Shaping debate on religion in public life.

So Who Holds the Trump Card in this Election?

24 Apr 2017

Sometimes it is worth trying to recover a wider perspective on current events. As yet another vote looms and the media get to work projecting the campaigns, let alone the result, I return to something I wrote back in the dim and distant days of 1994 on the subject of civil society. I do so because the subject of how faith groups might intervene in politics is once again on the agenda in the light of Brexit and with a particular focus on the role of intermediate organisations.

Civil society can be defined as those areas of life that are not directly under the control of government: so households, voluntary organisations and community-based services. Faith groups fit into this category. Back in the nineties, the argument of the New Right against Socialism was that it encroached too deeply into civil society. One counter argument [1] was that the Right was doing exactly the same thing, despite its rhetoric about rolling back the powers of the state. So increasing regulatory demands upon voluntary groups, and treating people as consumers in the fields of health care and education, led to greater bureaucratic control and a reduction of services to poorer sections of the country. Sound familiar? One set of virtues required by civil society – self-interest, hard work and self-reliance – was being promoted at the expense of others such as a willingness to share resources, concern for others, a sense of the common good and a concept of civic responsibility.

At the time, I suggested we required a new definition of the relationship between State and civil society. Groups operating in the latter needed to be given a framework that would enable more people to participate in their activities, while the State needed to be made more accountable to its people. Much would depend upon how good communal relationships were to be fostered and sustained, and ways in which faith groups could contribute to this. If this sounds idealistic, I was much younger at the time, but also had direct experience of being engaged in church-based community work and had high hopes as a result.

Of course, it begs all the questions about the legitimacy of what in the 1980s was called welfare pluralism and the active involvement of voluntary groups in what was supposed to be the universal state provision of services.

One might ask how this issue will figure in the forthcoming election and what has changed to make this scenario appear perhaps even more remote. If anything, the relationship between State and civil society has both fractured and become more intrusive at the same time. Since the global financial crisis of 2007/8 and the introduction of austerity politics in the UK, more and more has been demanded of voluntary groups in terms of welfare provision as health services and education face increased privatisation and reduced levels of real funding. Meanwhile, the State tightens its grip in such a way that trust and confidence in professional politicians to act in the interest of all but the favoured few diminishes. The Trump card left to the politicians is to claim a direct appeal to either a contrived united front post-Brexit (Conservative) or to the constituency of an old style class conflict (Labour). These would seem to be the only shows in town, along with a continued stirring of nationalism from other quarters. None of these addresses more deeply the crisis of the political itself, which surely requires a more rigorous theological analysis.

The Crisis of the Political

Unlike my approach of 20 years ago, I am now concerned that traditional forms of political life are simply inadequate to tackle the scale of the problems we face both nationally and globally. Faith-based engagement in civil society as proposed back then could only work within that older framework where the State itself could be trusted to deliver at least some solutions.

The most serious challenge to this way of operating has come from environmental problems. Not only are we aware that national boundaries are largely irrelevant when it comes to issues such as climate change, but there has always been a concern that tackling this might require some form of authoritarian government. Trusting solutions to either consumer choice or a popular vote may prove inadequate to the task. This links to the criticisms of liberal democracy attributed to Carl Schmitt [2] which are basically that the belief in institutional systems to resolve concrete conflicts and differences through process and debate alone are misplaced, and deflect attention from the ungrounded and indeterminate nature of political life.

These arguments have been developed further by Bruno Latour in his Gifford Lectures of 2013 where his concern is how to respond to the threats of climate change, hinting that further democratic debate will never be able to achieve the changes required to avoid environmental disaster. The state of exception, the capacity to take decisive action at an effective level rather than waiting for a process of interminable discussion and wrangling, is a constant feature of political life and can alone begin to address the scale of the problems. Even a supposed direct appeal to a passive and manipulated populace will not suffice.

This is Trump trumped by an even more radical ethical and practical demand for action. In which case the forthcoming election feels like yet another case of fiddling while the planet burns.

If this sounds extreme, it is I believe one of the fundamental questions that needs to be addressed in the forthcoming Malvern 2017 conference. Is any form of current political establishment in the UK capable of tackling the deepest threats? Beyond that, where do faith groups stand in relation to this and what contribution do they already make which needs to be further developed? If the wider “community” in which we exist and for which we share some responsibility cannot be extended to include the non-human and the full created order, then I fear faith groups will have failed to grasp the moment yet again.

[1] John Reader, Local Theology: Church and Community in Dialogue, SPCK Publishing, 1994

[2] See Carlo Galli, Janus’s Gaze, Essays on Carl Schmitt, Duke University Press, 2015

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