In the old 'Christendom' model of Church and State relations organized society was seen as a unity divided into spiritualities and temporalities by function. The two areas of responsibility, for the souls and for the bodies of men and women, were regarded as equally Christian and as interdependent. The great strength of the arrangement was that it recognized that social organization unavoidably embodies ideological preferences, and it simply imposed Christian beliefs and practices rather than countenance the supremacy of others. The world in which this state of affairs flourished could offer no other models: everywhere government experienced single ideological propositions, and the apparatus of the State protected the consequential social values. Modern liberal society, in contrast, seeks to contrive a balance between enforced sacral values and the reservation of areas of life in which individuals can be protected in the enjoyment of their own moral preferences. The latter are now conventionally rendered in the vocabulary of Human Rights. The necessary accompaniment of a liberal polity is a diminution of the power of the State in the reserved areas—religious belief, or sexual morality, for example. As these are precisely the kinds of areas in which the individual citizen's most deeply held convictions reside, the liberal State becomes a kind of balancing mechanism intended to prevent mutual intrusions by citizens themselves into the freedoms of society in general. The whole trend of thought and action in the Western world has been towards individual liberty in this sense, and it is only comparatively recently, under the guise of 'family values', that attempts have been made to return to the older practices of the confessional state, of the 'Christendom' variety, in which the details of individual moral choice are restricted by State action. Churchmen of the political Right, and Evangelicals, have readily lent themselves to this renewed understanding of the function of government. In the United States the 'Moral Majority', who were particularly influential politically in the early years of the 1980s, showed a good deal of sensitivity about the problem of seeking law enforcement of Christian values whilst at the same time respecting the separation of Church and State. But they have not managed to resolve the clear incompatibility. What their various campaigns have disclosed is the wide gap between their supporters and the prevailing Christian leadership, most of whom, as elsewhere in the Western world, have embraced liberal ideals. The leadership has been especially insistent on the right of individuals to choose their own moral values. It is commonplace to hear church leaders denounce as an evil the existence of legal discrimination against individuals on the basis of their religious or moral beliefs—an attitude which corresponds closely to the moral sense of the contemporary secular intelligentsia. The area of medical and biological ethics, it is true, has raised some difficult questions for the Christian leadership (as for liberal opinion in general), for here the intervention of the State, in determining the limits of research, and so forth, is plainly necessary.
At times Christian leaders seem unaware of how greatly their opinions contrast with those of Christian society in the last two millennia. Yet is is in order to separate themselves decisively from the 'Christendom' model, from the use of the power of the State to enforce Christian beliefs, that Western Christians have come to reassess their public role and to see themselves as external critics of the political management. They eschew privilege, and in recognition of a society of plural values they opt for freedom to propagate their religious truths alongside the practitioners of other and rival systems. Many theologians writing today assume the inherent virtue of moral pluralism in society, and they are probably right to do so—in the sense that after a couple of thousand years there is no agreement among reflective people about the moral basis of life on earth. There sometimes appears, it is true, to be a measure of agreement; the agenda of Human Rights seems at first sight to offer a tariff of shared moral beliefs about some basic human claims, but when scrutinized closely, these turn out to be labels whose meaning is so wide that when they are attached to concrete historical situations the area of agreement diminishes to nothing.
The acceptance or the rejection of liberal attitudes towards the organization of society is one of the major causes of division among Christians today, though it is often confused, by external observers, with the simultaneous acceptance or rejection of liberal methods of intellectual enquiry as applied to theological scholarship. The calculations here are not exact, and a scholar open to all kinds of intellectual liberalism may also sustain a very structured view about social organization. There is a widespread feeling, however, that the days are past when the Church should look to the power of the State to give religious beliefs institutional expression. It is the arrival of political democracy which has reinforced this conviction. Democratic choice by mass electorates is a new experiment in human history—scarcely a century old anywhere—and it echoes the distribution of popular education. Nothing in Christian thinking or teaching during the preceding centuries suggests that Christianity would be particularly friendly to democratic practice, and in the nineteenth century, in fact, Christian opinion was broadly hostile to the political forces which were beginning to advance democratic theory. That is in itself, of course, no reason why Christians should not be able to identify democracy as a Christian expression. Christian faith is a dialectic with the world, and its passage through time shows many instances where new insights can set old adversaries into a more favourable context. It is surprising, however, that the Christian churches of the Protestant tradition, have (often as a necessary consequence of their separation from a relationship with the State) contrived internal systems of government which are indebted to the democratic devices of modern secular society—for there can be no sense in which religious truth can be decided on a majority principle. God is not known to be God by the counting of heads. When it comes to the conduct of public life, modern Christians show an extraordinary unanimity about the virtue of political democracy, however. So closely have they identified themselves with its practices, in fact, and so exactly have they matched it with applied Christian teaching, that many have felt themselves able to justify the use of force (as in guerrilla warfare against political regimes of the Right) to secure the attainment of democratic systems of government. The point is this: since religious values cannot actually be authenticated by popular choice, the achievement of democracy necessarily implies a separation of religion from some areas of political power. Religious values are among those which are reserved from the competence of the State, and are seen to be in the realm of individual choice. But then a difficulty arises. What are the moral values of the State to be if there is no institutional religious tradition to which it may refer, and if there is no agreed philosophical alternative, as there is not in Western societies at present? What is the State to say when people ask why they should obey the law? All law implies a prior moral sanction, and if the Churches do not supply the moral basis then ideological rivals may. This unresolved problem lies at the heart of contemporary liberal society. In practice one of the ideological rivals of Christianity—secular humanism—is, on a day-to-day basis, filling in the need, but in a very incoherent fashion, and without any great public consciousness that that is what is happening. Materialist views of humanity are always at their most successful when they are presented as commonplace responses to the needs of human welfare.
There are still those who believe that the old concept of Natural Law is a possible solution. It is certainly true that the prevalent Human Rights ideology is merely a modern checklist of individual liberties which once would have been expressed in Natural Law language, and that the Western Church, following medieval Aristotelianism, has a tradition of associating Christian moral teaching with Natural Law formulations. Positive good may be achieved if the State uses its power to enforce propositions which are agreed to be true because they correspond to truths that are universally written in men's hearts, and so are common to Christian and non-Christian alike. Alas for this simplicity, Natural Law formulations have strongly fictional qualities, since what is in men's hearts does not appear to be precise enough to provide the contents of real rights in civil society. Society is in practice divided ideologically, and the 'Laws' are either too general to have agreed individual applications or they are too controversial to be 'Natural'. The failure in the 1970s of the
Warsaw Pact and the NATO alliance to agree what the Natural Law freedoms enshrined in the Helsinki Accords actually meant illustrated the difficulty— the Communists interpreted Human Rights as collective ones, and the Western Liberals saw them as individual liberties. Among Catholic theologians, nevertheless, there has been a distinguished continuing tradition of writing on modern political problems in terms of Natural Law theory, particularly in relation to issues of defence policy, warfare, and the moral questions of social justice. The shift of emphasis to Human Rights rhetoric, and away from more classical formulations of Natural Law, is, indeed, one of a number of indicators that contemporary Christian understanding of political processes is becoming increasingly secularized.
It is now usual for Christian leaders and thinkers to categorize the Church as being like a moral agency, operating alongside others within the boundaries of a society of plural values. Where once Christianity had taught that the State (as in a passage of Romans 13) is a divine institution, it is now seen as a secular device, responsive to the public will. The State, in fact, needs to be perpetually scrutinized to ensure that its behaviour corresponds to the supposed injunctions of natural rights, and that it does not interfere with the liberties of individuals. The State has lost its organic character—which is now considered potentially totalitarian—and has come to be viewed atomistically. So far from being God's instrument for curbing the viciousness of mankind, it is now commonly thought of by Christians as a provider of welfare. Acceptance of the legitimacy of diverse interpretations of basic values, of the plural society, implies that the State, which is their institutional representative, is no longer properly able to have a relationship with religious bodies. There are in some societies, as it happens, all kinds of anomalous relationships between government and religious institutions: even the constitutional separation of Church and State in the American Constitution has not eradicated the persistence of links between the law and religious opinion in a number of areas of both federal and state experience. These sorts of survival, however, are not regarded by Christian observers as of any ideological significance, though they often are by the public generally, who still arrange them into symbols or components of a 'Christian' country or society. The twentieth century has seen an overall shift in Western democracies towards a redefinition, by Christian leaders, of the relationship of institutional religion to government. The churches are now much more usually regarded as external critics of the morality of state action than they are as spiritual or moral adjuncts of it. The last remnants of the old 'Christendom' model were probably the so-called 'National Security' regimes of Latin America in the 1970s, in countries like Chile, Argentina and Brazil, when Church and State stood together to preserve what was perceived to be Christian civilization from the assault of Communism. Europe had witnessed comparable essays in the 1930s. In practice this soft of organized Christian support for 'stable' values has meant an alliance with the political Right.
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