Religion and the British State:
a new settlement

[COMMENT:  A good discussion of the issues of Church & State.  OK, Christians, how would you respond to this article?   E. Fox]

Publication date: 17/08/2005

• Redrawing the boundaries between religion and the state would contribute to successful integration, argues Fabian General Secretary Sunder Katwala in this essay for a new Barrow Cadbury Trust/Guardian collection

“Sorry, we don’t do God”. The secular liberal left’s first instinct when facing demands for an increased role for religion in the public sphere has been to refuse to countenance the debate. But simply asserting that Britain is a largely and increasingly secular society, and must therefore remain so, is no longer tenable. If we are to successfully distinguish between the legitimate and illegitimate roles for religion in a democratic society of many faiths and none then we will need to rethink and redraw the boundaries between religion, the state and public life.

Liberal resistance to reopening this debate has been built on a sense that the question of religion had been long and satisfactorily settled. Increasing secularisation and the declining purchase of the country’s Christian heritage was largely accepted, even by mainstream church and religious leaders - particularly those of the Church of England, whose public moderation often bordered on agnosticism.  Politically, the Conservative Party’s traditional role as the ‘Church of England at Prayer’ was fading. The extension of Sunday trading in 1986 saw the greatest backbench division of the Thatcher years; the claims of religion were no match for the new liberal capitalism of the right. On the left, the tradition of religious engagement with social justice had long been made on largely secular grounds.

Challenges to this consensus -  such as Mary Whitehouse’s successful private prosecution for blasphemy against Gay News in 1977 or Ian Paisley’s contribution to Ulster’s politics – seemed only to confirm a widespread view of its public champions as marginal, and relics from a previous age. This sense of the retreating public role of religion shaped, in part, the context for the Rushdie affair in 1989 – the first time that political claims made on behalf of Islam came to wider public notice. The mainstream  response was one of bewilderment and ultimately anger as protests escalated to book burning and threats of violence. There was little engagement or dialogue. The response was largely that ‘immigrant’ communities needed to learn the civilised ways of their‘hosts’: ‘that just isn’t how we do things here’. Religious challenges to free speech – with clashes including Sikh protests over the play Behzti and Christian protests against the televising of Jerry Springer: The Opera -  have increased liberal fears that a greater role for religion will see a retreat from enlightenment principles and freedoms in the face of absolutist demands which claim to be above public or political scrutiny.

Yet of  course this claim for a ‘secular settlement’ is a problematic one in a country which retains an Established Church. Opinion formers declare that our civilised liberal culture treats free speech, rather than religion, as sacred, so making it impossible to ban books which cause offence, yet it turns out we have a blasphemy law which protects Christianity on the statute book. Britain had come to think of itself as increasingly de facto secular when it was not. It is a strange secular polity where the Prime Minister appoints the bishops of the Church of England, and where they sit by right in the House of Lords to vote on and amend the laws of the land. The liberal response – ‘nobody takes any of that seriously anymore’ – was not dishonest, given the limited role of the established Church in public debates. But it was naturally seen as self-serving and suspicious when used to prohibit new political claims made on religious grounds. In the Rushdie affair, protestors could argue with some justification that it was the particular claim of Islam which was being discriminated against.

What is secularism for?

The liberal-left is confused by the renewed prominence and new political claims made for religion. While the liberal-left prides itself on its enlightenment rationalism, there is no rational defence of a ‘settlement’ which contains such a large element of organised hypocrisy. Part of the confusion is because the challenge is being made by applying to faith the identity politics arguments developed on race and gender as Tariq Modood has pointed out which the left has supported over the last thirty years.  This disconcerts the liberal-left, in part because liberals have not distinguished sufficiently between different forms of, and arguments for, secularism – and risk defending the wrong thing.

The primary objective of those who put forward the secularist perspective is to uphold values of equality, democratic citizenship and human rights – a goal which will be recognised as valid by many people of faith as well as agnostics and atheists. But quite different weak and strong secularist positions are often confused. The first seeks the separation of the state and religion – that the state not seek to enforce or institutionalise any particular religion or to discriminate on the basis of religious considerations in its treatment of its citizens. The second, and stronger, secularist claim seek to separate religion from politics by claiming that religion must be an exclusively private matter, and that religious identities, principles and concerns need to be left outside the door when citizens enter the public space.

The British status quo offers a clear, if half-hearted, breach of the first – valid – principle and the attempt to make the second – considerably more questionable – approach stick in the face of growing dissent. This is in direct contrast to the United States, a polity which insists on the strict constitutional separation of church and state and yet where religious language suffuses the public sphere. The first approach makes much sense, particularly in multi-faith and multi-ethnic societies where the equal treatment of citizens might well be seen to demand the equal treatment of their different religions,

But the second demand that citizens must use only secular reasons in public discussion can not be defended. It demands that religious citizens must abstract themselves from their deepest beliefs in accepting an iron distinction between private beliefs and public values. This is not a condition of equal citizenship but a violation of it. It seeks to set the ‘rules of the game’ for public discourse in a way which decides the central issue of contention between religious and secular worldviews. The justifiable demand which can be made of religious claims and arguments made from a religious perspective is that they are open to challenge by others within the public space, along with the claims of those who wish to argue that religion is dangerous and illegitimate.

Towards a new settlement

We therefore need a new settlement. The foundations around which this can be negotiated should be the human rights of all citizens, and the equal treatment of all major religions by public authorities. While these may seem uncontroversial, each of these foundation principles represents a political choice and either can be challenged. A defence for retaining an Established Church (while various other religions are either favoured or discriminated against in a range of ways), beyond inertia, could depend on an argument either from history – namely, that Britain has an essentially Christian heritage – or a majoritarian democratic argument based on weight of numbers – that 78% of Britons regard themselves as Christian in the 2001 census. But neither argument offers convincing grounds for giving preferential treatment to one faith over another.

Accepting the principle of equal treatment of religions leaves open many central questions about what this would mean in practice. How far should we seek a US-style strict separation between the state and all expressions of religion? Or would an alternative to this be to offer a greater recognition of all major religions in public life, including some form of ‘co-establishment’ of major religions, in the spirit of Prince Charles’ thinking about the future role of the Head of State including that of being a ‘defender of faith’.

Seeking to extend some of the current privileges of the Church of England to different religions  would face practical difficulties on a number of particular issues, and would need careful checks to prevent important breaches of human rights principles. But it is perfectly possible to imagine a patchwork and partial ‘co-establishment’ approach.

This might particularly be pursued in terms of the symbolism of the state and public life  – what Bagehot called the ‘dignified’ parts of the British Constitution. It would be difficult, for example, to see why there should be any objection in principle to a Coronation ceremony which sought to symbolise Britain as a multi-faith society in all of its colour and flummery, or why public institutions like Parliament, the Courts and the army should not offer a range of oaths (including secular versions). The prohibition on the heir to the throne marrying a Catholic would go– and perhaps the requirement for the Monarch themselves to be a Protestant too.

This may well in many ways be a particularly British approach, reminiscent of George Orwell’s claims in The Lion and the Unicorn that his new post-revolutionary England “will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy. It will leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere, the judge in his ridiculous horsehair wig and the lion and the unicorn on the soldier’s cap-buttons”.A pragmatic empiricism to the relationship between religion and the state will not deliver an entirely coherent blueprint or as clear a distinction as that favoured in principle in the United States – but the outcome will be challenged if it does not seem to be animated by a concern for fairness and equity between faiths and citizens..(At the boundary, the definition of major faiths would be somewhat arbitrary but this would not present any great difficulty: Jedi Knights and Scientologists need not apply).

More substantively, if we were to retain a fully or partly-appointed Upper House, there would be a choice between removing the Church of England’s Bishops from the House of Lords or alternatively adding senior representatives of other faiths to sit and legislate. It would be preferable for no religious leaders to sit by right, but for an appointments commission seeking to ensure that different faith and community perspectives are represented, not necessarily through the appointment of religious leaders but rather by taking religion into consideration in one factor when appointing peers who are experts on a range of areas.

Those who fear the consequences of religious segregation in education for integration, citizenship and a shared society can make the case for abolishing the Church of England, Roman Catholic and Jewish state schools which have long been part of the educational system. But since their abolition is not a practical political proposition, the case for Muslim state schools to be funded by the state is in practice undeniable. The issues of integration and citizenship for faith schools – of all faiths – will then need to be addressed through regulation of the content of the curriculum, admissions policies as well links between different schools and other, softer initiatives.

By contrast, seeking to extend the blasphemy laws to cover the central tenets of all faiths would be both undesirable as well as practically impossible. It would place unacceptable restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, including no doubt religious as well as secular speech since it is likely that different religions would routinely blaspheme against each other.

Hard cases and the limits of human rights

The broad framework outlined here – of equality of religions within a human rights framework – will not resolve the outcome and provide the “right answer” to any particular policy question or clash. These will be the subject of political negotiation and compromise –it might well be that new deliberative spaces, beyond parliament and the courts, should be created to host and interrogate these debates.

Using a human rights framework for the scope and limits for the public recognition of religion will, for some, continue to privilege the individualistic, liberal and secular worldview over religious perspectives. But an emerging culture of human rights – though relatively underdeveloped in Britain – offers a strong and essential basis for the level of consensus necessary to live together in a complex society. In contrast with the claim rejected earlier, namely that religion must be left out of public discourse entirely, claims of human rights and dignity are recognised by all major religions, though this leaves many questions about their content and practical implications. The argument over how claims for human rights are grounded and defended is beyond the scope of this piece. But a rights culture offers only a framework for deliberation – no single right is a trump card which can end discussion – through which conflict can be resolved or contained. As Michael Ignatieff has written “The fundamental commitment entailed by rights is not to respect, but to deliberation. The minimum condition for deliberation with another human being is not necessarily respect, merely negative toleration, a willingness to remain in the same room, listening to claims one doesn’t like to hear, for the purposes of finding compromises that will keep conflicting claims from ending in irreparable harm to either side. That is what a shared commitment to human rights entails”.

The hardest practical cases where religious and non-religious worldviews will continue to clash will include those where free speech causes deep offence, tensions between group and individual rights, and the choices which parents can make on behalf of their children.  One area of contention will be the scope and limits of the group rights which can be claimed by religious or other communities, Just as western societies have increasingly come to recognise gender, ethnicity and sexuality as central components of cultural identity, this will also be true of faith identities and communities. However there will be limits to what can be claimed on these grounds because those group rights and identities which are recognised publicly, gain that recognition because they are good for the individuals involved. Those individuals must, however, have the freedom of exit – without that, there is no basis on which group rights can and should be granted by a democratic society.

Finally, on issues of free speech, the threshold for restricting speech would need to be set very high; it could not be on the grounds of offence, however deeply felt. As Bhikhu Parekh has argued, protestors against Rushdie’s book did have regard to the social and political contexts of different countries.While The Satanic Verses was banned in India, no Muslim call to ban the book was made in the United States where it would clearly have failed on first amendment rights. So the anachronistic British law against blasphemy did offer grounds for British Muslims to believe that it was reasonable to ask for a ban.

Redrawing the boundaries between religion and the state will not settle such hard disputes but the neglect of religious questions – almost the only part of Britain’s Constitution not to be reformed by the post-1997 Labour government – now needs to be reversed if we are to create a legitimate and equitable framework to contain and resolve these tensions and differences.

• Sunder Katwala is General Secretary of the Fabian Society. This essay, like all publications of the Fabian Society or its staff, represents not the collective views of the Society but only the views of the author(s).

• This piece appears in on Islam, Race and being British, edited by Madeleine Bunting, and published by Barrow Cadbury Trust and The Guardian. For a free copy send a cheque for £2.50 to cover postage, made payable to The Guardian, to Guardian Branded Books, 119 Farringdon Road, London EC1A 3ER.


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