JONATHAN CHAPLIN ON THE PLACE OF FAITH IN BRITISH PUBLIC LIFE

Jonathan Chaplin lives in Cambridge, England and is a specialist in political theology. He taught at the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, from 1999-2006, and is a member of the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge University. He is also Senior Fellow of Cardus, a faith-based think tank located in Hamilton, ON and Associate Fellow of the London-based religion and society think tank Theos. He's written three books and two think tank reports, edited seven other books and written many articles on different aspects of political theology. His most recent book is 'Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity'. Off-duty, he plays keyboards for an amateur blues/jazz band 'Black Coffee' at pubs in the Cambridge area, when there isn't a pandemic on.


Art is public but is it also political – is it necessary to democracy?

Art is political in two senses. First, the arts will always need public support, and governments should play a part in that by sustaining an arts-friendly infrastructure, of education, galleries, public spaces, and so forth, and by direct public funding. There is a huge amount of art that is culturally essential, but that will never be commercially viable given the vagaries of contemporary capitalism. Cutting music education in schools, as the UK government has done since 2010, is to drain the life out of education and turn it into a flattened utilitarian project. But second and more important, art can and should speak to political issues. Not by becoming propaganda, which always produces rubbish art as well as manipulative politics – as in state-sponsored fascist or communist art, or the aggressive sectarian murals of Northern Ireland, which are not only menacing but ugly. Art has to speak in its own voice, whatever its subject-matter. When it engages with politics, it will always speak more powerfully than propaganda if it retains its own authenticity as art.

Take ‘Straight’, an extraordinary 90-ton floor-based sculpture by dissident Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. It’s constructed out of hundreds of thin steel rods piled up in waved layers in an oblong shape. It commemorates the thousands of children killed in the 2008 Sichaun earthquake when their schools, poorly-constructed through corruption, collapsed. The rods were taken from the wreckage and straightened individually by a large team of labourers. I saw it in the Royal Academy in 2015. To stand before it is sensorily and emotionally overwhelming. It’s not a direct attack on the authorities but is all the more devastating for that. And Ai Wei Wei, formerly imprisoned and now effectively exiled, has paid the price for it.

And would you believe it, there’s also an ‘artistic’ side to politics. For example, well-crafted, truthful political rhetoric can mobilise people for justice - think Obama - while Trump’s bellicose utterances were aesthetically repellent as well as democratically outrageous. Or to take a less obvious example, think of the physical lay-out of the national parliaments in London and Ottawa. Having Government benches lined up directly against Opposition ones sustains an adversarial style of politics that obstructs cooperation and fuels an infantile, point-scoring form of ‘debate’, whereas most European ones are semi-circular, reflecting coalition-based party systems that depend on compromise.

What would you say were the most formative factors in your upbringing that shaped your political interests and commitments?

My parents were generous, hospitable, hard-working and principled. My father was a small-c conservative and ran a small business in Manchester. He treated his employees with care, and was gutted if he had to lay anyone off; that stayed with me. My mother grew up in a working-class Irish Catholic family near Merseyside and had strong labour sympathies. After raising four kids she took up a vocation of writing to politicians on all sorts of subjects. After she died we found a stash of 70 replies from politicians in her things. I think my politics have been shaped by hers, although I haven’t written that many letters yet. My parents raised me as a Christian. Theirs was a serious, compassionate kind of faith, albeit one with narrow intellectual and political horizons that I found increasingly unsatisfying, especially since the Bible I was reading was full of talk of justice, something rarely mentioned in church. Fortunately in my late teens and student years I stumbled on intellectually serious and politically aware Christians who showed that a faith commitment isn’t an alternative to rigorous thought and political commitment, but could be a foundation and inspiration for them. Exploring what a faith-inspired political vision means has been my life project ever since.

What route did you take after graduating from high school?

To my surprise I got a place at Oxford to read PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics); they turned me down for English, thankfully. That fed a growing interest in the ideas behind politics - political theory. Even then, I found the lack of intellectual coherence among various fields disappointing. When you switched from, say, macroeconomic theory to political sociology, it was as if you were switching from one language to a completely different one. There was just no conversation between them. The one stand-out professor was Charles Taylor, just arrived from Canada after publishing a massive book on Hegel (I read it later in graduate school). He was the only big-picture thinker I encountered. He was a scintillating lecturer, both because of his content and his choreography. He’d begin a long, dense paragraph at the podium, pace slowly to the right and then across to the left of the largest lecture hall in Oxford, arriving back at the podium precisely at the moment he needed to glance at his notes again for a cue to his next one. His lectures on ‘Freedom’ (and his parallel graduate seminar, which I snuck into as an undergrad) fed my desire for larger intellectual frameworks that could make sense of contemporary politics and inspire and guide political engagement. I’ve been reading his work ever since.

That desire for an intellectually coherent and politically critical framework led me to explore whether there were resources in my own Christian tradition that could help me on my way. Then I discovered a small graduate school in Toronto which specialised in exactly that, the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS). The master’s degree I completed there was foundational for my academic life. It was also foundational for my personal life as it was where I met my Dutch wife Adrienne. I later discovered she’d also showed up at one of those Charles Taylor lectures a few years earlier, part of a group visiting from the philosophy department of the Free University of Amsterdam. I knew this department was also working on integrating Christian faith and philosophy so I’d invited several members to meet me in my large, Tudor-beamed college room (a perk of being student secretary). Adrienne joined the smarter group that went on a pub-crawl.

ICS later became an associate school of Toronto School of Theology, and is now located at Knox College. I came back there to teach political theory from 1999-2006 (Adrienne teaching philosophical aesthetics). Those were among the most intellectually stimulating and spiritually enriching years of my life. Encountering Canadian politics deepened my interest in the reality of ‘deep diversity’ (Charles Taylor’s term), especially cultural, regional and religious. How Canada treats its First Nations is a touchstone of its commitment to justice, and there’s obviously a long way to go there. The work I did in Canada fed into a think-tank report I later wrote in the UK defending multiculturalism, sadly very much against the stream.

Your new book 'Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity' looks at the place of faith in British public life. What gave you the idea to write this book? Why is it important for democracies to make public space for faith-based visions?

It’s a theme I’ve worked on for many years. Early on I was convinced of two things. One was that Christians, and many other people of faith, are bound to engage in politics in order to pursue justice. At least, the Christianity I was coming to understand could never be a privatized or ‘spiritualised’ faith offering only personal satisfaction, or just what was ‘true for me’. The other was that no faith, not even ‘secular faiths’, could presume to dominate the public square and marginalise others. But that too was a Christian commitment, since the way of Jesus was never the way of coercion or imposition but of persuasion and example. And governments weren’t supposed to be in the business of deciding religious truths anyway. Put all that together and you get a Christian commitment to a democratic pluralism that protects the rights of all faiths and none equally. That’s to view things from the faith side. From the political side, it seemed increasingly clear that democracy had to live up to its own commitments by allowing the voices of all the people – the ‘demos’ – to get a hearing. And especially those whom the system currently marginalises, such as First Nations people, or those locked in poverty. Religious communities often experience the same marginalisation, and that is bad for democracy. All have to live within the law, but if they do, they may have sources of wisdom that we urgently need to listen to. After all, relying on purely secular wisdom has not prevented most western democracies from lapsing into consumerism, alienation and tribalism. Democracy is in bad shape everywhere and needs all the moral energies it can muster from whatever source. ‘Faith in Democracy’ tries to spell all that out in accessible language, and is addressed as much to a secular as a religious audience. It could have crossover to Canada because the political and legal systems are similar.

You write about "Christian public privilege" - what does this expression mean to you?

It’s when Christians, or churches, enjoy political or legal advantages from the state that are denied to others. Wherever there’s an ‘established’ church, as in England, you have such privilege. Also, in countries like the UK, and to a lesser degree Canada, Christianity still enjoys historically-based advantages not based in law but deriving from its former cultural pre-eminence (such as the relative size of the Christian school sector compared to other faith-based schools). That will change over time if other faiths grow in public influence - and if secular-minded politicians become more affirming of faith communities. In my view, Christians should not seek any kind of public privilege and should abandon any lingering privileges they still enjoy. So I’ve just finished a book arguing for the ‘disestablishment’ of the Church of England. Citizens of faith should throw their lot in with everyone else in an open, shared democracy that treats all equally. And they should be guided by a notion of the common good rather than just protect their own interests. If they’ve done their homework, they might have some fresh things to say about the ‘common good’.

What are some international issues, conflicts or causes that you find particularly important to focus our attention on today?

It’s really hard to rank them because they are all so interconnected. But climate change has to come first because its effects are so comprehensively damaging to the whole of humanity, and nature. COP26 was another step forward in spite of its disappointments. But we can’t wait for global elites to act; we have to act everywhere we can, at all levels. As Greta Thunberg put it, ‘it’s never too late to do everything you can’. One sign of hope is that fossil fuel investments are becoming ‘stranded assets’ as fossil-based energy become increasingly uneconomic as a result of a steady global switch to renewables. Next in line has to be a global assault on unaccountable corporate oligarchies and the massive inequalities of wealth and power they sustain. It’s these oligarchies that sustain climate change. The inequalities they generate are also a key contributor to the third issue I’d mention, which is the fracturing of our societies into tribes that hate each other. It’s the opposite of respecting ‘deep diversity’. Today’s political tribes don’t want to co-exist peacefully but to rub out their rivals – to ‘cancel’ them. That poses a really serious and imminent threat to democracy everywhere, seen most dramatically on 6 January 2021 at the US Capitol. Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon recently wrote a devastating piece about this in The Globe and Mail.


Again, we can’t leave saving democracy to governments, or just to laws that protect ‘diversity’. We have to take responsibility ourselves for renewing civic virtues like tolerance, listening, respect, patience and deliberation. On a larger scale we also need to revive forums in civil society where such deliberation can take place. And the arts can play a vital role here – like ‘The People’s Gallery’, a series of large, non-sectarian public murals in Derry, Northern Ireland produced by ‘The Bogside Artists’. These are intended to tell a community’s story in order to create space for conversation not to defend tribal territory. Where tribes are locked in rigid stand-offs, where each side seeks to belittle and silence the other, the arts can reach parts of the human spirit that ordinary words can’t, breaking through barriers of self-defence to allow antagonists to glimpse possibilities of reconciliation and hope.