There was a interesting article in last week's 'The Spectator' magazine on the effect that 9/11 had on faith and politics. The effect in question was the change in the view of religion that become popular after the events of September 11th and how different, sometimes very different, interests were served by this new narrative.
The author, Theo Hobson, states that 9/11 had a perceived positive benefit in that it prompted the public mind to once again consider and discuss the question of religion and to take it seriously and to admit to its "cultural and political force"
Hobson argues that this perception is untrue. Religion has been discussed more, but an increase in quantity has not delivered an increase in quality. Instead, the emotions surrounding 9/11 caused a very clichéd thinking on religion to take hold and that in the process certain complexities and distinctions were lost, particularly where it came to a very British form of Protestantism (i.e. not that evangelical type found in the US or even in the North East of our pleasant isle).
He then argues that the current debate framed as being secularism in one corner and religion in the other is a new phenomena. It was not always thus. He argues that in Britain and indeed in the States it used to be understood that liberalism and religion could be reconciled "more or less".This process began in the days immediately after 9/11. Our religious and political leaders began to insist that Islam was a religion of peace. I am not saying that this was the wrong thing to say; it was perhaps a diplomatic necessity. But it subtly affected the nature of subsequent debate. It implied that it was not quite legitimate to discriminate between religions, to treat them as discrete entities, so that one might be in favour of religion A but deeply wary of religion B. It implied that religion must be considered as a whole. ... Religion is, politically speaking, one thing. And it is good.
Or, on the other hand, bad. For the new atheism that sprung up shared the assumption that all forms of religion should be treated together. The same political correctness took root here, in the anti-religion camp. ... despite superficial differences, all religion is united by its thirst for blood. ...We should not be distracted by fuddy-duddy liberal Anglicanism from seeing that Christianity also knows how to launch jihad, wash brains, enslave women, promote unreason, and so on.
And so it emerged, in the wake of 9/11, that there was something called religion, and something else called secularism. The media naturally favoured a narrative so simple. So did the political class, understandably keen to defend the legitimacy of mainstream Islam. So did atheists, determined not to allow any nuance into the term ‘religion’. And, crucially, so did Christian leaders. In particular, it suited the Church of England to see secularism as a threat. It could now justify its established status in new terms: as a sign of the public legitimacy of faith in general. It could also justify its one remaining form of real cultural power; its presence in state education.
.How did we do it? By daring to discriminate between different forms of religion — daring to say that one form of religion, Protestantism, was politically superior to the rest, on account of its promotion of liberty. Other religious traditions were seen as dangerously obstructive of liberty: Catholicism and Islam most obviously, but also Judaism
Hobson points out that that it was from Protestantism that liberalism sprung and that this has been forgotten and hidden by the secular/religious clash that it has so far suited both sides to engage in. He then issues this final appeal;
He seems to have a point to a certain extent, in that liberalism and the enlightenment did seem on some levels to be a 'protestant' phenomena, but this picture misses a lot of the complexity of that time (for example, Spinoza and indeed Mill). It also leaves out Protestantism's own history of repression but yet there remains a germ of truth.My modest proposal is that we rediscover this compatibility of Christianity and liberalism. This entails a new will to discriminate between religions. Instead of saying that all religion is equally entitled to express itself in the public square, we should be honest. In reality, the liberal state will look more favourably on religion that likes the idea of the liberal state. It will treat Islam with wariness, knowing that most Muslim countries are about 300 years behind us on religious liberty. Prosecuting 11-year-old girls for blasphemy, as Pakistan thinks pious, is a pretty good definition of moral backwardness. As for Roman Catholicism, the jury is out: it has only half-repented of its grandiose illiberalism (only in 1965 did it accept that religious liberty was a good ideal, and it has struggled to act on the insight since). As for Eastern orthodoxy, look at the Russian church’s desire to get into bed with macho little Putin, scared of a few punkettes.
Some of us liberal Protestant Christians are frankly sick of being associated with the illiberalism to which other religious traditions are prone. No, all religion is not deep down much the same. Nor, despite the self-serving posturings of bishops, is it united in its antipathy to ‘secularism’. One religious tradition — one alone — is sharply committed to freedom, and was the prime inventor of secular politics and culture. Here, I think, lies the possibility of a revival of British Christianity. A neo-Whiggish movement must announce that the post-9/11 consensus is bunk. All religions are not of equal political worth, though of course all are to be tolerated. One religious tradition is different. It loves freedom; it insists that God and freedom belong together, and must not be put asunder. It has long been out of intellectual and theological fashion. But it will rise again.
The Protestant approach to scripture and the greater weight given to individual conscience as against authority certainly seems a better frame of mind than a lot of other religions but it is still trapped in the evidence and argument light conceptual framework of religion.
It will be interesting to see if this line of thought becomes developed in the coming years. It would certainly face many difficulties, with secular non-belief on one side and fundamentalist/evangelical religion on the other. Liberal Protestantism could well end up being squeezed out. (Just look at what's happening to the Republican party in the US!)