Sunday, April 22, 2007

Williams on religion and government

From his Sunday Times essay, "Down with Godless Government":
But if the state enacts or perpetuates in the corporate life of the nation what is directly contrary to the Christian understanding of God’s purpose, then Christian activism in respect of changing the law is justified, primarily when the state is responsible for — so to speak — compromising the morality of all its citizens.
This makes sense, though, only if it is possible to convince those who run things in the public sphere that there are human values and ethical norms to which an entire society is answerable. In our relativist climate, this is very difficult. What tends to happen is that nothing much is left as a substantive moral basis for public life except a poorly defined principle of tolerance or avoidance of mutual harm. The idea that you can give substance to a common social ethic, something to which society as a whole can be held accountable, is unfashionable and unwelcome. Even from the point of view of many who have no religious commitment, there is a recognition that this is a thin diet.
Sounds good. But if there is vociferous disagreement amongst Christians disagree, then what? For example, in the application of their values and norms to the full inclusion of homosexuals? Disagreement this strong points back to basic differences in values and norms derived from our faith. Can we even articulate those differences to each other, let alone to the state?

It is not our relativist climate that has brought some Christians to reject past teachings on homosexuality. Nor is it mere tolerance. It derives from an openness to question where the church may be in error of inclusion and exclusion regarding sin. Is homosexuality sin? Is slavery sin? There is no longer any debate within the church that it wrongly excluded the latter. In time the church will conclude it is an error to include homosexuality in the list of sins.

By the way, you cannot merely list sins. A list does not guide action. Sin is about whether our heart is with God or not. It is never is, of course, but we strive.

Tom Horwood has a column in The Guardian, "Religious leaders should be hopeful, not defensive, in public debate", that serves as a nice companion piece to Williams'. An extract:
There is a new mood of defensiveness within faith communities, the symptom of a fear about where libertarian social trends are leading. It has not always been like this. Skilful religious leaders have engaged in debate and argued persuasively for positive change. Wilberforce, Gandhi and Martin Luther King took unpopular stances, but pointed to a better way for all, inspired by faith.

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