Other secularisms, such as the forms of moderate secularism of most of the rest of Western Europe, draw a softer line and are more tolerant of religion’s public presence. In many ways religion is not only permitted but also encouraged in the public sphere. This is often through state-religion connections where religious organisations play a significant role in welfare provision in partnership with the state. Thus, for instance, in Germany, the churches, taken together, are the largest recipients of public money and providers of welfare services; and in the UK faith-based organisations have played an increasing role in recent decades as part of the growing plurality and competition among service providers in the ‘third sector’. This is taken to be recognition of religion as contributing to the public good. It calls into question the liberal dichotomy between private and public and recognises that, for the most part, certain anxieties about religion’s role in politics are misplaced.
Yet, although the line is softer, there is still a line between public and private and how religion straddles this line. An example of what I am thinking about here can be seen expressed in reservations about these kinds of state-religion partnerships (by political theologians, for instance). This caution revolves around how, as a result of this role as service providers, religious groups can become shorn of the specific religious motivations which mean they act in the public good in the first place. That is, they are seen merely in terms of public utility, as a repository of useful resources, but the deeper and specifically religious convictions that motivate them are forced to the side lines and even masked in order to comply with certain ‘secular’ and ‘neutral’ conditions.
We might say that the secular state in this sense is interested in religion as far as it can serve the state’s purposes, providing services for its citizens that it is unable or unwilling to provide itself. It is not, however, interested in the religious reasons and motivations orienting these groups, and a deeper engagement at this level is either not sought or perhaps deliberately avoided.
There are a few reasons this is important. One is that, as Grace Davie has noted, at a time when multiculturalism has brought issues of religion and politics back to the foreground, religious literacy is lacking. The significance of this is that type of politics we construct and partake in is not just a set of formal legal and institutional arrangements, but equally important is how we ‘imagine’ our social and political lives and the types of people and relations they consist of. To grasp this is to realise that restricting religious language, rationales and motivations to the private sphere is to restrict in important ways the richness and depth, or ‘fullness’ (to borrow from Charles Taylor), of religious co-citizens from the public sphere. A further reason is that such arrangements may serve to contain the critical voice and positive role religious faiths can play in the public sphere precisely because of their religious orientation, in challenging such things as the misuse of power or excesses of capitalism, for instance, and how this role might contribute towards developing a more equal society.Print