Although I prefer America’s stricter model of religious freedom to England’s, which might be characterized as the civil theology equivalent of the “strategic ambiguity” approach in foreign affairs, I was moved by Prime Minister David Cameron’s articulation of the English model in his speech on the occasion of the 400th anniverary of the King James Bible.
Cameron combines frankness about personal doubt and robustness in asserting the moral basis of civil justice. I don’t share his doubts, but I think those who have doubts should feel comfortable expressing them – and more to the point, it’s imperative that we not substitute inquiry into our leaders’ personal faith for inquiry into their commitment to the shared moral order that we look to them to uphold. Many leaders whose personal faith is unquestionable have failed, time and again, to show courage and perseverance in merely upholding bare justice. And many who clearly lack personal faith have been tireless and self-sacrificing moral leaders for justice and freedom.
Aside from his defense of the whole “Christian nation” thing, which means something different in England than it does here anyway, why can’t America produce leaders who talk like this?
I know there are some who will question why I am giving this speech. And if they happen to know that I’m setting out my views today in a former home of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, and in front of many great theologians and church leaders, they really will think I have entered the lions’ den…In making this speech I claim no religious authority whatsoever. I am a committed – but I have to say vaguely practising – Church of England Christian, who will stand up for the values and principles of my faith, but who is full of doubts and, like many, constantly grappling with the difficult questions when it comes to some of the big theological issues. But…moral neutrality should not be an option. You can’t fight something with nothing. Because if we don’t stand for something, we can’t stand against anything…
Whether you look at the riots last summer, the financial crash and the expenses scandal, or the on-going terrorist threat from Islamist extremists around the world, one thing is clear: moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
Shying away from speaking the truth about behaviour, about morality, has actually helped to cause some of the social problems that lie at the heart of the lawlessness we saw with the riots. The absence of any real accountability, or moral code allowed some bankers and politicians to behave with scant regard for the rest of society. And when it comes to fighting violent extremism, the almost fearful passive tolerance of religious extremism that has allowed segregated communities to behave in ways that run completely counter to our values has not contained that extremism but allowed it to grow and prosper, in the process blackening the good name of the great religions that these extremists abuse for their own purposes.
Put simply, for too long we have been unwilling to distinguish right from wrong. “Live and let live” has too often become “do what you please.” Bad choices have too often been defended as just different lifestyles.
To be confident in saying something is wrong is not a sign of weakness, it’s a strength.