01 April 2022

Faith in Democracy: Chaplin's contribution

God calls us to do justice in all settings and circumstances. In so far as we are faithful to our spouses, treat our colleagues with respect, raise our children with love and attention, we do justice to them. But there is a specific type of justice applicable to the political community and its associated institutions of government. It is sometimes called public justice, because it relates to the public space within which individuals and communities live their lives and fulfil their respective callings. In the United States an organization called the Center for Public Justice has attempted to flesh out its implications for a mature differentiated society for more than four decades. Public justice plays a role in my own writings and in those of many others, especially those in the neo-Calvinist tradition associated with Abraham Kuyper and his heirs. Jonathan Chaplin, Associate Fellow of Theos and member of the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge University, offers readers a new book that admirably brings substance to what might otherwise seem an abstract principle.

Chaplin's book, Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity (London: SCM Press, 2021), analyzes at length the dilemmas of Christians speaking as Christians within a religiously plural society. Should Christians and adherents of other faith traditions be compelled to sideline their own deepest commitments when they enter the public square? This is the favoured approach of a certain type of secularist for whom religion is intrinsically divisive and dangerous to political life. Labelled laïcité by the French, this position is based on the fear that the divisiveness of traditional religions will fracture the polity. However, proponents of laïcité, or what Chaplin calls exclusivist secularism, cannot bring themselves to admit the religious character of their own worldview. This effectively leads to them to privilege their own position over all others, which in a pluralistic society amounts to a form of special pleading that fails to conform to the principles of justice.

To defend a "Christian democratic pluralism," Chaplin distinguishes among three main varieties of secularism which are frequently conflated: exclusivist, justificatory, and jurisdictional. The exclusivist position, mentioned above, was put forth by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century; was pioneered by France, Mexico, and Turkey in the early 20th century; and has gained ground in many western countries in recent decades.

Justificatory secularism holds that “only 'secular' reasons fully pass muster in publicly justifying laws and public policies” (82). This approach would have prevented, say, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from observing that a human law that conflicts with God's law is not a true law, because not all Americans necessarily believe in God's existence. Rather, a proposed public policy must pass “a stern test of acceptability” in that “it must appeal to political principles that are available to all reasonable citizens” (84). Does this rule out the active participation of Christians as Christians in political life? Perhaps, but Chaplin offers an alternative he believes will allow the adherents of traditional faiths to bring their convictions into the policy-making conversation while leaving them to determine the language they will use to justify their choices.

Chaplin calls this jurisdictional secularism, in which the state recognizes “that it has no jurisdiction to adjudicate among competing claims regarding ultimate truth” (64). It treats the various religions within its jurisdiction in an even-handed and impartial way, allowing their followers to articulate freely their unique contributions to public life. Jurisdictional secularism refrains from playing favourites among the plural faiths, neither dictating to them nor preventing their adherents' participation in the policy process. Of the three forms of secularism, this is the one most compatible with a vigorous regime of religious freedom.

In articulating his position, Chaplin makes an important distinction that could cut through some of the polarization that has developed over the public face of religion, namely, that between what is permitted in public discourse and what is prudent. The partisans of justificatory secularism would prohibit all faith-based speech in the policy process. Jurisdictional secularism permits the likes of King, Desmond Tutu, and William Gladstone to cite their own religious traditions in support of their favoured policy options. However, Chaplin admits that it may not always be wise for representatives of the faith communities themselves to foreground their ultimate convictions in this way. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and secularists alike will have to measure the extent to which they can do so within a particular context and still expect to be heard. But in no case should they be prohibited from so speaking. Representatives of faith traditions could conceivably still argue that they favour or oppose a particular policy because “the Bible tells me so,” but if they do so, they will lessen their chances of having an impact on the results of the deliberations. Instead they should frame their policy preferences in language tied to the public purpose of the policy at issue.

Because Chaplin writes from within a British context, most of the cases he examines are domestic ones unfamiliar to those of us outside the United Kingdom. But the issues they raise, including the place of shari'a law in Islamic communities and conflict over group identities, cross national boundaries.

Although the use of shari'a law in domestic Muslim communities has provoked public controversy in Britain and elsewhere, Chaplin views it as an example of the more general principle of associational autonomy. As such shari'a councils ruling on such matters as "Islamic marriage and divorce and sometimes . . . related issues" (177) are little different from the forms of arbitration to which members of other communities agree to bind themselves. Shari'a councils are not a challenge to the public law of the state. Rather, they enable members of a particular faith community to run their own affairs according to their shared beliefs. However, Chaplin admits that the state is obligated to intervene if it can be shown, for example, that the legal equality of women to men has been breached by one of these councils (180-181).

As for the controversies surrounding claims of distinctive group identities, many have come to believe that "the freedom to manifest religion is being needlessly curtailed by an expanding regime of equality law" (137). The relevant legal instrument in the UK is the Equality Act 2010 which "requires public bodies actively to promote substantive equality of treatment and oppose discrimination across nine 'protected characteristics', one of which is 'religion or belief' . . . (137). This entails implementing a "transformative equality" extending beyond mere equality under the law. Because the Equality Act aims at substantive equality, requiring different treatment for differently situated groups, it contains numerous "exemptions from its general requirements on grounds of religion or belief" (138). Such a regime treats those with deep religious convictions as somewhat bothersome exceptions to an otherwise general rule. Chaplin argues that it would be much better—indeed more just—to establish a legal regime in which "all legitimate rights-claims enter equally at the outset" (145).

While there is much more in this book about which I could write, I will close by giving it an enthusiastic endorsement. This is the sort of careful study that arguably needs to be written for every successive generation as we strive to hold our political leaders accountable for practising public justice in a society characterized by a plurality of ultimate beliefs.


Bill said...

I must buy and read it. It will be a fine complement to your Poliical Visions and Illusions, of which I have bought and given away several copies here in the UK.

David Koyzis said...

It's really an excellent book. And thanks for promoting my book in the UK.


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