Naught for Your Comfort: Religion, Politics and Conscience

From Tim Farron to Jacob Rees-Mogg, religion is back in the political spotlight. In this essay, John Milbank explores the place of religion in today's politics: are certain issues beyond debate? Should there be such a thing as a conscious vote? And does secular democracy disallow religious sentiment altogether?

September 22, 2017
The Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, The Crypt Chapel, of the House of Commons.
The Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, The Crypt Chapel, of the House of Commons.

Tim Farron was recently forced to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats because of his alleged views on homosexuality. Even more recently, pundits have suggested that Jacob Rees-Mogg could not possibly lead the Conservative party, because of his orthodoxly Catholic opposition both to gay marriage and to all forms of abortion.

What is really at stake here? Is it simply a question of the limits of what an elected politician may publicly espouse or privately believe? Or is it more profoundly, and more specifically, a question of the acceptability of Christianity in modern public life?

If it is merely the former, then we would appear to be entangled within a fundamental tension. Are certain accorded “rights”—like the right to choose to have an abortion or the right of gay people to marry—a matter of legitimate debate, or are they rights so fundamental as to now lie beyond the sphere of any legitimate questioning?

One can note in passing that if the latter perspective is now the norm, then it has become so in an astonishingly and perhaps frighteningly short period of time.

In fact, whatever one’s substantial views on these issues, one might take fright at this perspective, which arguably elevates a legal culture of individual rights beyond the reach of a political culture in which it is assumed that the democratic will of the people, or at least a majority of the people, should always prevail.

In many cases, for example those of racial or gender discrimination, that elevation seems justified. But can it also apply to what one might describe as “metaphysically problematic” issues that appear (unlike the idiocies of racism or of male prejudice) to continue to be inherently debatable, because they concern “border” issues about when life begins and ends, what renders life valuable and whether self-killing is a kind of murder, and so forth. We see these issues clearly involved in parliamentary discussions around abortion limits and in ongoing legal battles concerning both euthanasia and the medical prolongation of life.

Which issues are “debatable”?

It could be suggested that anyone who thinks the answers and the qualifications of the answers are immediately ‘obvious’ is being too dogmatic, one way or another. One might, for example, be basically against abortion, but admit more exceptions than does the modern Catholic Church, whose position is somewhat more extreme here than that of Thomas Aquinas.

It is possible to take a definite position about abortion, gay marriage or euthanasia while also recognising their inherent ‘debatability’—and the plethora of further issues that necessarily arise from each. This would seem to be the truly 'liberal' stance of Tim Farron, though he confuses it with a questionable insistence on some matters being validly “private.”

For the problem about consigning such issues to the sphere of immutable legal rights, and removing them from the range of legitimate public debate, is that this ‘debatability’ appears to be denied, and therefore the inherent link of true democracy with the practice of dialectical discussion—as Socrates suggested in ancient Athens.

Moreover, as these issues concern “borders,” they are fluid and not decidable “once and for all.” To treat abortion as only a matter of right is to preclude debate—which reason clearly demands—as to when, indeed, independent human life begins. To refuse to debate this issue is thereby to open a dangerously unexamined horizon that can extend as far as legitimising infanticide.

Likewise, advocating one’s ‘right to die’ tends to shut down discussion as to the proper bounds of this right, with a resulting drift to its murderous exploitation—as we already see in the Benelux countries.

In the same way, if marriage is merely a ‘right’ for any individual, this tends to foreclose a valid debate about whether religious bodies are obliged to marry any couple whom the law of the United Kingdom deems fit to marry. By the same token, it tends forecloses any valid debate about whether the natural hetorosexual engendering of children requires specific legal protections.

These are not matters of eternal justice

It is therefore doubly disturbing, both from the perspective of democracy and that of the basis of society in open rational debate, when the British Pregnancy Advisory Service can announce baldly “we are a pro-choice country with a pro-choice Parliament”—as if this were a matter of undeniable ontological fact and indefeasible eternal justice.

What is more, once abortion, like gay marriage and perhaps soon euthanasia, is regarded in this way, then any free speech or campaigning with respect to these issues tends quickly to be disallowed—as we already see in France. To oppose abortion or gay marriage becomes, on this logic, equivalent to advocating racial discrimination or race-hatred: totally beyond the pale of legal and cultural acceptability or the tolerable bounds even of a “conscience vote.”

Is it then any longer possible to say that a certain class of “metaphysical issue,” as I have tried loosely to define them (and there are many others, such as IVF, the death penalty, the defensibility of warfare in general, nuclear deterrence or the justice of positive discrimination) should be reserved as “matters of conscience,” free from the control of party whips or the required assents of all public offices?

If that were the case, then they can be securely dealt with within the domain of individual rights of belief and free speech, which tends to protect religious stances in particular. 

The metaphysical in politics

Perhaps it would be nice and convenient if one could come to that simple conclusion. But I fear that one cannot.

For the implication of this position seems to be that ‘metaphysical’ issues lie outside the purview of ordinary political debate. And there appears to be something odd about that conclusion.

For are not these issues, though inherently debatable, also amongst the most important ones for our humanity? And is it not the case that it is just the most vital issues about which humans do tend to disagree, indeed sometimes come to blows? Finally, is not politics precisely something arising from matters which are crucial but also crucially contentious?

To take the question of abortion: can the issue of what it is legitimate to say publicly be decided in terms of rights and the rights of conscience? Not really. “Pro-choice” activists see the right to express anti-abortion views as merely on a level with a woman’s right to choose, such that the former right cannot be allowed to interfere with the latter. Therefore, for them it is legitimate to decide in one’s own life against abortion, but not politically or by any means of public persuasion to attempt to remove the abortion rights of others.

Yet for any clear-thinking opponent of abortion, abortion is not a violation of rights (not even the “right of the child” in the modern sense of subjective right), but of the sanctity and significance of every human life according to natural law.

For her, to abort a foetus is not to exercise a right of control over one’s own body but unjustly to destroy the life of another. Yet inversely, the pro-abortionist, who does see the issue in terms of fundamental subjective right of self-ownership, must quite consistently refuse any legitimacy to the attempted public circumvention of this right.

It then follows that any exemptions from involvement in abortion for legal and medical professionals are always potentially a denial of the basic rights of other human beings and, in consequence, unacceptable.

This metaphysical impasse is therefore not a merely private matter, but also one of political, public conscience, that has to be democratically contested.

And yet the liberal, pro-abortionist side of the argument must logically deny this contestability, for reasons that we have seen. This liberal position logically tends to remove abortion from the political sphere to that of pure foundational and constitutional legality.

A place for religion?

The only way, then, to insist upon contestability and upon the primacy of political democracy, is to shift to a kind of ‘meta-level’ and concede that our politics now has to include debates and battles between different overarching metaphysical outlooks that lie behind the ‘border’ issues, and especially the battle between secular and religious outlooks.

This battle comes paradoxically to the forefront the more we adopt a manifestly post-religious logic—and yet in various ways religion does not simply vanish and might even be in various ways reviving. The numerical decline may have reached a plateau but there is an undeniable increase in religious articulation, visibility and influence on public life.

One important way of looking at this is to point out that modern politics since the eighteenth century has become in a fundamental sense evermore “bland.” It has been able to ignore the really crucial metaphysical issues because it has decided that these are objectively undecidable. Therefore, a secular politics has focused more exclusively on pragmatic matters of wealth, technology, hygiene and security.

We are supposed to all automatically agree on the fundamentals in these areas, which means that they can be increasingly delivered over to impersonal, central government or market control. This sort of control is also supposed to deliver more efficiency—with 'efficiency' being exactly the minimum we are meant to concur about.

Today, the consequent polarisation between the market-state centre and isolated individuals has exponentially increased, and the family itself, the most basic pre-political corporate unit of all, has come under assault from many quarters.

Secular liberal democracy is not neutral

It is because of this that religious people are becoming increasingly aware that the modern secular, liberal-democratic polity is not neutral with regard to religion and never has been. Because of its sole drive to 'efficiency' it tends to extirpate or subvert lesser social bodies concerned with more substantive goals: the pursuit of community, beauty, wisdom or holiness.

Since these goals tend to appeal to an objective reality transcending the human or any contingent political arrangements, they are regarded with suspicion by modern government which sees only efficient administration and increase of power as ultimate values.

Religious practices assuming the sanctity of human life or the special and normative mystery of procreation through sexual difference are merely examples of public modes of practice based on aims that exceed mere efficiency, that modern liberal politics tends to find intolerable.

For a very long period, religious people supposed that one could construe secularity as metaphysical neutrality and benign indifference. But increasingly, this mask is being torn away and it is the supposedly marginal issues of ‘conscience’ which are most of all in public dispute.

This does not apply just to the ‘culture wars’ issues that I have discussed so far, but also to matters of the biological or robotic alteration of the conditions of natural and human existence and their likely effect on the environment and human happiness.

Is it right or safe radically to alter the nature of the plants which we eat? Is it right or safe to allow computing components to be grafted into the human body and brain? Should 'intelligent' robots be allowed to vote? Would that be safe for democracy? Why exactly do we feel an uneasy fear about robots constructed to 'have sex' with?

Thus it seems that politics is, after all, ceasing to be merely about bland efficiency and is rather becoming a battle between the “Californian” exponents of evermore exotic efficiency, and those still attached, or becoming newly attached, to the pursuit of “something else.” This latter group includes many specifically religious people but is by no means confined to them.

Unless Christians and other religious groups recognise this shift, they will fight a shadow-war in terms of rights and they will lose it. Instead, they must fight the real war in terms of the quite different political order which a Christian metaphysical vision implies.

Secret Catholics and the place of faith

It goes without saying that Jacob Rees-Mogg is not—at least as yet—fighting this war, because, as a latter-day Whig (and in no real traditional sense a Tory) he ignores most of Papal social teaching on the economy, politics and ecology, which is closely tied to Catholic doctrine and philosophy. There is, indeed, Humanae Vitae, but there are also Rerum Novarum and Caritas in Veritate.

It is notable that Catholicism is now seen is peculiarly unacceptable, not really because of this view or that, but rather because people obscurely intimate that it offers a wholly different, coherent and highly sophisticated world view, implying an equally different private and public practice—an alternative modernity at variance with the modernity we now inhabit. This modernity is not one that denies the specifically modern stress on the human power to discover new things and create new formations, but one that supposes that exactly this is a mark of human “divinity” and of its halting pursuit of truly desirable ends to which it is providentially adapted.

Why else the alarm that Corbyn might be a secret Catholic? Or, inversely, the insistence of the veteran companion of Che Guevera, Regis Debray, that he may be an atheist, but he is a “Catholic atheist” who fears the “American Protestantisation” of France—as a submission to the public pursuit of mere wealth, combined with the total privatisation and sentimentalisation of any form of religion?

Thus the present article offers, to borrow a phrase from very different preceding contexts, “naught for your comfort.” Properly debatable matters of conscience cannot be safely defended in terms of private rights.

They are today re-emerging in their real light as public matters of conscience and debatability which concern our very nature as human beings and of other life upon this planet, together with our uneasy relationship in the West with our Catholic Christian past. Cultural peace here is not likely, nor properly achievable. But a new level of shared seriousness might be.