November 6, 2006

THE PURITANS DIDN'T JUST APPEAR OUT OF NOWHERE:

Future generations will hear far more about God and politics (Michael Burleigh, 07/11/2006, Daily Telegraph)

There is something encouragingly American about Theos, provided one associates US Christians with its many distinguished public intellectuals, like Richard John Neuhaus or George Weigel, rather than the literalists of dread imaginings. [...]

[I]n a brilliant exposition of Theos's remit, entitled Doing God, Nick Spencer indicates that the very notion of a separate public sphere, or what we call civil society, is an indirect offspring of Christian rejection of imperial theocracy, and that Christians have much still to contribute to their own legacy.

Indeed, whether for demographic reasons, which over the long term favour religious believers, or, because of the creeping withdrawal of the state from social provision, future generations will hear a lot more about God and politics.

Spencer makes short work of many arguments routinely used to excise religion from the public sphere, a goal that is utterly ahistorical in a country where the Sovereign is head of the Established Church and daily prayers are said in Parliament.

By dealing in moral absolutes or through focus on the transcendental, religious people allegedly tend to be intolerant, indifferent to the merely temporal, or drag societies into sectarianism.

All of these arguments could be applied to secular ideological fanaticisms – notably liberalism, fascism and communism – and neglect the work done by Churches to bring about peace and reconciliation in even the most vicious conflicts.

These range from Britain's strife-ridden "multi-cultural" cities to secret Italian Catholic mediation between the military regime and Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria. Being smart, Spencer suggests that religious believers should adjust their language to a pluralistic audience.

On the positive side, Spencer makes a powerfully "secular" case for deeper Christian involvement in politics, beyond the overblown irrelevance of whether Ruth Kelly belongs to Opus Dei or whether George W.

Bush and Tony Blair pray together. "Secular" changes are things we scarcely perceive and can do little to alter, like the ineluctable march of the one- or two-child family, liquor stills and satellite porn among Iran's middle-class Shia.

In Britain, Spencer argues that the withdrawal of the state from welfare provision will reveal a "long-hidden shore of civil society, in which religious groups in general, and the Churches in particular, have and are playing a significant role".

There are some 22,000 religious charities in this country, not to speak of parish or chapel-based voluntary work.

Whereas bureaucratised welfare is invariably decoupled from altruism, and manages to demoralise and infantilise its "clients", by their nature, religious charities encourage self-reflection and responsibility, provided the mission is not neutered in return for local or government funding.

In passages that will annoy those credulous toward material progress – measured by possessions – Spencer draws on economist Richard Layard's work on how wealth does not guarantee happiness to make the case that firm religious faith and marriage are two of the major indicators of individual and social health and happiness.


The Anglosphere is so unlike the rest of the West. Imagine the French discussing whether the State ought to recede so that the churches can resume their rightful role in dealing with social pathologies?

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 6, 2006 11:17 PM
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