Findings from the 2015 annual British Social Attitudes survey published this month sent secularists into a mild panic. Showing an increase in those identifying as Christian, from 42% to 43%, and a corresponding decrease in those of ’no religion’, from 49% to 48%, they seemed to confirm that the steady decline in Christian affiliation had plateaued, at least for now. A number of academics were quick to point out that the wide difference in religiosity between older and younger generations meant that this is likely to be only a pause before the plummet, as the older, more devout cohort dies out. But perhaps just in case it isn’t, the Economist was quick to seize the initiative and call on the UK to lead the way as a post-religious society.
Whatever turns out to be the true future of religion in this country, the Economist’s response is perhaps a timely reminder that there are always those ready to press for a hard-line secularist agenda and seek to drive religion further to the margins of society. The decline of religion can in this way become a self-fulfilling prediction, as dwindling affiliation is used to justify the dismantling of its public presence, which only further accelerates its decline and ensures any visibility of its revival is stifled.
This is a crucial moment to stand up for freedom of religion in this country. But do we know what that looks like? In particular, do we know whether religious freedom includes freedom to be religious in the public realm? Certainly there are many people who would argue that it doesn’t – that religious freedom mandates a purely secular public sphere to safeguard the individual’s freedom from unwanted religious interference. I believe they are wrong, very wrong in fact, and that religious freedom, so far from excluding public religion, requires it. But it is a debate which Christians must engage, if we are not to see our ability to express our faith in the public sphere continue to be eroded before our eyes.
This debate is not new, of course. We can see it, for instance, in the contrasting attitudes taken to public religion by two of the first Presidents of the United States, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Jefferson, a Deist, argued that the ‘no establishment’ clause of the First Constitutional Amendment was intended to build “a wall of separation between Church & State”. This metaphor was subsequently taken as authoritative by the US Supreme Court as it began to rule on public religion matters during the 19th century, eventually culminating, in 1962 and 1963, in the banning of prayer and Bible reading in state schools (and this despite education being historically considered not state but church business).
George Washington, an Anglican, clearly was not reading from the same script as Jefferson, when, in 1789, he proclaimed the first National Day of Thanksgiving in the following terms:
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favour – and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be – That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks … for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
This was presumably not quite the wall of separation Jefferson had in mind. Yet even as late as 1892 the Supreme Court saw fit to opine:
We are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity… This is a Christian nation… While because of a general recognition of this truth the question has seldom been presented to the courts, yet we find that in [an earlier judgement], it was decided that, ‘Christianity, general Christianity, is, and always has been, a part of the common law of Pennsylvania.’
So who was right? Does religious freedom, as per Jefferson, require a ‘wall of separation’ between church and state, and what does that mean? Or, to the contrary, are Washington and the 1892 Court right to insist on seeing religion, and indeed God, honoured at the heart of the public life of a free nation? Is religious freedom about allowing people, government, and every association in between, to express religion freely, or is it about keeping the public realm religion free?
One big problem that arises for the idea of permitting the free public expression of religion is that many people today fear religion, they see it as dangerous, or at least offensive. You don’t have to look too closely to see that many of our laws and regulations are plainly designed to protect people from religion, from having to encounter it and contend with it in the course of everyday life. Just consider how in the UK all religious advertising is banned on (non-religious) television stations, or how the major cinema chains refuse by policy to show any religious advertising – even, infamously, when it’s the Church of England simply encouraging people to say the Lord’s Prayer.
Then there are the numerous restrictions on expressions of faith in the workplace, on praying and ‘proselytising’ (as though encouraging someone to consider exploring your philosophy of life, however gently, is intrinsically threatening). Religion is one of the ‘protected characteristics’ under UK equalities legislation, meaning that, since 2010, it has been unlawful in most circumstances to base professional judgements on a person’s religious affiliation – a restriction which serves, naturally, to limit considerably the ability of religious organisations to sustain a faith-based workforce and culture.
Does all this, we must ask, promote religious freedom or impede it? Is religious freedom better served by, for example, individuals not being disadvantaged in applying for a job because they do not share the organisation’s religion, or by organisations not being impeded in defining and expressing their values along religious lines? Here we might note that political parties are still at liberty to discriminate as much as they wish on the basis of political affiliation, and indeed, anyone can discriminate on any philosophical basis they like – ‘Do you share our values?’ – provided that basis is not deemed to be religious i.e. mentions God or is in some sense ‘ultimate’. So again, a special restriction on religion – is this really for the sake of religious freedom, or is it not rather because religion is being treated as peculiarly dangerous and in need of keeping in check? One rather begins to suspect it is more from fear (if not outright prejudice) than freedom that such policies and regulations derive.
But why, it will be asked, should we tolerate public religion at all? What is it about religion that warrants its presence in the public realm and not, instead, being kept politely behind closed doors? Politics we permit in the public sphere because it is about the common good and our arrangements for living together. But religion, it will be said, is about private belief, private devotion and personal salvation. Why does that have a claim on the public space?
It has an important claim because religion is in fact the source of some key public goods and benefits. Religion has a private dimension, certainly, but it also has a public dimension, a dimension which forms the basis of the religious dimension of public culture, which is a crucial part of human culture more generally. What are those public benefits? They include:
- A solid grounding for an objective moral order and for positive human law – this is not something that the natural evolutionary process can provide, yet is essential if we are to understand how human life and society are supposed to work;
- A court of ultimate accountability for human conduct, a final judgement and the hope of the final victory of justice – this contributes to lawful behaviour and public order, and is why public oaths are often sworn on the Bible and taken before Almighty God;
- A place of transcendent affirmation for human identity and endeavour – without the sense of relation to its divine Creator human life can easily become meaningless, closed in on itself, shallow, hedonistic and directionless;
- An answer to the primal human needs of forgiveness, gratitude and worship, and a rational basis for comfort, hope and consolation in the face of the human condition – as a key part of spiritual and emotional well-being these have proper claims on the public space, as illustrated by Washington’s National Day of Thanksgiving.
Seen in this light, it is absurd to suggest that religious freedom mandates the wholesale jettisoning of public religion, since that both places suffocating restrictions on ordinary religious expression (which is not freedom) while at the same time deprives society of the manifold benefits of public religion.
But how would this work? There couldn’t be a free for all, after all – it would be chaos. Certainly the canons of decorum must be observed, and in particular we need a conception of the public good, which draws limits around freedom of all kinds including religious, not least because the state is the secular power, not being itself a church.
We need also to take into account the relative prevalence of religions in the society or culture, which makes different kinds of religious expression more or less appropriate. This is why an Established Church is compatible with, or rather can be part of, religious freedom, as the European Court of Human Rights has consistently recognised (under the doctrine of the ‘margin of appreciation’ of states in their relationship to religion). Religious freedom requires public religious expression, and that necessarily favours the more prevalent religions in society, and it is quite proper for it to do so. It would be impossible for freedom to benefit all religions equally, irrespective of how mainstream or marginal they are, and neither would it be appropriate – just as it would be neither possible nor right for political freedom to benefit all political parties equally, as though minor parties should enjoy the same political clout as major parties. Freedom requires public expression, and public expression properly varies with social and cultural prevalence.
What does this mean in practice? It means, for one thing, a resistance to further moves to make God and faith in effect unwelcome in large arenas of human activity, such as schools and workplaces, and law and public policy, and an effort to reverse those which have already been implemented. It means standing up against a culture which regards prayer as a suspect activity and proscribes it wherever possible; which treats the promotion of the Gospel and the Christian faith as a grubby proposition unsuitable for public arenas (and ineligible for public funds); which treats the exclusion of religion from an area as a neutral and even-handed approach, when of course it is no such thing, but straightforwardly hostile to religion.
As we continue at this time to think about the future of religion in our less religious, certainly, but not quite yet post-religious society, it is, I believe, time to dust down our concept of religious freedom and make it fit for the 21st century. We need to remember our proud history of religious freedom, and how such freedom was not until recently one which sought to exclude religion from the public sphere, but which respected competing claims on the public space for the sake of the public good.
Most of all, we need to recall from somewhere in our collective consciousness that religion is not our enemy but a treasured part of our national life and culture, one which is under threat and is in urgent need of some friendly attention if it is to continue to provide us with its benefits for many years to come.
Dr Will Jones is a Birmingham-based writer, a mathematics graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and a diploma in biblical and theological studies. He has a keen interest in all things to do with public religion and social theology.
Follow me on Twitter @psephizo
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?