Last night I took part in a panel discussion at the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics at the Duncairn Centre for Culture and the Arts, on ‘Can Faith and Politics Enrich Each Other?’ Other panellists were Rev Dr Lesley Carroll, journalist Liam Clarke, and Dr Duncan Morrow. I’ve written a report of the event on the Slugger O’Toole blog.
Below is the contribution I shared as my opening remarks.
Can Faith and Politics Enrich Each Other?
As an academic sociologist, much of my work has been observing and analysing how religious groups engage with politics and social life. We were asked tonight to reflect on when we have been part of a time when politics and faith have enriched each other. It’s been my privilege to observe faith and politics enriching each other not only in Northern Ireland, but also in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The extent to which an academic researcher is actually a part of the enriching is debatable, but what I think the academic researcher can bring is some insight on what works best when people of faith venture into the public sphere.
Up until very recently, the influence of the churches on the island of Ireland has been taken for granted. The close relationship between church and state – and the assumption that it was normal and desirable for churches to try and influence politics at the level of state policy – persisted here longer than in other European societies, where a close relationship between church and state was also taken for granted. This has been called the ‘Christendom’ model of church-state relations and I think the evidence is clear that Christendom’s day has come and gone.
Many Christians lament the downfall of Christendom and hanker after the day when churches were automatically accorded political influence and public esteem. They view secularisation, in the form of decreased levels of church attendance and adherence to traditional Christian doctrines, with alarm.
I disagree with this longing for days gone by. I think that the demise of Christendom is the best thing that could have happened to the European churches, because it has freed them from the burden of trying to maintain political influence at high levels of government. This means that it is harder for states to co-opt religious groups and use them for their own ends. On the island of Ireland, it is an opportunity for people of faith to be freed from the tyranny that comes with being ‘chaplains to the tribe.’
Religious groups are now freer than ever before to critique state policies and abuses of power, and to stand with the marginalised and oppressed. It is only when people of faith are able to take a critical stance in the public sphere that they will be able to enrich political life and social life.
The late German sociologist Ulrich Beck put it this way:
‘… should we therefore not regard the enforced process of secularization as a gift of God, a gift, moreover, that in the final analysis helped to prepare the way for religious revival in the twenty-first century …’ (A God of One’s Own, 2010, p. 25).
Or to paraphrase the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas: ‘The church in the West isn’t dying – God is killing it.’
God’s ‘killing’ of the church is an opportunity for it to be ‘born again.’ And what ‘works best’ for people of faith who want to seize the opportunities provided by this new life?
My research suggests that what works best is when people of faith deliberately move outside their own, seemingly dying, institutional churches and work together in small groups or organisations in their efforts to enrich public life. The history of this island’s recent Troubles throws up inspiring examples of heroic individuals and groups – Corrymeela, Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland, Fr Alec Reid, Rev Ken Newell, Fr Gerry Reynolds, Rev Harold Good, Sr Geraldine Smyth, some of my co-panellists tonight – who by taking their faith into the public sphere enriched political dialogue and developments.
Religious institutions themselves have shown themselves too timid, too afraid to offend, too slow-moving, and often too bankrupt in the eyes of the public to take the bold steps that can inspire others to work for change.
I am not suggesting that people of faith must abandon their institutions altogether – in fact, it is usually better if they keep one foot in their institutions, so as to maintain dialogue with them. But in closing, I want to argue that if people of faith step outside their institutions they maximise their potential to enrich politics in these three key ways:
- Serving as critics of their own religious traditions, and when appropriate, publicly ‘repenting’ of the sins of their religious communities. This can open up new avenues of discussion and cooperation with so-called ‘enemies.’ The example of Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland in the years leading up to the Belfast Agreement, in their critique of their own tradition and their emphasis on repenting for its sins (rather than demanding that others repent), shows that this can be done. In a Northern Ireland that continues to be polarised, could the example of Christians repenting, for instance for the role the churches have played in fostering division and violence down through the centuries through to the more recent Troubles, inspire politicians to show some risky leadership and do the same?
- ‘Modelling’ alternative ways of life that challenge the status quo. In Northern Ireland, and also on the island of Ireland, it is all-too-easy to fall into the patterns of separate and segregated lives. What we say and what we do, often unconsciously, excludes the ‘other.’ There are some examples of people who have challenged our easy segregation by taking deliberate steps to encounter or include the other. Intentional ecumenical communities like our hosts tonight, Corrymeela, embody this principle. Fr Martin Magill’s ‘ecumenical tithing’, where on Sunday evenings he worships in Protestant churches, is another example of seeking encounter. The prayers before Eucharist of the Benedictine monks in Rostrevor, for the leaders of the Protestant churches as well as the Catholic Church, is an example of inclusion.
- Raising the level of discourse into the public sphere. It is no secret that our politics are often divisive and confrontational. A lot of what passes for public discourse belittles or demonises the ‘other,’ without adding any constructive or fresh ideas to the discussion. Religious leaders and spokespeople for small groups of people working together have an opportunity to raise the level of public discourse in the ways they talk about sensitive issues such as dealing with the past, victims and survivors, and what we mean by reconciliation. Given the reluctance of so many of our politicians to commit to dealing with the past, we need other voices who will keep it on the agenda, for the sake of those who continue to suffer.
Thanks very much – I look forward to the rest of the discussion tonight.