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?by John Milbank / September 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
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…