Reform, reaction and change in a new era

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
10 May 2010

While it has always been true that you cannot legislate for virtue, a goodly tweak to the system backed up by a bit of statutory muscle can undoubtedly flush out the worst sinners and make it clear that certain kinds of behaviour are no longer appropriate.

That is the logic behind the growing body of legislation aimed at outlawing discrimination on grounds of gender, race, disability, age and (more controversially, as far as some religious persons and institutions are concerned) sexual orientation.

The ‘equalities culture’, as it is sometimes (disparagingly) referred to, is a way of thinking and operating that has emerged to make sense of an increasingly mixed society where disproportionate economic muscle and multiple differences bring people into regular competition – while highlighting the lack of underlying agreement on purpose beyond a vague ‘wellbeing’ in most areas of life.

That all of us with recourse to the public goods and services should be able to expect and practice equal treatment, irrespective of whether we like or approve of each other, is a baseline of modern pluralism.

Some see this as the propagation of ‘a new secular religion’, one preserved from proper scrutiny by a democratic mystification that obscures its ideology. The naysayers include Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury. Their alternative is a return to what they see as ‘the roots’ – including an amorphous imaginary called ‘the Judaeo-Christian tradition’. This Christendom-dominated settlement may not claim everyone’s active assent, they admit, but at least it preserves us from the supposed ‘political correctness’ of a new ‘liberal plutocracy’.

Others strongly disagree with this characterisation. They say that modern pluralism and the virtues of inclusion it enshrines is not a new ideology competing for space with religious or other beliefs, but rather a mediating framework for achieving a level playing field where no one set of interests (religious or otherwise) can automatically claim dominance over another, or an unaccountable ‘right’ to determine legislative frameworks.

Moreover, from a Christian perspective, there are positive ways of engaging with a post-Christendom political and religious context – one in which the privilege of the church and its thinking can no longer be taken for granted, and indeed is open to challenge theologically as well as in terms of pluralism.

Interestingly, the same kind of argument between reform and reaction has developed in politics, and will no doubt manifest itself in the continuing contestations about political and electoral reform. Defenders of the majoritarian Westminster system, and first-past-the-post voting, concede that these can produce outcomes which look deeply unfair – such as requiring four times as many votes to elect a representative from the third party rather than one from the ‘big two’. But they claim that this is a price worth paying for ‘stability’ and ‘strong government’.

The pluralists, by contrast, believe that all votes should count, and that public institutions should both reflect and learn to deal with the actual outcomes (sometimes consonant, sometimes contradictory) that arise from the ‘will of the people’ expressed on equal terms and with proportional effect. Sure, that may not always be decisive or convenient, but life is about finding a way of handling our differences rather than obliterating them, or putting one or two groups, parties or sets of interests at a permanent, built-in advantage.

Little of this is immediately evident when politicians trade horses following the closest election result in years. Nor does it necessarily help when eyes start to glaze over about PR and constitutional change. But the choice remains. Do we want a negotiated, open, and civically responsible public square, or do we want one that orders us through dominant presets – and if so, which ones, decided by whom, and how?

For the truth is this. We find ourselves on the threshold of a new era where inherited institutions, political frameworks, economic paradigms and religion/belief options are under immense pressure – but the shape of what is to come is still uncertain and contested. In this context defenders of the status quo find themselves (sometimes willingly, sometimes by default) arguing against equal treatment and for oligarchy.

In religious terms that means Establishment, opt-outs from the requirement for universal fair treatment for faith bodies receiving or deploying public funds, and the maintenance of privileges like unelected bishops in an unelected second chamber. In political terms it means opposing a proportional electoral system, basing social and economic policies on the acceptance or perpetuation of inequality, and maintaining the hegemony of the wealthy and the powerful in society.

There is a strong overlap between control-minded, ‘establishment’ types of religion and control-minded, ‘establishment’ types of politics. But there are important differences too. Political conservatives are not necessarily religious (though they may find religion useful) and advocates of a Christendom polity include many self-styled religious liberals as well as religious conservatives – people who may be in favour of political or social reform while at the same time still seeking to maintain religious hegemony.

Likewise, those critical of monopolistic politics and dominating religion include both people of faith and people of good faith, evangelicals and non-evangelicals, secular humanists and radical believers, and more.

This is why simplistic attempts to divide people into ‘the religious’ and ‘the non-religious’ (a tactic which suits the vested interests of hardline religionists and hardline secularists, but no-one else) is so misleading and damaging. It is elevating an unnecessary and divisive struggle and ignoring a vital and unifying one.

What we need now, at a time of both immense challenge and real opportunity for change – politically, socially, economically and spiritually – are not rejectionist ideologies based on fear and confrontation, but positive coalitions of those who want to invest together, from different perspectives, in a better, sharable future. That is what Ekklesia wants to do (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/about/values) in promoting post-Christendom faith and politics. It is what Power 2010 and Take Back Parliament are doing as reform movements. And it is what groups like the Robin Hood Tax Campaign, Accord and Still Human Still Here are doing in areas like just economics, inclusive education, and compassion for asylum seekers.

What all these initiatives (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/about/affiliations) have in common is that they are trying to engage with, and realign, institutional life from the perspective of civil society and human experience – most particularly the experience of those who are often pushed aside. In Christian terms, that is the biblical dynamic of divine levelling – casting down the mighty from their privileged seats, and lifting up the dispossessed and downtrodden, as Mary’s song of liberation in Luke’s Gospel puts it.

This goes further than worthy talk about ‘the common good’, which is an important aspiration, but can also mask the real divisions that stop us genuinely holding goods in common. It also strongly questions the suffocating rhetoric of ‘national interest’, which has dominated post-election negotiations in Britain. Nation state politics should not be elevated above all else in a global era.

Moreover, the sometimes conflicting interests of the rich and the poor, the able-bodied and the disabled, the imprisoned and the free, the planet and the plunderers – and many other groups and persons – need to be faced honestly, hopefully and with the practical determination to overcome rather than perpetuate greed, violence and exclusion.

This is about character. As Gandhi put it (in a way that Christians, Muslims, humanists and many others should surely be able to recognise and affirm), we have to become the change we advocate in the world.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

This article incorporates some elements which will appear in his ‘Westminster Watch’ column in the June 2010 issue of Third Way (www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/), the magazine of Christian social and cultural commentary.

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