Thursday, October 13, 2005


Though I think it’s a poor and corrosive piece of legislation, the demonstration outside parliament against the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill on Tuesday left me feeling very queasy indeed. Most of the time I was on a patch of green behind the lobby, trying to make my voice heard (along with several others) for a TV interviewer. It felt like being shouted down. And what’s more, many of the demonstrators I spoke to had little idea about what they were objecting to. I felt genuine sympathy for the dignified group from the National Secular Society who looked rather besieged by religious zeal. And I found it more than ironic that Christians who called for a ban on Jerry Springer – The Opera were now singing the praises of ‘free speech’. If this is what public debate has come to, we are all in real trouble.

Of course I recognise the twist in this. As a think-tank wonk and (aggh!) pundit, I too am in the persuasion business. I value tough thinking, honesty, intellectual imagination and self-criticism, but I recognise that there is a place in this for vigorous argument. That’s one of the things that makes for a healthy society. But when rhetoric is overwhelmed by conviction, civility is erased by scorn, and the lust for polemic silences the intractability of judgement and the reality of ambiguity, we have a right to be alarmed. The religious hatred ‘discussion’ among urbane non-religionists on More4 later in the evening was no more encouraging, with participants under no apparent constraint to back up opinion with fact or to temper caricature with subtle observation.

In its response to David Aaronovitch’s polemical (but still thoughtful) BBC2 critique of ‘God and the politicians’, Ekklesia said: “There is a need for faith communities to convince the sceptics that they want to be partners [in debate] not theocrats. And there is likewise a need for the sceptics to engage in a constructive dialogue with faith communities about how to keep the square we share public… We need a way of enabling particular communities of [competing] conviction to develop distinctive roles and perspectives within a plural society; a public space which they can affirm, shape, contest and support.”

Rowan Williams has been helpfully tackling questions related to this of late, and though I disagree with him on publicly funded faith-based schools (which he favours and I'm concerned about), his exploration of pluralist political options in his recent memorial lecture for the late David Nicholls (author of the stimulating ‘Deity and Domination : Images of God and the State in 19th and 20th Centuries’) is important stuff. It’s called Law, Power and Peace: Christian Perspectives on Sovereignty.

Dr Williams aspires to the view that the Body of Christ ought not to be “a political order on the same level as others, competing for control, but a community that signifies, that points to, a possible healed human world. Thus its effect on the political communities of its environment is bound to be, sooner or later, sceptical and demystifying.” I’d endorse something along the same lines. But it needs to be observed that for most Christian communities most of the time, this is not an accurate description – and that the impact of church engagement in politics is all-too-often corrupted by manipulation. I say that as an invitation to honesty and commitment, not as a counsel of despair. So what are we going to do about it?

Comment on this post: FaithInSociety

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent points, very timely after the Sharia flap.