Where is the boundary between religion and politics?

Will Jones writes: If we’re honest, we’re a bit confused about religion in the West. We know that we don’t want to end up like many Islamic countries, slavishly implementing a backward and brutal law code in the name of God. We also know that we believe in religious freedom, though aren’t sure how that relates to religionists whose system of belief does not reciprocate. We have some kind of concept of a separation between church and state, between religion and politics, but aren’t entirely clear about why that is or what it should look like, and what it does and does not permit in terms of religious engagement with politics on the one hand and government regulation of religion on the other.

A particularly vexed question concerns the ways in which it is legitimate for religious ideas, such as an understanding of the nature of God’s will, to be brought to bear on public policy and law. A position which has been highly influential in recent decades (espoused especially by liberals such as John Rawls) argues that religious views (and other views grounded in a comprehensive philosophical vision, such as Marxism and even Utilitarianism) are simply too sectarian to be permitted as part of the public form of reasoning which informs the most important matters of social organisation and law.

This has, not surprisingly, been criticised by many people, particularly Christians, as an illiberal, unjustified assault on the public validity of religious forms of reasoning. However, it is easy to see how we have arrived at this point. For surely religion itself typically claims to be based on revelation that is exclusive to believers, and indeed places great (even ultimate) significance on whether a person believes in this revelation or does not. So religion itself appears to recognise that its teaching is not, and is not likely to be, universally accepted. The upshot of this is that if religious forms of argument are permitted to influence public law and policy then anyone who does not believe in the religion will find themselves obliged to obey religiously motivated rules which they may well regard to be in error. Furthermore, insofar as those rules rest not on any kind of rational justification but on the mere say-so of the religion there will be no means of disputing them on any commonly accepted rational basis.

Matthew Franck has argued that ‘there is no compelling reason of principle for religious citizens to refrain from employing religious discourse in the public square.’ But surely there are good reasons for such restraint. For religion is, by its own admission and by common observation, sectarian and non-universal in a way that makes it plainly unreasonable to expect all people to submit coercively to its teachings. Indeed, Franck himself acknowledges this insofar as he remarks that religious reasoning cannot by itself justify public policy, absent an alternative justification which non-believers may also find convincing, particularly one anchored in ‘strictly practical grounds’.

So, in line with the mainstream Christian tradition, let us affirm that there is an important restriction on the role religion may play in politics, one which explains why Christianity is not like Islam and does not endorse theocracy. However, it is important to characterise this limitation correctly, as otherwise we risk falling into the opposite error, more common today in Western liberal democracies, of unduly limiting the role of religion in public life, and shutting out the Creator from the active role he seeks in his creation.

To get this limitation right, we need to focus in on the distinction between general revelation and special revelation and capture correctly their respective relationships to human knowledge. General revelation (also known as the revelation to reason) is everything human beings can learn and know by empirical observation and rational reflection on the world around us and on the human condition. It includes knowledge of natural processes and phenomena, including human nature and the rational moral law. It also includes the knowledge we can infer (along with Plato and Aristotle, among others) about the existence of God from the order of nature, the existence of rational consciousness, and the logical need for a universal reality which transcends the finite material world. Christianity endorses this concept of general revelation, with scripture speaking of a moral law written on the heart (Romans 2:15), and of God’s existence, power and eternal nature being evident ‘from the things he has made’ (Romans 1:19-20).

Special revelation (also known as historical revelation), on the other hand, is revelation brought about through the direct intervention of the Creator in history outside the normal course of nature. Knowledge of it differs in kind from general revelation, because it is historical knowledge of one-off events in the past which are not directly accessible to the present, including claims to have witnessed supernatural events and had special encounters with the divine. This difference in nature of the two kinds of revelation and the knowledge we can have of them produces important differences in their relationship to what human beings in general can reasonably be expected to know, believe and accept.

General revelation is the common language of humanity and knowledge of it is identical with empirical and rational knowledge of the world and how it works. It is based on the form and pattern of the universe and the human being and our comprehension of those, which is generally available to all through careful observation and reflection. Special revelation, on the other hand, relates to historical claims concerning hidden aspects of the divine nature and will which have been revealed to specific individuals at specific times. Accepting it is therefore contingent on accepting the historical claims about these individuals and the evidences of their divine vocation and experiences. Such claims, being historical claims and of a particularly contentious kind, are much less accessible to general consideration, much more disputable, and anyway many religions (including Christianity) take it as a feature that not all accept and believe in the revelations of their prophets.

This more tentative character of special revelation presents a considerable intellectual and, ultimately, political problem, since a person’s relationship to the divine is clearly of the utmost importance and has the weightiest consequences, and we can also assume must be sincere – yet because of the tentative nature of human knowledge of special revelation reasonable people are going to disagree about what it requires and involves. Consequently, the requirement for freedom of religion as a practical tenet arising from general revelation becomes inescapable. As James Madison put it: ‘It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.’

In this way, then, is coercion ruled out under general revelation in matters of religious belief and profession, and freedom of religion established as a rational principle of human social order that no revealed religion can coherently deny.

What this means in practice, and what counts as coercion in matters of religion, is a more subtle matter than this bare statement of principle might suggest. Plainly, for instance, it rules out forcing conversion or confession of faith (whether that is done for religious or non-religious reasons). But it does not rule out entirely the public role of religion in state and society. Indeed, it could not without undermining its own foundation, since religious freedom is itself grounded in an appreciation of the necessary role and supreme importance of the divine or transcendent dimension of existence. Thus the two – religious freedom and public religion – must coexist, however challenging that may sometimes prove in practice.

In terms of avoiding theocracy, alongside ruling out forced conversion and confession the most important principle is the prohibition non-coercion places on any claims a religion might make to prescribe public law and policy by fiat, absent any generally acceptable rational defence of the principles and rules so commended. This is because any such approach would involve people being forced to abide by laws solely because they are commanded by a religion – a religion which many do not accept – and not because they have been successfully defended or commended on any rational basis. A ban of this kind prevents laws and principles being lifted straight from the pages of religious texts without further, public, rational justification, and serves as one of the chief safeguards against any theocratic or anti-rational tendency in religion which can hamper religious liberty.

Something non-coercion does not rule out, on the other hand, is the role of religion in confirming or clarifying the moral principles which are part of general revelation and the rational moral law. Thus we find in Christianity (and in part in Judaism) the Ten Commandments, an assertion of the divine image in humanity, and the extensive moral teaching of the New Testament, including the sanctity of conscience.

This steering or clarifying role of religion in relation to public law and policy is in no way in contravention of religious freedom or non-coercion. This is because a full, public, rational justification can always be offered for the law or principle which the religion is commending, and the function of the religious endorsement is not to stipulate the public law by fiat but to confirm, for the avoidance of doubt, which interpretation of the rational moral law is most congruent with the whole vision of general revelation. Provided religion remains within this steering, clarifying remit, and does not venture off into full-blown stipulation and fiat, it is difficult to see how anyone could have reasonable grounds for grievance. For alongside the religious commendation is a full rational defence, grounded in general revelation, which is available to all, of any faith or none.

Religious freedom does not therefore rule out a public role for religion, including significant influence in public law and policy, provided that role is limited in ways which safeguard conscience and the rational foundation of public law. To steer and not to stipulate, to clarify and not dictate – that is the framework which general revelation provides to special revelation for public purposes, for the engagement of religion in politics.

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 works in a Church of England Diocesan office, blogs at www.faith-and-politics.com and is author of Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present (Grove, 2017).

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29 thoughts on “Where is the boundary between religion and politics?”

  1. Really good. I think you’re not going to get much commentary though, as the primary audience of Psephizo are not likely to want to find fault with this. I’ll provide you with a little debate though….

    “Provided religion remains within this steering, clarifying remit, and does not venture off into full-blown stipulation and fiat, it is difficult to see how anyone could have reasonable grounds for grievance.”

    What about when it happens the other way? Australia said ‘yes’ this morning to changing the law on marriage and expanding its legal definition. When (perhaps that should be ‘if’) the state, and the great institutions of man, start stipulating to the religious what they can and cannot teach/practice believe, how unreasonably grieved could you be?

    Does this principle work both ways?

    • Or to put it another way, how can we navigate the boundaries to prevent either ‘faction’ overstepping the mark? Curbing religious dictation to the state is only one half of the issue, what about the inverse.

      • Hi Mat. Thanks – you normally have a few objections to my posts! I’m hoping that the lack of comments indicates, as you suggest, a lack of very much disagreement.

        Yes, the state for its part needs to respect freedom of religion and conscience, which is very topical right now. That was more of the theme of my previous post on Psephizo – which I seem to recall you weren’t so keen on! (Mainly because you didn’t like the broad criticism of ‘progressives’ I think.)

        As Western populations are becoming less religious they do appear to be becoming less tolerant of religious freedom and the accommodation and exemptions on conscience grounds which typically accompany that. There are strong moves to reinterpret human rights to make freedom of speech, religion and conscience very much subservient to anti-discrimination provisions and prohibitions on causing offence – just look at that poor teacher suspended in Oxford for ‘misgendering’. It is very much a battleground at present, and it’s not clear how it is all going to pan out.

        • “That was more of the theme of my previous post on Psephizo – which I seem to recall you weren’t so keen on! (Mainly because you didn’t like the broad criticism of ‘progressives’ I think.)”

          Bingo, my criticism of your previous post was more about your use (or misuse) or language, than the general substance of what you said.

          • Correction: not ‘misuse of language’ but imprecision of language. I thought the terminology was unhelpful, not that you were manipulative or incompetent at using it.

  2. What is often left out of these discussions is that the kind of question dealt with in politics is normally of a moral/ethical kind – what ought we to do in a given situation? What kind of conditions and requirements ought we to place on our citizens in their daily lives? But since, in the final analysis, no moral question can be settled purely by reasoning, it is not possible for any political position to have a “generally acceptable rational defence” – or at least none more rational than any other.

    We cannot settle any of the big debates simply by appeal to “evidence” for we would need to agree what counts as evidence. Many decisions are based on expectations of the future, which are rationally unverifiable. We cannot rely on “science” as if that were an incontrovertible unified body of knowledge, especially since an “is” can never entail an “ought.”

    All of these debates involve people who have a set of moral presuppositions, whether religious or atheist; there is no one who is neutral, no not one. And therefore no position should be privileged above another. This means that religions should not coerce, but neither should those who are non-religious. All voices have their place in the public sphere. I think that’s kind of the point of democracy. or am I missing something?

    • Hi Bernard

      That sounds like a counsel of extreme scepticism and practical relativism. I know this kind of approach has been very popular since the 20th century (it was the basis of John Rawls’ version of liberalism for instance) but it doesn’t really do justice to our ability to reason about practical and moral matters, which the Bible and Christian tradition have always held God has given to us. At the end of the day, the state has to ‘privilege’ a view, because it has to make laws to govern society in the direction of a common good. Discerning what those laws should be and what good they should aim at is a rational process in which people attempt to discern what is right and good, and wise and effective. The use of force and coercion should be guided by reason, otherwise it is merely arbitrary – and that is no less true of force when deployed by a democracy (which is itself a very contested concept anyway). In the end, we have to come to judgements individually and as a community about what is right and good, what is most reasonable, and aim to implement them in good conscience.

      • Will,

        I am extremely sceptical about the ability of non-religious people to think rationally about their prejudices. They tend to have this strange notion that they are being neutral, in my experience.
        of course if the state has to “privilege” a view, as you say, there is no rational reason for that not to be Christian in a non-denominational way – at least in this country with its Christian heritage. It’s a sensible a privileging as any other.

        • Bernard,

          “I am extremely sceptical about the ability of non-religious people to think rationally about their prejudices. They tend to have this strange notion that they are being neutral, in my experience.”

          Prejudice is defined as “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.” So to have prejudices would seem to exclude any possibility of being rational about them.

          However, I do not think prejudice is the exclusive preserve of the non-religious. I see plenty of examples of religious people with prejudices.Indeed I think it is a very bold person who claims that they are do not have prejudices. If we think we have no prejudices we probably deceive ourselves.

          • Nick,

            I’d say that we can be rational about our prejudices – by knowing that we have them, for example – although the prejudice itself is not rational. Indeed thinking rationally about the fact that we have them is the first step towards moving on from them and being more open-minded (even if our actual opinion doesn’t change.

            I’m fully aware that the religious can have prejudices – I’m sure I’m a mess of them as much as the next man – but what I was objecting to is the notion that atheism is prejudice-free or in some way neutral, as if only non-religious voices should be heard because of heir “neutrality.”

            There is no such thing as a neutral person. I’d also say there is no such thing as a secular person – only persons who are members of secular societies.

          • Indeed I agree that atheists are not prejudice-free and it is not a neutral position.

            However, I think that we may be deluding ourselves if we think we can somehow be rational about our prejudices because we recognise them. I am sure I have many that I do not recognise and I know for some even though I work hard to overcome them, I am still not rational about them.

            Some might also question whether some of my rational views are rational at all and are in fact prejudices.

  3. Thanks Will – enjoyed it very much. You will of course be aware that in 1934, the famous Barth-Brunner exchange centred around special revelation and general revelation and is was no abstract philosophical sparring but set against the backdrop of seismic shaking in german/european politics, and the recent rise of Nazism. The latter was enabled in part by the widespread German Church’s commitment to general revelation and the perceived divine sanction of the state and more specifically of Hitler as divine agent. Many who gave much to general revelation celebrated this German militarism, just as they had done in WW1 when theologians willingly supported the Kasier’s strutting militarism. Karl Barth, having seen where theologians of general revelation ended up in WW1- sanctioning cultural sin in the name of God – shouted loudly against general revelation and for Special Revelation. And he did so again in 1933. The question this all raises for me is: on what basis do we know if general revelation in culture is divine revelation or general opinion of fallen minds? And if the answer is we know from special revelation, then what value is general revelation and isnt the Christian’s duty to seek to bring special revelation to the political table?

    • My response is similar: the boundary between “general” and “special” revelation is blurred, ’cause “general” revelation varies depending on beliefs rooted in “special” revelation. In short, it’s subjective masquerading as objective.

      Example: a believer in religious patriarchy may be convinced that traditional gender roles are a product of “natural law,” when in fact, they’re merely a product of his or her belief system.

      Religion absolutely has a place in the public square, but not in law codes, which, to avoid the pitfalls of even a soft theocracy noted above the line, must be neutral in religious matters.

      • That would be a great post subject: how do we ensure the secular law is kept neutral in matters of religion?

        Well volunteered James. 😉

        • I’d happily run one out, but can do it in a sentence: ban any law with an explicitly confessional purpose; and ensure that all statutes pass the various jurisprudential tests cooked up to keep laws reasonable (clarity, promulgation, proportionality, etc).

    • Hi Simon

      Yes – although God has given us the ability to know the moral law by reason (written on our hearts), our rational moral faculty (as it is sometimes called) is wounded by sin and prone to err. An important function of special revelation (and of grace more generally) is to help overcome that problem. So yes the Christian does have a duty to bring special revelation to bear on public affairs – but within the constraints of ideas and principles which can also be defended by rational argument (independent of appeal to scripture) and for which those general rational arguments are also made for the benefit of non-Christians.

      Of course, there is also the problem that special revelation requires the exercise of reason to understand and interpret correctly – but at least in this way everyone is aiming at objective truth so there is no slide into relativism etc. which has been so disastrous for Western civilisation in the past century or so.

  4. James,

    I’m struggling with your comment that “religion absolutely has a place in the public square, but not in law codes, which, to avoid the pitfalls of even a soft theocracy noted above the line, must be neutral in religious matters.”

    At first glance it appears innocuous, but it seems to me that this simply grants supremacy to the atheist worldview over against any theist worldview, something along the lines of:

    “My religious convictions that there is no deity grant me the right to determine what laws should be enacted and, despite your religious convictions that there *is* a deity, you only have a right to join me in determining those laws if you agree to base those determinations on *my* religious convictions.”

    (Not claiming that’s your standpoint, but rather that it’s a standpoint which seems inherent to your statement.)

    • Guess it can be read that way, Paul; but my intent’s to say that the state should be neutral in religious matters (secularism after all originated among Christians sick of being persecuted by other Christians).

      Basing laws on something other than religious claims — harm principle, say — doesn’t, by itself, presuppose atheism, anymore than enacting one set of revelation claims validates another. It merely takes the warnings against giving special revelation the force of law to their reasonable conclusion.

      • Hi James

        I agree with Paul’s response to you: a state which bans religious influence on its morals and laws is not religiously neutral, it is committed to an atheistic (or humanistic) view in which it assumes either there is no God or he has nothing he wants to contribute to the governance of human society. The mistake is to think that excluding God is a religiously neutral view when it is obviously no such thing: it is very hostile to religious points of view.

        On the harm principle: the harm principle is not really an alternative basis for laws, it is just a principle of natural law (do no harm) arbitrarily asserted to be exclusive, without any reason given for why it should be the only moral principle admissible for purposes of law. In addition, the concept of harm needs defining, and the meaning and scope of the principle depends entirely on what is admitted as harm. Here is a very good article explaining this point further and with some historical context: https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/the-branding-of-john-stuart-mill/20589

        • To be bluntly realist, any moral claim ultimately rests on assertion, and law ultimately rests on force. We can only try our best to get it right.

          Mere influence is unavoidable. What we can do is ensure that laws have a rational basis separable from confessional claims, whether it’s the harm principle (which, as your link notes, long precedes J.S.M.), or something else.

          Without it, we just run into the issues with competing revelation claims that you highlighted. Neutrality in this area doesn’t “exclude God,” it simply ensures that laws stand on their own merits, and don’t favor any religion. Believers can of course argue that those merits are God-given.

          • Moral claims ultimately rest on the nature and purpose of humanity within creation, not mere assertion. The harm principle by itself is just an arbitrarily truncated natural moral law. Moral reasoning isn’t just about asserting axioms and then enforcing them.

            I think I’d be more positive than you are about welcoming religious reasoning in public discourse, though agree about the need for a separable rational basis. However, I don’t think the harm principle is a very good one.

            I think a state can favour its main religion and make it official, on civic grounds, provided it respects religious freedom, but I haven’t made that argument here.

          • “Moral claims ultimately rest on the nature and purpose of humanity within creation, not mere assertion.”

            If your chosen axioms are correct, yeah, they do; if they’re wrong, and we’re just scrawling our own design, Rorschach-like, on a morally blank world, they don’t.

            Which is it? Something as fallible as man-made positive law sure ain’t up to answering this, so must instead do the best job it can of preserving public order and delivering substantive due process, whatever justification it cares to use.

            Law’s legitimized coercion, not philosophy, coercion ultimately justified by its ability to provide better protection to person and property than the alternatives.

          • Hi James

            Protecting person, property, public order, due process – that’s quite a list, and presumably still incomplete? The point is what you’re enumerating here are principles of natural moral law. To be rational, and to help ensure they’re correct, and to expand on what they mean in practice and what they don’t, they should be grounded in a rational framework which locates humanity in the cosmos. Merely asserting principles is sub-rational, and no better than religious assertions of the will of God, which you’re so keen to exclude.

  5. I’ve got two, rather contradictory comments. Firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed the article and more or less agree with everything in it. Secondly, I’m not sure that the title actually describes the article as it is written. You dismiss the situation in “many Islamic countries” in fairly brusque terms, without ever seeking to unpack why they think in the terms they do. Surely an examination of the “boundary between religion and politics” needs to explore a variety of religious traditions and their relation to political systems. As it stands, this is essentially something on the relationship between Christianity and Politics in a liberal democracy, which is fine, but it’s not what it says on the tin. As I said, I appreciate the paper and I think you’ve done an excellent job, but it isn’t what I was expecting when I followed the link.

    • Hi Eddie. Really glad you enjoyed it.

      You’re the second person to raise an eyebrow about the second sentence (on Islamic countries). It isn’t the most gently expressed I agree. My aim was to capture the sentiment of how many in the West feel about the idea of theocracy and their fears about what the endpoint of mixing religion and politics is. I do think it’s a fair description of Sharia law and how many Muslim countries approach it, albeit strongly put, but I appreciate it has been off-putting to those who take a kinder view of Islamic approaches.

      The thrust of the article is that religious freedom is a tenet of the rational moral law, which is the foundation of absolute morality, so in that sense it is not relative to the West or to liberal democracy. Any country which does not respect religious freedom violates the sanctity of conscience in this most weighty of matters and is on the wrong side of the moral law. This does not vary from context to context.

  6. Will/James,

    If we move from the general to the particular, a good example of the outworking of these principles is the public debates over abortion and euthanasia.

    The problem is that both sides would agree on the rational moral principles concerning the sanctity of life (many pro-choicers oppose the death penalty) and protecting the person (whether from legally sanctioned termination of life or from State imposition on personal autonomy).

    However, they would differ on the rights which should be granted in furtheramce of those principles. Should the foetus as a ‘potential human being’ have an absolute ‘right to life’? And, if so, what proportionate legal sanctions should society impose on those who violate that right?

    Should it be a matter of dignity and personal autonomy alone for society to comply with the medically assisted ‘right to die’ of the terminally ill? And, if so, legal sanctions should society impose on medical personnel who refuse to provide medical assistance for the ‘right to die’?

    The crux of the problem (which the post doesn’t address) is the distinction between liberty rights (which grant freedom, permission for the right-holder) and claim rights (which entail responsibilities, duties, or obligations on other parties regarding the right-holder).


    It’s the assertion of the latter, on account of secular ‘special revelation’ which impinges greatly on religious freedom and requires religious participation in the public forum.

    So, while one liberal commenter, like James, might indeed talk about the principle of ‘ruling out enforced conversion and confession’, yet another would support the legally enforced confession of transgender identities (e.g. New York’s legal requirement that a person must be addressed using their ‘preferred name, pronoun, title’ and regardless of the individual’s sex assigned at birth, anatomy, gender, medical history, appearance, or the sex indicated on the individual’s identification as codified in the New York City Human Rights law)

    As James explained ‘that’s the subjective masquerading as objective’ and it leverages the Harm Principle to accomplish this.

    • (Oh, that wretched phrase ‘potential human being’, which is wrong in 3 ways and correct in none.
      (1) the name of the victim’s species is already human now, not later.
      (2) The only thing preventing the supposed ‘potentiality’ of which they speak being ‘actualised’ is their grubby hands which invasively, very violently, and unnaturally intervene. Yet they speak of potential-not-actual as something objective rather than something that is 100% *self-caused* on account of their own conscienceless actions.
      (3) Potential is something very positive. By what twisting do they ‘make’ it something not merely neutral but effectively negative?)


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