatever you may think of their theological views, at least they have their eyes open.

29 comments:

Stuart said...

Well, I just read all of this and it flashed by in no time at all.....great read.

Fascinating to see the convergence of the Baptist Rev. Guy Davies & the Catholics, but even more intriguing to observe both of their divergence with the ecclesiastical establishment in Scotland.

You said:

Which is why I propose an alternative way of categorising Christians - those who follow establishment Christianity and those who are outside the establishment.

Just to clarify, and before I make myself look a little silly, can you confirm, which you are alluding to be "establishment" and "non establishment"

It is early in the morn and I'm a little sleepy, but I get the impression that those who are more inclined to be happy with status quo, are establishement, and visa versa, or is it the other way round?

Albert said...

YMB,

Excellent post and as Stuart says, it didn't seem at all long.

I'm not completely convinced about the establishment thing though. I think Catholic bishops say much the same things in countries where they are part of the establishment (e.g. in the Vatican!).

My experience of Anglicanism as compared with Catholicism was that Anglicanism seemed not to have the inner resources to stand up for itself. A faithful view could so easily be trumped by an unfaithful view, with no way of adjudicating between them except wayward private judgment. Baptists tend to avoid this by remaining small and narrow, Catholics avoid it by being very large so that correctives to local eccentricities come from the wider Church together with the Magisterium which can pronounce irreformably on matters, leading to a doctrine of tradition that is rock (Petros!) solid on certain key issues.

One thing you noticed between Guy and the Catholics was that the Catholics were broader, more interested in human flourishing per se, rather than the freedoms or interests of the Christian community. I think this reflects a theological difference. Catholicism famously believes grace perfects nature. This results in an emphasis on the good flourishing of all things natural - society, arts, philosophy, etc. Protestantism, worries that the Catholic viewpoint leaves a little too much to nature and (in my view) swallows up nature with grace: sola Fide.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Stuart

Just to clarify, and before I make myself look a little silly, can you confirm, which you are alluding to be "establishment" and "non establishment"

It is early in the morn and I'm a little sleepy, but I get the impression that those who are more inclined to be happy with status quo, are establishement, and visa versa, or is it the other way round?


Those who are happy with the status quo are the establishment. Mr Davies and the bishops, who are non establishment.

I hope that answers your question.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Albert,

"I'm not completely convinced about the establishment thing though. I think Catholic bishops say much the same things in countries where they are part of the establishment (e.g. in the Vatican!)."

Maybe my terminology needs a little more work. (So, possibly does my thinking.)

My distinction was between religion that tends to go with the flow of society, (establishment religion), and that which is prepared to be go against the flow.

Non-establishment religion is quite happy to be part of the establishment, but only on its own terms. Establishment religion tends to bend in order to remain or become part of the establishment.

Perhaps a good illustration is the situation in China, where the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement represent establishment religion, while unregistered churches (Catholic and Protestant) represent non-establishment religion.

Albert said...

My distinction was between religion that tends to go with the flow of society, (establishment religion), and that which is prepared to be go against the flow.

Yes, that makes sense. I would have said "liberal" to make that distinction. But I suppose the question then arises as to why some denominations like to "go with the flow" in the first place. Certainly, being the established Church doesn't help, but, as my Catholic examples indicate, that is not a sufficient cause of the problem.

Young Mr. Brown said...

"I would have said "liberal" to make that distinction."

The word "liberal" is used in so many different ways that it is sometimes not the most helpful word. But I know what you mean. What is usually referred to as "liberal Protestantism" does have as one of its main motivating principles (or even its main motivating principle) the accommodation of Christian belief to the culture of the day.

"I suppose the question then arises as to why some denominations like to "go with the flow" in the first place. "

The desire on the part of leaders to be popular, respected, and influential?

Young Mr. Brown said...

But I suppose I should add that I think that it is possible to be theologically "liberal", or at least non-traditional, without going with the flow of society. And it is also possible to be theologically fairly traditional and yet to generally go with the flow.

Albert said...

The desire on the part of leaders to be popular, respected, and influential?

But to desire that in a society so far from the Christian faith implies the error is further back than that.

it is possible to be theologically "liberal", or at least non-traditional, without going with the flow of society.

For example?

I agree the word "liberal" is difficult too, but it has a clearish meaning in a theological context. You have spoken of liberal Protestantism, you could also add liberal Catholicism. There are differences, but similarities are such as to allow the same word to be used. Both would involve some departure from respective magisterial positions and replacing them with fashionable views.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Albert,

But to desire that in a society so far from the Christian faith implies the error is further back than that.

A doctrinal error, or simply human desire for vainglory?

For example?

How about the Jehovah's Witnesses? Rarely, if ever, categorised as 'liberal', but in some respects extremely untraditional. But I'm really thinking more of individuals than of movements.

Albert said...

YMB,

A doctrinal error, or simply human desire for vainglory?

Possibly all three, the doctrinal error being institutional perhaps, leaving individuals exposed intellectually, which, coupled with a fear of standing against anything, results in (what I'm calling) liberalism.

How about the Jehovah's Witnesses? Rarely, if ever, categorised as 'liberal', but in some respects extremely untraditional.

Well, JWs aren't really Christians. But what I was asking for was an example of a liberal who did not go with the flow.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Albert,

Well, JWs aren't really Christians.

I take your point. However, they call themselves Christians. And it seems to me that they are at least as close to the Christianity of the apostles as John Shelby Spong.

But what I was asking for was an example of a liberal who did not go with the flow.

I don't have one in mind, but if I think of someone in the near future, I'll let you know. Then we can debate whether the named individual really is/was a liberal and really did go against the flow...

...and really is a Christian.

:-)

Young Mr. Brown said...

In fact, some would say that it's not just John Shelby Spong, but the whole of The Episcopal Church in the USA.

indigomyth said...

Albert and YMB,

//Well, JWs aren't really Christians//

Forgive my ignorance, but why aren't JWs really Christian?

indigomyth said...

YMB,

//Then we can debate whether the named individual really is/was a liberal and really did go against the flow...

...and really is a Christian.//

What about Ron Paul? Surely he must qualify for the position of being both liberal and Christian? (though he may not fit Albert's definition of "liberal")

indigomyth said...

Indeed, aren't YOU a liberal Christian, YMB? Not neo-liberal, but libertarian / paleoliberal.

Lol, in fact, not only do you have to settle on a definition of "Chrisitian" and "tradition", but also "Liberal".

Young Mr. Brown said...

Hello, Indigomyth!

"Forgive my ignorance, but why aren't JWs really Christian?"

Most Christians don't consider JWs to be Christians, because JWs, while acknowledging that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, do not accept that Jesus Christ is God.

"What about Ron Paul?"

Comes back to what I said (above) about the difficulties of the word "liberal". I was using the word "liberal" (in the sentence you refer to) in the sense that Albert used it - i.e. one who is theologically liberal, rather than one who is politically liberal. In common parlance, Protestants tend to be categorised as either 'liberal' or 'evangelical'.

Ron Paul appears to describe himself as an evangelical Christian on this video, though he generally doesn't talk much about his theological views. I believe he once said that he and his family stopped going to an Episcopal church because it was 'too liberal'. (He now goes to a Baptist Church.)

Albert said...

YMB & Indigomyth,

And it seems to me that they are at least as close to the Christianity of the apostles as John Shelby Spong.

Which is to say, not very.

it's not just John Shelby Spong, but the whole of The Episcopal Church in the USA.

The EC is at least formally Christian, since its formularies are clearly Trinitarian (the fact that many members of the EC fall away from the formulae they say they profess raises questions about them as individuals, but not of the whole community).

Ron Paul doesn't look terribly liberal to me (in the theological sense).

not only do you have to settle on a definition of "Chrisitian" and "tradition", but also "Liberal".

For the purposes of this discussion, I expect we would be able to settle on definitions of all three. "Christian" and "tradition" would be put together as those who accept the Trinitarian faith articulated in the catholic Creeds. "Liberal" would be a Christian who departs from such magisterial positions, and/or the magisterial positions of his own Christian community.

Would you agree YMB? or is my confidence misplaced here?

Young Mr. Brown said...

Albert,

There are a lot of definitions that are fairly reasonable. I wouldn't have chosen your form of words, but I'm not thereby saying that you are wrong.

My stabs at definitions:

"Traditional Christianity" is Christianity that holds to the beliefs that have been held by Christians over centuries.

A "Liberal Christian" is someone who calls himself a Christian, but believes that it is not necessary for Christians to hold to the beliefs that have been held by Christians over the centuries.

(By "beliefs", I refer to religious and theological beliefs.)

Albert said...

YMB,

"Traditional Christianity" is Christianity that holds to the beliefs that have been held by Christians over centuries.

The trouble is, by which Christians? Monophysites? Monothelites? Nestorians? The JWs' doctrine of God seems to have come from Arius! These are all deeply traditional positions but they are not Orthodox. This is why I think you cannot appeal to the authority of tradition, unless you already know where the Church is (and therefore which tradition is authoritative).

A "Liberal Christian" is someone who calls himself a Christian, but believes that it is not necessary for Christians to hold to the beliefs that have been held by Christians over the centuries.

In which case, the Magisterial Reformers were all liberals.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Albert,

The trouble is, by which Christians?

The majority, averaged out.

Broadly speaking, that means those beliefs held in common by the Roman Catholic church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and the main Protestant churches. Had the Arians prevailed,I would have had to include them.

And I guess that I would include members of the ancient non-Chalcedonian churches as (broadly speaking) "traditional Christians" in the terms of my definition.

"In which case, the Magisterial Reformers were all liberals."

Indeed that is exactly how the "traditional Christians" of their time regarded them.

:-)

Which of course is why the Magisterial Reformers went out of their way to argue that their theology was consistent with the teaching not only of the Bible, but also of the early church Fathers.

As you'll see, I'm not making a value judgement on "traditional Christianity." In practice, it may be the almost the same as "orthodox Christianity", but there is a subtle difference. In other words, while I have a great respect for tradition, I'm cautious about appealing to the authority of tradition.

Albert said...

YMB,

The majority, averaged out.

The trouble is that "Truth is not determined by a majority vote" (Cardinal Ratzinger (see back of T-shirt). :-)

Indeed that is exactly how the "traditional Christians" of their time regarded them.

I'd be surprised. Most contemporary Catholics would not have been so polite!

In other words, while I have a great respect for tradition, I'm cautious about appealing to the authority of tradition.

What then is your authority for the canon of scripture and how do you know your interpretation of scripture is correct?

Young Mr. Brown said...

"The trouble is that "Truth is not determined by a majority vote" "

Absolutely. As I say, I'm not making any value judgement on "traditional Christianity" in my definition of it. (And if truth was determined by majority vote, libertarianism would be in even worse shape that orthodox Christianity!)

"What then is your authority for the canon of scripture and how do you know your interpretation of scripture is correct?"

I said I was cautious. I didn't say I never did it.

:-)

(If you want a more serious answer, it's probably a little more complex than that. What I have read on the the subject of the canon of scripture leads me to believe that the canon as traditionally accepted by Protestants is reasonable.

Much the same is true about interpretation. How does one interpret anything in life? How do I interpret what I read in the newspaper? How do I interpret what you and Indigomyth write? Interpreting scripture takes more study than interpreting the conversations of friends, but the basic principles are the same. Do I know that my interpretation of scripture is always correct? Of course not. I don't even know if I've understood what you are saying correctly!)

Young Mr. Brown said...

p.s.

"I'd be surprised. Most contemporary Catholics would not have been so polite!"

Well, they'd have had to be, if they were commenting on this blog!

Albert said...

What I have read on the the subject of the canon of scripture leads me to believe that the canon as traditionally accepted by Protestants is reasonable.

So the authority for the canon of scripture is what (you think) is reasonable?

Interpreting scripture takes more study than interpreting the conversations of friends, but the basic principles are the same.

Except that some of the things we are to believe demand the certitude of faith. St Thomas tells us that nothing false can come under faith
but that faith is more certain than other intellectual virtues. Therefore, if scripture is interpreted so uncertainly, faith cannot arise from it (= there is no true faith, or it comes from somewhere else).

Well, they'd have had to be, if they were commenting on this blog!

By "contemporary" I meant contemporaneous to the Reformers.

indigomyth said...

YMB,

//(By "beliefs", I refer to religious and theological beliefs.) //

Hmm, however, do not theological and religious beliefs create political beliefs? I do not know, but if it were the case that traditional / orthodox Christianity has a particular attitude towards the political process, and the role of the state, then it is arguable true that a political opinion is also a religious one. You hold that Christianity supports a libertarian political philosophy, Albert holds that Christianity supports a more interventionist political philosophy. In that sense, can a theological / religious philosophy be separated from a political philosophy?

I suppose the difference is between the personal rules and commandments that a religion sets out, and the political ones that it advocates.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Albert,
So the authority for the canon of scripture is what (you think) is reasonable?

No. It's my decision to believe something that is based on what I think is reasonable.

By "contemporary" I meant contemporaneous to the Reformers.

I realised that!

Young Mr. Brown said...

Indigomyth,

"do not theological and religious beliefs create political beliefs?"

I would say that they influence them, but they do not usually create them.

"I do not know, but if it were the case that traditional / orthodox Christianity has a particular attitude towards the political process, and the role of the state, then it is arguable true that a political opinion is also a religious one."

I'm not sure that it could be said that it has a particular attitude towards the political process and the role of the state. Traditional Christians are far from being agreed about the political process and the role of the state.

"You hold that Christianity supports a libertarian political philosophy, Albert holds that Christianity supports a more interventionist political philosophy. In that sense, can a theological / religious philosophy be separated from a political philosophy?"

Well, I think it can.

Albert said...

YMB,

I realised that!

I thought you probably did!

Albert said...

Indigomyth,

however, do not theological and religious beliefs create political beliefs?

They probably can, and perhaps they do particularly in Islam. But YMB is right, in Christianity, it is more that there is a religious influence. This is because (in Catholic thought at any rate), everything that pertains to nature has a genuine goodness, a genuine telos and therefore a genuine autonomy. This is summed up in Jesus saying "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mk.12.17).

However, as with all natural things, it is possible to pervert them, so revelation can provide a corrective to political errors. Accordingly, the Church does not endorse any particular form of government, but tries to work within each system (if possible) and purify it. She also recognises that over time political thought develops (just as doctrine develops) so the best political or ecclesiastical judgment of one era, may not be as good as the best political or ecclesiastical judgment of a later era. Likewise, different circumstances clearly require different kinds of governments. Some systems are clearly anti-Christian from inception and are opposed (e.g. communism).

I suppose the difference is between the personal rules and commandments that a religion sets out, and the political ones that it advocates.

I suspect there isn't quite such a strong distinction, since the personal rules apply to persons whether acting as individuals or as the state. So if murder is wrong, it is still wrong if an individual does it as an agent of the state.

There is therefore a legitimate breadth of political opinion among Christians within certain boundaries.