Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Thinking Faith: Religion and the Political Realm

Thinking Faith, the online journal of the British Jesuits, has an interesting article on Religion and the Political Realm. It reflects on the relationship between religion and politics, in a week that has seen Catholic bishops and other religious leaders speaking out about the Human Embryology bill. The article gives a short account of a comment on the relationship between religion and the state made by President Sarkozy of France during a visit to Rome in December 2007.

The article starts, citing Professor Ninian Smart, by summarising five possible ways in which religion and the state might interact. The first such way was the one that set me thinking:

"Religion interacts in various ways with the nation-state, which is now a relatively homogeneous concept across the global community."

It seems now to be commonly accepted that the US/UK forces went into Iraq without any thorough planning for what to do after toppling Saddam Hussein and taking control of the country, albeit with the intention that that control should not be permanent. I recall being struck by media coverage of some incidents in the early days of the occupation where the intervention of an Imam proved pivotal. This influence of the Imam seems to have almost disappeared from the more recent media coverage. It has been replaced, so far as I can see, by the leadership of armed militias - though, of course, this might be an impression communicated by the media coverage rather than a reality on the ground. It has prompted me to reflect as follows and to wonder whether the idea of the nation-state is in fact uniformly accepted across the global community:

did the Western powers assume that their own experience of a "nation-state", ie a single rule of law extending throughout their territory and enforced by a (politically neutral) police/military, was the appropriate model for Iraq? Would a more localised form of government (a kind of subsidiarity, to use a term from Catholic social teaching) been more in tune with the situation of the people themselves?

did the Western powers totally underestimate the way in which the religious authority of the Imam also constituted a political authority? And, because they did not support the political aspects of that authority, did they pave the way for it to be overtaken by the authority of the militias?

As part of a discussion of the separation of religion and the state, Fr Turner cites the model according to which the state must be neutral between religions, saying that, according to this model:

"...anyone acting in the name of the state must manifest that neutrality. Similarly, the institutions of the state (state schools, hospitals etc) must be bare of religious symbols, hence the prohibition of religious dress - crucifixes, veils etc."

Now, I can see that someone like a police officer acting to enforce the law of the land might be (emphasis on the might) seen as "acting in the name of the state"; but I find it difficult to see a medical professional working in a state hospital, or a teacher working in a state school, as being someone who is "acting in the name of the state". This is linked to the question of whether state funded hospitals and schools should, by virtue of their being state funded, be seen as institutions of the state rather than as institutions of the civil society to which the author refers later in his article. I would rather see them as belonging primarily to civil society at the service of the common good of the whole of that society, and therefore needing to respect the plurality that exists in civil society. The employee is engaging firstly with civil society and making their contribution to it - which for one employee might include an element of religious manifestation but for another might not. The legitimate role of the state is with regard to the common good, to enable these institutions to operate for the good of civil society; it is not to over-rule the legitimate freedom of the employee in their relation to civil society. It strikes me that some thought could usefully be given to how a Catholic should relate to these institutions.

To conclude, here is the article's account of the speech by President Sarkozy:

"In December 2007, President Nicholas Sarkozy, in a striking and carefully crafted speech during his state visit to the Holy See, called for a newly ‘open’ laïcité. It is worth briefly summarising his argument.

"He noted the multiform Christian contribution to French culture, from Bernard of Clairvaux to René Girard. Christianity has penetrated French society, culture, landscape, architecture, so that ‘the roots of France are essentially Christian’. Laïcité is to be seen as a freedom – to believe or not and to change one’s religion, freedom for parents to educate children according to their convictions, freedom from discrimination by ‘the administration’ on religious grounds. In deference to the French model he spoke of freedom, in a newly diverse culture, ‘not to be wounded in one’s conscience by ostentatious religious practices and symbols’. Yet, he insisted, for laïcité to cut off France from its ethical, spiritual and religious heritage would enfeeble the sense of national identity and loosen social bonds. Therefore President Sarkozy called for both a recognition of the special heritage of Christianity and a ‘mature laïcité’.

"As a politician, he will not and cannot make decisions on the basis of religious faith. (We do not expect France now to ban divorce and remarriage.) Yet it is crucial that the political conscience be enlightened by ‘convictions not bound by immediate contingencies’ – learning from the ‘richness of our different traditions’."

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