The separation of religion from politics, resulting in the notion of ‘private religion’, is the outcome of the secularism associated with the 18th century European Enlightenment. Before that time, religion was always a matter for the whole community, and never just for the individual. In addition, religion and culture were always inextricably intertwined with each other in such a way that their separation was inconceivable. If politics is broadly defined as the principles or policies by which a community orders its life, then religion obviously cannot be artificially excised from politics. This is true especially for multi-religious societies like Singapore. Christians generally maintain that religion and politics cannot be separated. This is because according to the Christian faith, there can be no place for any distinction between secular and sacred. The God who created the world must surely be Lord even of the political realm.
To maintain that there can be no separation between religion and politics is not to reject the concept of the secular state or to insist that the Church should not be separated from the state. The two issues are quite different and must not be confused with one another. Although the concept of the secular state is in itself in many ways problematic, it is nonetheless useful in identifying the duties of the state. The secular state is one in which the government is limited to the seculum or temporal realm. It is a state that is free from the control of any institutional religion and therefore independent of the latter. The idea of the secular state therefore denies the government the right to use religion for the accomplishment of political ends, and it denies religion the right to use the government for religious ends. In this way, the secular state is arguably better able to ensure what some scholars have called ‘benevolent neutrality’, where the interests of the members of all the different communities represented in society are taken seriously. As mentioned earlier, although this model raises a number of difficult and important issues and is far from perfect, for reasons I cannot discuss in this short article, Christians can broadly endorse it without fear of too much compromise. I believe that Singapore’s ‘Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act’ of 1992 is broadly inspired by some such concept of the secular state.
A paradox immediately presents itself: How are we to understand the relationship between the secular state and a religious society? Are the two concepts not contradictory? Here we must further sharpen our understanding of the secular state. A secular state is one that is concerned with the seculum or temporal affairs. However, a secular state is not a state that is committed to secularism. That is to say, the secular state does not deny the reality of the non-physical world and it is not hostile to religious belief and practice. The secular state therefore will not attempt to expunge religious discourse from the public square. It recognises the importance of religion in public life, even as it prohibits religion from using the government for religious ends. Although there is a growing minority in Singapore who are committed to excluding religion from public discourse, I believe that this is not the position of the Singapore government. This is clearly evident in the fact that the latter has openly invited different faith communities to participate in debates on important societal issues.
Christians believe that they can make significant contributions to public life, not least by participating in debates on social and political issues. As I have argued elsewhere, this is an aspect of the Christian’s responsibility in society. Christians and the Church therefore may serve a political purpose by playing a prophetic role in public life. Although some Christians have argued that the separation of church and state and the acceptance of the concept of the secular state require the privatisation of religion, I maintain that this is not the case at all. In fact, the contrary is true: the separation of church and state has made possible the genuinely prophetic role of religion because the church, freed from institutional dependence, is no longer subservient to the state in a way that would mute her prophetic voice. The Church is therefore able to be herself – a free and authentic witness for God in society. The separation of Church and state and the concept of the secular state therefore make possible an authentic public religion. They make genuine interaction between Christians and political society a living reality.
Christians contribute to the political life of the society by advancing justice and promoting the common good. But in order to do so, Christians (and the Church) must sometimes question the established order and refuse to endorse or ‘sanctify’ policies and traditions that are not in harmony with God’s will. These are all aspects of the prophetic role of Christians in society. Furthermore, prophetic religion must also reach out to the oppressed, the dispossessed, the disinherited and the discriminated. It must reject the temptation to show favour to any particular socioeconomic class. It must be free from the fetters of any given culture and the prevailing norms and conventions of society. By speaking rationally, truthfully and compassionately to many shared concerns and issues, and by participating respectfully, calmly and patiently in public discourse, Christians can contribute – in small but sometimes surprisingly significant ways – to society. In this way, the Christian community can fulfil its public vocation in the world on behalf of freedom, peace, and justice for all.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (September 2013).