Embracing Pluralism – or a Christian Agenda?

photo-11Jonathan Chaplin is the Director of the Kirkby Laing Centre for Christian Ethics in Cambridge and a specialist in Christian political thought. He was the second speaker at the excellent ‘The Church in the Public Square?’ event put on by PCI and Union Theological College. Here are some notes on his lecture:

1. The complex contemporary landscape

Today there are many contending views on the place of religion in public life. The public square is in a state of flux, with the rise of both secularisation and pluralisation. Chaplin referred to Jackie Ashley’s  comments during a debate on the Abortion Act demanding that religion is removed from political debate. There is a view that religion is an idiosyncratic, private matter that has no place in the public square. He also referenced Baroness Warnock’s views that policy must be free from religious influence. She has made her views plain in a book entitled Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics.

Chaplin does not believe there is an organised secular conspiracy to push religion out of the public square, though the secularisation of the the public square continues apace. He also contends the public realm is coming more secularised, but also more pluralised.

2. A Proposal: ‘Principled Pluralism’

This is what Os Guinness calls chartered pluralism. It is not the same as ‘religious pluralism’ – that all roads lead to God. It seeks to keep the public square open to all worldviews that operate within the law. It opposes ‘unprincipled pluralism’ which embraces moral relativism claiming all voices are equally valid and equally true. It is distinct from ‘principled monism’ which seeks to privilege one voice over others. Finally, Chaplin argued against ‘strategic pluralism’ which simply accepts pluralism as a strategic reality but would move away from it if a Christian majority arose.

An example of principled pluralism is An Evangelical Manifesto. It rejects a sacred public square – the primacy of one religion. It also rejects a naked public square, which invites people in and strips them of an essential part of who they are. Instead it advocates a civil public square,

…a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and fair for other faiths too. Thus every right we assert for ourselves is at once a right we defend for others.

It rejects Christian ‘majoritarianism’ which is essentially an appeal to democracy. It rejects Christian ‘traditionalism’ which is essentially an appeal to history.

3. Theological Foundations for Principled Pluralism

  1. God is sovereign and judge over all nations/states: there is no secular realm outside his authority.
  2. All authority on earth- including political authority- is given to the ascended Christ. As Kuyper said, “there is not an inch in all of creation over which Christ does not cry ‘Mine!'”
  3. A Christian vision of society will address a full range of issues, not only ‘hot button’ ones, around which it is easy to rally people.
  4. The stage has a specific and limited role under God- to establish a public order of justice. It cannot create virtue, only the circumstances in which it can arise.
  5. Christians should work democratically to bend state policy closer to this role. This involves ‘proposing’, not ‘imposing’. It is about a Christian presence within democracy, rather than a theocracy.
  6. A biblical vision for Christian reform should be informed by both the OT and the NT. Christians are not bound by the letter of the OT law, but by ‘the general equity thereof’ (Westminster Confession). There is an acknowledgement here of the need for careful hermeneutical discernment, and presumably humility.
  7. Religious citizens should not be prevented from invoking religious language and reasoning in political debate where circumstances require. However, in our desire to communicate effectively in a plural public square, explicit theological language is unlikely to be helpful, though the underlying theological grounds should be there. We need to be careful in the language we use as much of it is loaded.
  8. We should acknowledge that particular nations have been significantly influenced for the good by Christianity.
  9. This is the point of crucial distinction for Chaplin from other forms of engagement. Crucially, he argues, the limited remit of the state does not include the competence to assess the truth of religion. Christians should seek parity, not privilege. In the NT era there are no covenanted political nations. Religious truth is assessed/promoted by the church, to the state. The NT people of God are a trans-national, global community. Chaplin would argue the state may not officially justify its corporate acts by an appeal to religious (or secular) faiths, but Christian citizens and office-holders may shape law/policy in line with their Christina vision of public justice. Finally he argued it was far more important for the state to actually do justice than to declare formal allegiance to (Christian) faith.

4. Conclusions

I found Chaplin’s presentation interesting and challenging. The idea of principled pluralism seems to have much to commend it and I will be reading more about it. We had good discussion at our table about the ‘privileged’ place of religion in schools in Northern Ireland and whether that was compatible with Chaplin’s position. It was particularly interesting in a room of predominantly Presbyterians who still have significant political influence in Northern Ireland.


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