Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Queen's Anxiety

Leave it to The Lead to find some of the best commentary anywhere. Cleverly yoked with the topic of the Queen's anxiety, is an essay by Simon Barrow which includes the following:
Personally, I find it rather offensive that the head of my Church is telling me that to be a Christian is to require opt-outs from fairness and justice, when the message of the Gospel would seem to many of us to point in exactly the opposite direction. But that objection, and the feelings of anger that the non-religious may equally feel, miss the point. The Archbishop is contending, as a matter of liberality and pluralism, that special treatment is required for religion.

Where does this argument come from? The backdrop is that an Anglican settlement (rooted in the authorisation and subjection of an Established Church to the Crown) is beginning to give way to a more diverse ‘multi-faith’ one in the minds of those who wish to defend their position, but who are running out of excuses in a plural society.

It is indeed the first part -- the notion that Christians (or persons of any religious faith), require an opt-out from fairness and justice -- that offends me and many others. While ultimately it is not beside the point, Mr. Barrow is correct insofar as we -- especially those of us on the U.S. side of the bond -- need to comprehend the political and legal context in which the uproar over the Archbishop's remarks has occurred.

In my own ramblings on the subject, I have tried to keep in the back of my mind differences in the way various European-style secular states handle their conflicts with religious institutions and practices. However, for the sake of simplicity, I have previously written of them in terms of a generic secular state. Yet, as Barrow points out, the British system is one that has retained an Established Church, however much it has come to function separately, by custom and law, and however much other faiths and Christian groups have been previously accommodated. In contrast, the French system gives secularism the favored Established position, and the U.S. system is divided or theoretically neutral (depending on one's perspective), based on the delicate balance between the (anti) Establishment Clause and the (pro) Free Exercise Clause within the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In this context, it is much easier to understand why the Archbishop is focused on equality among accommodations or exemptions of conscience for persons of various faiths in light of the generally privileged position occupied the Church of England. The question of whether the C of E should continue to occupy that position is, I suspect, a thorny one due, in part, to the practical problems that would be involved in its disestablishment. But regardless of the Church's future in that regard, the Archbishop's recent discussions of British law in various contexts highlights the difficulty of legally privileging religious ideas and principles solely on their basis of being associated with some kind of recognized institutionalized religion.

As even the U.S. legal system recognizes, there often are no clear lines separating religious practice from secular life. Indeed, if one takes one's faith at all seriously, the divide comes not from how one lives one's life but rather through the acceptance of a faith-neutral system of government as the best guarantee of both freedom of conscience and exercise of religion. The problem is when one's religion calls one to not just selectively oppose and disobey laws and regulations that violate one's religious beliefs but also to destroy a system of government that respects others' beliefs and disbelief and seeks to unite people based on core, common values that may or may not be derived from religious principles but are agreed upon outside any sectarian contexts.

Of course there is often a great diversity of opinion as to what a particular religion might require in this regard. Also, perception is key, because in the minds of liberals and secularists, any kind of fundamentalism and, for some, any kind of religion that claims exclusive truth, may pose a threat to a neutral secular system of government. Sometimes those fears seem well founded - take, for example in the U.S., the recent statements of a leading candidate for President, Mike Huckabee, suggesting that the U.S. Constitution should be rewritten to conform to his religion's notions of what God requires. However, whether such fears are generally exaggerated, especially with regard to Islam, with which many Westerners (myself included), have little knowledge or experience, is still, I think, beside the point when it comes to considering whether any faiths should be granted further privileges.

What is remarkable to some observers is that Rowan Williams seems to have joined conservatives within his own faith who have come to believe that without such privileges, religion will have little or no chance of flourishing within what they view as a hostile, secular enviornment. In this respect, he seems to think that his allegiance, especially now as Archbishop of Canterbury, must be first and foremost with the side of religion, perhaps living out his own quixotic version of Becket standing up to the King on behalf of the Church's "parallel jurisdiction" of his time. The problem is whether there is or should be a "side" in the matter at all, one which pits itself against secular society, government, and its common values.

I, for one, have never doubted Rowan Williams' personal sincerity or good will (and as a stubborn, independent-minded, and sometimes impolite American, I am repulsed by the notion that to criticize him is somehow to call that into question and find it somewhat comical that I should consider joining a Facebook group to prove I wish him no ill will). However, as someone whose essential nature consists of an "affinity for res publicum [that] allows for absorption of 900 times [my] own volume of the gas" and an ungodly talent for the "production of polysyllabic words in sentences which are unparseable to the standard elements,"* I cannot help but be wary of someone whose intellectual constructs seem to come first and foremost before either common sense or, least arguably, Christian principles of fairness and justice.

What many people on all sides of the divisions within Anglicanism have hoped for from the Archbishop has been a clear and consistent statement of what it means to be a Christian in these times. How Christians fit into the meta-narrative of the sweep of human history and within their own cultural contexts are fine topics for the academy. Ironically, it seems that these topics, rather than the theological writings from his time in the academy, have become his guiding concerns as Archbishop. Rather than demonstrating how a very learned man can wholeheartedly embrace a faith which, even in his own country, seems to grow more anachronistic every day, the Archbishop seems to be mired in a hesitancy to unequivocally stand for anything other than equivocation.

I, for one, do not want to cause the man any more personal grief. But I cannot help but be disappointed with his preoccupation with making larger "spaces" for religions to function in public life rather than focusing on what should go in those spaces. My concern is not for just religion alone, but for secular liberalism as well, which seems hell bent on creating vacuums of meaning, instead of using diverse perspectives for creating common ground for community, citizenship, and culture -- or in Edward Abbey's old fashioned terms, "civilization."

But that is, I'm afraid, another topic, one which involves getting past the challenge of many neoconservatives to stand for something that commands positive attention and action, without resorting to the kinds of illiberal ideas and institutions that lead to conflict and war. Still working on that! ;)

* See Nobel Prize in Chemistry below.


clumber said...

Now why did they ever call it "common sense"????

Mystical Seeker said...

It is indeed the first part -- the notion that Christians (or persons of any religious faith), require an opt-out from fairness and justice -- that offends me and many others.

I wonder if there is a correlation here between Rowan Williams' view on this subject and his unwillingness to take a strong stand on behalf of gay and lesbian members in his denomination. In both cases, it seems that a commitment to justice is missing from his perspective. Looking the other way at the oppression of gays within parts of his church is not much different from looking the other way at injustices that take place within segments of other faiths.