Defending secular liberal democracy


In a paper delivered as part of an European Baptist Federation conference on human rights Dr Nigel Wright stated:

‘In this paper I intend to argue that whereas civic secularism is not the preferred societal option for Christians, it may well represent the most realistic future shape of advanced societies and therefore has to be reckoned with. Moreover it both offers a number of political benefits that are advantageous to Christian faith and practice and should be maximised, and also presents a context which can assist the churches in maintaining authentic Christian witness. None of this is to minimise the genuine challenges to faith that such a society can pose’.

The paper of the presentation is available on the European Baptist Federation site: Here.

For Wright the preferred social option would appear to be a non-Constantinian Christendom. This would refer to a situation although I am not quite sure how this could ever really be a ‘participating without possessing’, his preferred description for a Baptist relationship to the State.

This being the case, I think if I were to disagree with Wright it would only be in stating more clearly a preferential suppport for the option of ‘civic secularism’ understood as a ‘a political strategy designed to hold together religiously and diverse societies’ without giving privilege to any one ideology (not least those which would deny the free existence and participation of others).

In my understanding, such ‘civic secularism’ need not deny national interests and cultural particularities but would be undergirded by commitments that extend beyond the national, e.g. the Declaration of Human Rights.

I am aware of the critiques which can be made of the Declaration of Human Rights from a variety of perspectives including my own Christian tradition but agree with David Gushee when he said in a soon to be published lecture:

‘Certainly human rights are a far less coherent notion apart from a biblical theological foundation, but in pluralistic discourse we all do the best we can, and in the Christian community we are entirely free to re-anchor human rights language in the best resources of our own theological tradition. Once we have dispensed with our theological reservations about the language and implications of rights claims, Christians ought to be some of the world’s most vigorous champions for the legitimate human rights of our neighbours near and far.’

I can feel a theoretical abyss coming on, where it can rightly be stated that I am actually setting up an ideology, one of ‘civic secularism’ above the rest in the name of denying any dominant ideology. In brief response, I would say yes indeed I am, because I think that this is the best way to defend freedom for people of all faiths and none to live freely and freely live.

Further, if I have a critique of the ideas and values of liberal democracy it is that it needs to be a bit better at articulating, defining, and defending itself as a worthwhile value system.

As a consequence I have a lot of sympathy with this article: Tackling Europe’s Crisis Through Education



    1. Rightly interpreted or otherwise, Nigel Wright’s position sounds like a counterpoint to some of the assertions made by Stanley Hauerwas in his critique of ‘liberal democracy’, postmodernism, and the position of the church. Hauerwas quotes US conservative George Will referencing Thomas Jefferson:
      ‘A central purpose of America’s political arrangements is the subordination of religion to the political order, meaning the primacy of democracy. The founders, like Locke before them, wished to tame and domesticate religious passions of the sort that convulsed Europe. They aimed to do so not by establishing religion, but by establishing commercial republic-capitalism. They aimed to submerge peoples turbulent energies in self-interested pursuit of material comforts…
      ….Jefferson’s position rests on Locke’s principle that religion can be useful or can be disruptive, but its truth cannot be established by reason. Hence (Americans) would not ‘establish’ religion, they would make religions private and subordinate.’
      Hauerwas goes on:
      ..That Christian practice was relegated to the private realm was a small price to pay for living in societies that were peaceful. Therefore Christian theologians increasingly construed the Christian moral life in the language of love and justice, which usually meant that Christians should seek to construct societies that rightly know how to balance ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’. In short, Christian social ethics became functionally atheistic… In the name of Christian responsibility to the world, theologians became ‘ethicists’ so they could be of service in liberal political regimens… The whole point after all, of the philosophical and political developments since the Enlightenment is to create people incapable of killing other people in the name of God.’
      ‘Non-Constantinian Christendom’ in the context of ‘civic secularism’ as the best of presently available options (albeit recognised by NW as not ideal) is perhaps a case of ‘the king is dead (Constantinian Christendom), long live the king (privatised faith married to universal material aspiration)’? Denny Weaver points out that Rome triumphed by offering us the opportunity to rule as Rome understands rule. A muddling of the principle that salvation in Christ is the ‘narrative that necessarily subordinates all other narratives and their corresponding polities’, and though whilst no longer dominant we console ourselves with peaceful practice and in some quarters the warm afterglow of religious respectibility. We are tempted toward siding with the dominant systems because they facilitate certain privilege, the comfort of peacable worship, and are in line with notions of providence which is out righful expectation (no?), accomadation is made easy. By taking up Rome’s project (and I propose the subsequent Enlightenment project), Christianity continues its attempt to further the Kingdom through the power of this world only now from a different tack. A blurring of the politics of salvation with the idea that in the name of God Christians must somehow, some way, rule.
      Hauerwas goes on (doesn’t he just); ‘that the church has often imitated the secular rule of its day is no great surprise. In feudalism the Popes became feudal lords, absolute monarchs in the age of absolutism, and in the age of nation-states something like presidents for life of a kind of international state.’
      The liberal project is an ideology, to those that oppose it Christianity is by and large seen as subordinate to and complicit with it. Are they wrong? Is it really right? The liberal democracy may well be the best on offer, but aspiration in all its forms is the opiate of the masses, no less so for the church. Hooked without knowing or realising it, blinded by the privileges of privacy and tolerance, impotent in terms of genuine radicality – we suckle at the same teats as the rest.
      I’ll leave it hanging there, because I have a paper to finish!
      Quotes from Hauerwas: ‘After Christendom’ and ‘A Better Hope’.



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