Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Church and State in the UK: Further Reflections

In a post the other day entitled "Caesar's Orders: David Cameron Tells the Church to Change Her Doctrine to Suit His Late Modern Prejudices," I discussed the response of David Cameron to the recent court decision to bar Eunice and Owen Johns from being foster parents because they had the "wrong" views on the morality of homosexuality.

This case raises some troubling questions about the relationship between church and state and the state of religious freedom in late modernity. The UK is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy committed to liberalism. But as the practice of the Christian faith declines in Britain, as it has been doing precipitously since the 1960s, the basis of liberal tolerance declines as well. Christianity teaches that people are made in the image of God with reason and free will and, therefore, should be respected and not coerced into any religion - including Christianity. Christians have not always been perfect in implementing this principle, but compared to the alternatives (Islam, Communism) they have made Christian societies far more free than others. As Christian influence declines, the idea of tolerance gradually degenerates into majoritarian tyranny. What Christians once did occasionally and inconsistently with their own theology, secularists now do systematically and consistently with their own worldview.

Pope Benedict XVI, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his funeral homily for John Paul II, spoke of the threat of the "dictatorship of relativism." Part of what he meant by this phrase is that relativism spawns dictatorship. A society that rejects Christian morality and natural law still requires some form of central authority to maintain law and order. The State is not going to wither away as in some Marxist fairy tale. The question is whether the State will make laws based on some sort of objective standard, knowable in advance, to which the rulers can be held accountable, or whether it will make laws based on a shifting, fluid, majority consensus that changes frequently and which is, in principle, beyond challenge by reason.

David Cameron seems to think it is fine to dictate to the Church what its doctrine must be - in the name of tolerance! So what is the actual content of the term "tolerance" now but conformity to the currently fashionable majority opinion? In a liberal society informed by natural law and Christian revelation, there is a basis for arguing for religions freedom that does not depend on the current majority opinion of the population. In "empty liberalism" or "post-Christian liberalism" there is no such basis. Tolerance becomes an empty notion filled by current majority prejudices. In such a situation, minorities have every reason to fear persecution by the majority.

This is quite openly acknowledged by many postmodern relativist who justify the increasing persecution of Christians as legitimate revenge. Christians persecuted minorities in the past, so the argument goes, so it is now right for them to get a taste of their own medicine. Persecuting Christians is justified by the sins of Christians in previous generations. This is a shallow, self-serving argument unworthy of serious consideration from a moral perspective.

Oddly, though, it mirrors the reason some Christians gave for persecuting Jews in past centuries. The Jews murdered Christ 1500 years ago, the argument goes, so we are justified in tormenting their descendants today. But if that was wrong, so is persecuting Christians today for the sins of Christians who lived centuries ago. But if, on the other hand, it is right to persecute Christians in revenge for the Inquisition or whatever, then we have the unexpected result that we have also justified Christian anti-Semitism as morally good.

But this is not a problem for the late modern Left, since it is implacably opposed to Jews getting uppity by daring to found their own legal state in their own homeland and expecting the Arab world to leave them in peace. So persecuting Christians and Jews is fine and dandy by the dictatorship of relativism.

David Cameron is going overboard in trying to tell the Church what it is allowed to believe and not believe. In trying to dictate doctrine he is being intolerant and no pious appeals to tolerance for homosexuals can extricate him from this charge. After all, tolerance is either a two-way street or it is not tolerance. If ways cannot be found to extend civil rights to homosexuals without interfering with the civil rights of those who continue to regard homosexual behavior as wrong, then the reason is not an over-zealous commitment to tolerance, it is a reduction of tolerance to the dictatorship of relativism.

Where once unscrupulous tyrants attempted to cover up their lust for power with appeals to Christianity, they now do it with appeals to the sexual revolution. But tyranny is tyranny.

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