On Religious Neutrality | Promethean Fire
For a time, there was a certain expectation that religion ought to stand above petty politics. In the United Kingdom, our state church was previously detached from politics in all but name, barring particular zealous reformers like William Temple. The Pope typically gave cryptically worded suggestions as to social plight around the world, but never actively sought any particular policy. The outwardly religious right in America, the Moral Majority, were always distanced from the more mainstream Billy Graham. There seemed an assumption that one could promote values detached from individual ideologies; that religion provided answers to the constant turbulence of life in a self contained vacuum.
Indeed, the underlying assumption was that faith’s role was to provide a layer of eternal truth to complement the earthly facts on the ground. It was a Platonic ideal of truth; a truth which didn’t require any deep reference to our human condition. Each denomination had its own doctrine which purported to uphold particular notions of divinity, notions of afterlife, and notions of basic personal conduct like sacraments. But none of this doctrine was ever taken further. It didn’t tell us how society should be organised. It didn’t tell us which hierarchies were defensible. And it didn’t tell us the practical benefits of adherence to religion.
This last point is particularly salient. The reason why religion lost ground in the 20th century was because it tried to maintain this Platonic truth – a God of infinite love and rationality taken to be wholly real – which could easily be chipped away by the brute facts of two world wars and various genocides. Defenders of faith took form in C.S Lewis, G.K Chesterton and William Lane Craig, who all sought to uphold this truth against a barrage of doubt and cynicism. But apologists kept losing ground because they ultimately forgot about the pragmatic arguments, such as why we needed faith to ground our concepts of justice, or liberty, or equality. The danger of secular replacement religions. The importance of warding off mass nihilism.
All of these lines of thought increasingly resonate amongst people today, much more than the traditional apologetics of faith. Look no further than the Jordan Peterson effect, or Kanye West’s current evangelism. What also unites these two men is their willingness to engage with political issues of our time. Rather than a Platonic model of religion, they adopt a much more Aristotelian view: we accept doctrine not because it is infallibly true, but because it leads us to a better place. It is centred around virtue ethics rather than ontology. And virtue ethics can only entail challenging the values perpetuated by our political opponents, who seek to coerce us away from virtue. This activism seeks to directly reckon with the world around us, rather than to escape into the purity of worship.
Many more orthodox believers may be sceptical of this approach, and rightly point to the growth of left-wing critical theory within established religion. Indeed, it is common knowledge that the Church of England for one is quicker to adopt more progressive doctrine on social justice issues, all the while ignoring the basis for the institution itself. However, this is less a reflection of pragmatism as a methodology, and more a reflection of the Church of England. What pragmatism does is ultimately reveal the logical consequences of taking a particular line on notions of divinity. If you are a sceptic of their rhetoric, the Church of England’s present platitudes are perhaps the best empirical evidence to demonstrate why their Christology is flawed. It is flawed because it leads them to such wholly absurd progressive posturing. Meanwhile, other practitioners of religion can be assessed on their own outcomes.
Here’s an example. Pastor James Coates of Edmonton, Alberta defied the will of the provincial health authorities by hosting a full Sunday service at his evangelical Christian church. His sermon was appropriately titled “Directing Government To Its Duty”: a reading and interpretation of Romans 13. What makes his speech captivating is the clarity with which he explains the purpose and function of government. Under his analysis, the role of government is not to protect life, but to protect our inalienable rights – set out in scripture as including our right of worship. Any law which seeks to prohibit people’s worship is unjust, and it is the role of religious figures to speak out against such laws. Such an approach makes questions of scripture and questions of divinity more relevant to people. It gives them a foundation to question what they can feel is wrong. Politics is the most explicit way that values are propagated in society, and people have to be able to know how their deeper principles express themselves in government.
Ultimately, I believe that religion is meant to serve us, not the other way around. This doesn’t mean that it is supposed to accommodate all of our human desires. Rather, it means that religion ought to be able to articulate why having principles is worthwhile for our day to day lives, and how virtue is best expressed in the laws which govern all of us. The traditional scepticism of political ideology married to religion is derived from an idea of an aloof, dispassionate state which has no reason to get involved with our personal lives. The 21st century has shown us so far that this is anything but the case.