At the end of the 1980s three French schoolgirls were banned from school because they would not take off their headscarves, saying it was their Islamic duty to wear one. This created a big storm in France and eventually a law was passed forbidding anyone in a state school from displaying religious symbols. Later, adult Muslim women were prohibited from wearing a face veil in public and more recently, in 2016, women wearing a burkini were not allowed on beaches in France. Why? Amongst the reasons given is the idea that religion is a private matter and should not be pushed into public space.
Many people in Britain and across the West think that you should be free to believe what you want but you should keep it to yourself. But think about it, is that really how our society is? What about the Queen, is she not the head of the Church of England? And is it not the state religion, with Bishops sitting in the House of Lords and presiding over national funerals and the remembrance of the war dead? All 28 of the countries of the European Union use taxpayer’s money to teach religion in schools or to fund schools run by churches. And that includes France, where one in five of school children go to a state-funded Catholic School. All rather confusing.
The modern idea that there should be a separation between religion and the state is called political secularism. But no country completely follows it. Perhaps the nearest to it is the United States, whose constitution states ‘there shall be no establishment’. However, at the same time its dollar bills say ‘in God we trust’ and
its politics can be dominated by certain Christian organisations: more so than in European countries. If we go beyond the West, in large parts of the world, especially in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the idea that religion is a matter of private belief has never caught on. People do not necessarily expect their governments to be run by priests, but they look to religion to motivate good behaviour, public as well as private, good politicians and good laws, as well as honesty and decency in one’s life and in business. They look for a different balance between religion and politics than do the French, Americans or British.
So, let’s start at the basics: what is political secularism? I think it should be understood in terms of two basic ideas. Firstly, that there are two modes of authority, religious authority and political authority, the priests and the politicians, and they have different jobs to do and offer leadership to society in different ways.
The second idea is that religious authority must not dominate political authority: priests should not be in charge, telling politicians what to do. But that leaves two other options. One is that the politicians, the state, may control religion. This has been a common practice in certain parts of the world. For example, after the Russian Revolution the State closed churches and mosques, imprisoned those who challenged its control of religion and taught atheism in schools as the new truth. The Chinese Revolution followed the same path. In Turkey, the State decides who may be an imam and writes their weekly sermons.
Even in France, to go back to the example we started with, what children may wear in school or women may wear in the streets is determined by the State. The State may not wish to suppress religion but it wants to draw the boundaries of where religion is and is not permissible. It wants to be in control. The second option is what I will call ‘mutual autonomy’, namely that religious authority and political authority largely allow each other to pursue their own goals in their own way while respecting the right of the other to do the same. But note that this does not mean absolute separation of church and state, or religion and politics.
Each side may wish to support the other to some degree and benefit from each other’s support. The priests may cultivate virtues such as truth-telling, public service and social compassion without which a democratic public culture struggles to live up to political ideals. The priests may, however, recognise that the government, the judges, the civil service and so on should be the ones making the decisions in their spheres of competence. The state, for its part, may recognise the contribution the churches are making to not just saving souls but to the public good. And on that basis, rather than their own personal beliefs, they may decide to fund religious teaching in schools and religious-run schools,
which as I said is the norm in Europe: the continent in which the ideas of political secularism were born and have been the most developed and practiced.