Friday, January 25, 2008

Next stop disestablishment - Religious Secularism

Calls for the removal of the blasphemy law must be seen in the context of its original relation to the established church

Christian Theo Hobson calls for Secularism.

reposted from:

Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.

Theo Hobson

January 9, 2008

British revolutions happen very slowly. This is probably a good thing on the whole, but it feels incredibly frustrating to those of us involved in keeping the momentum alive. The likely repeal of the blasphemy law, pending today's vote, is part of a revolution that started centuries ago - perhaps as early as the 1640s. We British revolutionaries are patient.

This slow revolution is called disestablishment. Since the Reformation, the English empire has had an established church, an official religion. It has been central to state power, in particular to the power of the monarch. The blasphemy law exists to defend this official church in particular, not Christianity in general. In reality, a blasphemy law has to be the tool of a particular religious institution: it otherwise lacks all coherence.

So what we are really seeing here is another very belated chapter in the demise of our established church.
The question of the blasphemy law should be seen in the context of this story.

It is tempting to launch into an attack on the very idea of an established church, an official national religion; to insist that it contravenes the basic principles of cultural freedom. We should be more nuanced. In reality, the Church of England was instrumental to the emergence of our liberal political tradition, and consequently that of the west in general.

In Tudor times, it was simply necessary to have a state church, if you were going to get rid of Rome. By creating a national church, the English also enabled the steady growth of political liberalism, under Elizabeth I and her successor James.

And so was launched the paradox of our religious history. The national church gave rise to a liberalism that began to corrode the idea of a national church. On one level the alliance of throne and altar protected English liberty from the reactionary Catholic superpowers - but on another level it was itself prohibitive of real liberty.

Why should the king and his bishops stop people from thinking freely? A free state should tolerate a plurality of creeds.
Among the Puritan revolutionaries of the 1640s were the pioneers of secular liberal thought. Cromwell himself wanted a new degree of religious freedom: he wanted disestablishment. The forces of conservatism frustrated this desire. In 1656 the fundamentalist lobby secured the conviction for blasphemy of a maverick Quaker, who dressed up as Jesus. (I have written before about this ancestor of the Jerry Springer controversy.)

After the failure of Cromwell's regime, the old alliance of throne and altar was reinstated. Dissenters from the Anglican monoculture were second-class citizens. Liberty was again held back by establishment. But again we should note the paradox: the state church ensured a higher degree of liberty than was found elsewhere in Europe - especially when France was taken over by militant atheism. (This side of the story will obviously be swept aside by atheist commentators such as AC Grayling, who would have you believe that the cause of liberty was anti-religious.)

In the 19th century the Anglican monoculture began to be thinned out by the progress of liberalism (more thanks is due to Protestant dissenters than to atheists for this). By the early 20th century the established church was a relic of a previous era, for secular liberal principles had more or less triumphed. But the nation still wanted to cling to this relic, to invest it with symbolic importance. It strengthened the monarchy, and provided a reminder of our Christian heritage. There seemed little harm in this piece of constitutional conservatism: if the church was now devoid of real political power, who cared if it retained its established status?

And then everything changed, changed utterly. 9/11 woke us from our cosy constitutional nostalgia. The rise of Islamic extremism called for a total reassessment of the religious landscape. It was suddenly necessary to affirm secular liberalism, and to end the old narrative of Anglican privilege, to affirm the basic principle of liberalism: that all must be treated equally, irrespective of religious belief. The established church was suddenly standing in the way of the renewal of our national identity. It was no longer a pretty relic, but an ugly hindrance.

It was 9/11 that made me realise that I could not condone an established church. I could not subscribe to a religious institution that contravenes the principle of secular liberalism. I found that my fellow Anglicans were complacent and evasive on this issue, and so I had to renounce my Anglicanism.

So I am against the blasphemy law, because I am against the established church. Establishment was necessary in the past; it enabled the growth of a uniquely liberal culture. But that chapter is long over. For many decades it has been an unhelpful relic, preventing us from moving on. What we must insist upon now is that our real national creed is liberalism. This is what unites us, not Anglicanism. This is not an anti-religious declaration (I am a Christian). It is a reassertion of the liberal strain within our national story.

Let all Britons be as religious as they want, as long as their religion falls within the limits of liberalism. This, and this alone, is the way out of the present mess: "Religion within the limits of liberalism alone."

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