Church And State

There has been much discussion in the last couple of decades about the notion of 'doing' theology: in the area of Christian political thinking this idea can be given a particularly apposite meaning. For although there has been quite a lot of recent writing about the State and public policy from a Christian viewpoint—and especially much occasional writing in the press—it has all been rather episodic and, compared with the systematic offerings of the past, fragmentary. As this doubtless corresponds to the divided condition of values within society, and within Christian society, it is unavoidable and even desirable. But it does mean that in a brief critical survey of opinions, like the present one, it is impossible to separate the contributions made by academic theologians from the attitudes and policy preferences of the church leadership. This is not because the church leaders are especially notable for theological insights, but because politics is a practical matter, and 'doing' theology has an immediate application in this sphere of human activity. Even in the Catholic Church, with a tradition of achieving balance between capitalist and socialist systems of ideas—expressed within the teaching of papal encyclical letters— there has been little that can really be called systematic political philosophy in the years following the Second Vatican Council.

From the immediate perspective of Western liberal society it must seem as if contemporary Christianity seeks to distance itself from political power. Church and State are in most countries constitutionally separated, and in those in which a link persists, as in England or Sweden, there is little real sense in which they have any functional relationships; politicians act without special reference to the traditional guardians of religious truth and morality, and the clergy, for their part, are anxious to show themselves as critics of public policy rather than, as their predecessors so often were, agents of it. The moral agenda in these societies is set by an extremely articulate secular intelligentsia, and by the charitable and relief agencies whose purpose, as informers of the public mind about the condition of society and the imbalances of the international order, echoes that of the established Churches of the past. The Churches have, in effect, privatized themselves. Their appeal, now, is to the individual conscience, with exhortations to scrutinize public policy from the outside, and to instruct their own members, and any of the public who will listen, about 'moral' dimensions of political and social 'issues'. They tend to be as instinctively hostile to the moral claims of the State as were the Protestant Dissenters in Victorian Britain, to whom the State often appeared as no other than the institutional monopoly of the landed classes. In its place the Dissenters sought a moral capitalism—the sovereignty of private judgement in spiritual discernment, freedom of religious choice, a private enterprise in worship. For Christians today, however, it is the very capitalism sustained by the State which is liable to arouse suspicion. To the public at large, indeed, and to the press, it often seems as if the Churches have become the mouthpiece of progressive political ideas, so insistently have their leaders pressed 'prophetic' criticism of the ideals of 'the enterprise society'. The Victorian Dissenters managed to combine their laissez faire in religion with an insistence that government should enforce Christian personal morality with the use of State power; there was to be no private enterprise when it came to sexual behaviour or to what are now called 'family values'. This paradox is exactly reversed in modern Christianity. The Christian leaders of today are anxious to reserve matters of personal morality to the area of private determination, yet to demand that the State involve itself with a high level of central economic and social planning. During the Aufklärung of the 1960s the church leadership went over, in virtually all its departments, to an acceptance of liberal attitudes (and some would say to humanist values) in sexual and personal moral questions. The State, they are now in effect contending, is no fit body to legislate in a manner which would seem to favour one life-style code rather than another, since views about private morality have proved to be controversial. At the same time, however, they are saying that the State is suited to determine and to enforce collective morality in the economic and social spheres. For in those spheres, as the church leadership sees it, the State's recent desire to limit its capacity to intervene, and to allow the forces of the market to operate, has prompted the emergence of an uncaring social order and randomized social ethics. Christian assemblies and Christian thinkers have become, in contrast, thorough collectivists. That was the burden, for example, of the Church of England's 1985 report Faith in the City: A call for action by Church and Nation. It was a call for increased State involvement, and increased public expenditure, in urban planning. Such a clear Christian endorsement of moral action by government is indeed an embracing of the power of the State, and every Western country has in recent years seen comparable declarations by Christian writers and bodies in support of State action for welfare reasons. How did they ever originally come to see themselves as critics of State power? It has been, after all, the very idea of Church institutional involvement with political power, and not merely particular distasteful types of government or governing ideologies, which Western Christians have rejected. Despite the widespread rhetoric about the impossibility of separating religion from politics the fact is that when church leaders identify an area in which Christianity should get involved they always make it clear that they do so on moral grounds and not political grounds. The Western Churches of today are actually notable for a very low level of political involvement.

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