Christianity and the ‘non-confessional state’. (This was published by CFNews: see here.)
Philip Trower, in his 2004 article for Catholic World Report included in the 4th Jan CFNews bulletin, argues that the rise of militant secularism – evidenced by the rigorous exclusion of religious language and symbolism from public life, for example – derives from the collapse of the ‘non-confessional state’, a state which does not prefer one religion to another, into a ‘secularist state’, a state in which a set of avowedly non-religious values, centering around humanism and hedonism, are given official status. This is a kind of confessional state, in which what the state confesses is a secularism which has become a substitute religion.
Trower’s diagnosis is certainly correct. What I cannot, however, agree with is the prognosis: the implication of his article that what is needed is a return to a non-confessional state, and that the process by which non-confessional states have become secularist states is based on a ‘misunderstanding’. If only, he implies, politicians and others understood the distinction properly, then we would not have the problem of militant secularism being imposed on us by the state. State schools could go on having nativity plays, etc. etc..
The problem is that there is a deep confusion in the very notion of a non-confessional state. Such a state is supposed to be neutral on controversial, value-laden issues, notably about which religion is correct. So how, in such a state, should human biology, or the history of the Reformation, be taught? What textbooks should be used? The problem is not that these are difficult questions, but that if the state has no controversial or religious values of its own, it will have no basis upon which to make the decisions.
Again: which religions and churches should be accorded charitable status, and for what faith groups should military chaplains be provided? The Taliban? Scientologists? Satanists? How is the state to determine that question, if it has no theological values?
The answer given by political theorists friendly to the idea of a ‘neutral state’, is that without reference to controversial, value-laden religious claims, the state can conduct its affairs by reference to what all reasonable people agree about: basic rationality. Everyone wants food on the table and a roof over their heads, and so on. This quickly reveals itself to be a form of reasoning that does not simply leave to one side the question of which religion is true, but assumes that they are all false. For if the only thing the state takes into account is our material needs, then it is acting as if we had no other needs at all: it has de facto adopted materialism as a substitute religion. The form of ‘rationality’ here, of course, is far from uncontroversial, and carries with it the potential to turn a non-confessional state into a secularist one. This problem has been explored at length by Alastair MacIntyre’s appropriately named book: ‘Whose Justice? Which Rationality?’
The same thing has been forseen in a different way by Edward Norman, in his book ‘Secularization’, where he points out that the non-confessional state is not the stable end-point of a political development, but is simply a transitional phase, when the dominant religion has lost the power or the will to impose itself on the state, but is still too strong to be ignored completely. The rising set of values which will soon be, and in many ways already is, the official creed of the state, is secularism.
The fact is that the state cannot do without values. Political judgments, judgments about the relative merits of educational philosophies or medical treatments, can only be made with the help of values. A non-confessional state inevitably gravitates towards a set of humanistic, hedonistic and secular values, because any move in any other direction will be attacked as giving one religion priority over another.
Catholics and members of other religions have to be clear about this. The goal of their political engagement is not to push the state back into the untenable position of making decisions neither on the basis of Anglicanism nor on the basis of any other coherent set of values or world view. That would be an absurd and Quixotic project. No: our aim is to get the state to make decisions on the basis of what we believe to be the correct values and world view. Sterlising the disabled makes sense if traditional, religiously inspired moral values are set aside in favour of hedonism and materialism. In opposing something like this, we are trying to get politicians and the general public to see that hedonism and materialism are inadequate, and that our own values are superior. We are pushing them, however feebly, towards a confession of the Truth, the only basis upon which correct judgments about how to promote the Common Good will be made.