For a long time in our Western civilization, Christianity was the dominant intellectual and social force; it was the lens through which mankind looked at itself and the world. It was not tolerant of other points of view, or even Christian points of view which varied on points of doctrine from the orthodox position. Notwithstanding that, and perhaps in part because of its own internal divisions, Christianity has failed to retain its position as the main lens through which mankind looks at itself and the world. In the public square, at least in Europe, it has almost ceased to count; indeed, those who make arguments on public policy based on its presuppositions are regarded much as atheists used to be regarded by the Church – wrong-headed, foolish and perhaps not terribly bright. If I have had the words “oh, you’re a Christian, but how can you, I thought you were intelligent” or a variant on them said to me once, I have had them a dozen times. We’re allowed to retreat to the private sphere, and to deal in mysticism and poetry, but when it comes to public policy, if we do not speak in the language of the secularists, then we are ignored. There is, literally, no point (other than our own witness to what we consider truth) in saying to society ‘this is wrong because it goes against God’s law’. As a fulcrum to move society where we want it to go, such a line is actually counter-productive because it simply confirms the secularist view that we are irrelevant. It’s hard enough to get people to obey the law of the land in some instances, so the idea that they should do something because a God in whom most of them don’t believe forbids it, not only gets no purchase in the public sphere, it invites ridicule and confines Christians who use them to the political margins.
But those who have argued that secularisation is some kind of universal societal evolution have, it turns out, overstated their case. The rest of the world has not followed Western Europe, and even if Christianity is not the force it once was in America, it has huge influence – for example it keeps the question of abortion from occupying the political position it does in Europe (which is just about non-existent outside Ireland). It is clear, as I have argued here and elsewhere, that an absence of religious literacy has led our leaders into errors in their Middle Eastern policy which have had enormous adverse consequences in the region and Afghanistan, some of which will now impact on Europe through the millions of refugees fleeing the disaster zones. We now have within even the borders of the UK, huge numbers of people for whom faith is at the core of the way they look at and interact with the world. There is no sign these communities will succumb to the secularisation theory. Even the UK Government, which does not ‘do God’ has had to pour money into interventions in our universities to encourage programmes which will help itself, and local authorities, to understand faith rather than reduce it to something they can understand in secular terms.
How does this impact on Christians? At the very least it offers our faith leaders the chance to speak to the public square without being ridiculed. Those who used to say faith was dying, that it would have no part in the politics of the future, have turned out to be the ones who are wrong. A public discourse cast solely in secularist terms is quite as inadequate as one based on ‘it is God’s will’. Faith groups and politicians need to learn how to talk to each other – the hour is growing late, and if we will not learn from the history of the early twenty-first century thus far, then things will get much worse.