Reimagining Christian Pluralism: Challenging Heathershaw’s Post-Christendom Dichotomy

John Heathershaw’s stimulating reflections proceed from vitally important empirical observations about the contemporary state: its capacity is in steep decline; it increasingly promotes private not public goods; it often acts illegally; and it is in any case being superseded by non-state actors such as global corporations, nongovernmental organisations, international (and transnational) institutions, and, intriguingly, global celebrities 

Heathershaw throws down a pointed challenge to Christian political theologies that still harbour dated ‘state-centric’ or ‘sovereigntist’ assumptions. These include  ‘neo-Christendom’ theories urging a return to Christian public pre-eminence and turning to the state to enforce Christian virtues on citizens. But for him they also include  ‘Christian pluralist’ theories which call on the state to protect religious diversity but which, he alleges, are still too wedded to problematic liberal accounts of ‘sovereignty’. The focus of a viable ‘post-Christendom political theology’ should not be the state but the church. Political theology, he holds, should imagine a vision of the church, working alongside other non-state actors, to confront state pathologies, and to create ‘spaces for the radical inclusion of migrants, for nonviolent resistance against armed conflict, and for the abundant provision of common goods in societies of sharing’. We might imagine these including examples such as the churches’ presence at the ‘Calais Jungle’ (Camp de la Lande), a refugee encampment near the French port of Calais, at the height of the European migrant crisis of 2015-16. Or the work of peacebuilding initiatives like the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation based at St. Mary’s Anglican church in Luton, UK, an inter-faith project formed in response to the threat of far-right English nationalist to the Muslim community in that city. 

These are eminently commendable objectives. Yet I find Heathershaw’s implication that the choice is simply between ‘neo-Christendom’ or ‘post-Christendom’ options too simplistic. Let me illustrate this by unpacking ‘Christian pluralism’. 

This name covers a mixed bag of particular stances, but most advocates generally endorse the same ‘post-Christendom’ imaginary he commends. They do not seek any restoration of the privileged position of Christianity or churches within the state, still less any attempt to use state coercion to advance religious purposes. On the contrary they favour some version of the principle of the religiously impartial state, albeit not American strict separationism or French laïcité which, they argue, illiberally excludes important manifestations of religion from the public realm. 

Here I think we need a sharper definition of ‘Christendom’ as the era in which governments either coercively imposed Christian belief or practice on society, or gave substantial civil advantages to those who subscribed to it and disadvantages to dissenters or ‘heretics’. Heathershaw defines it as ‘a community where government secured the church and the church ministered to government’. But even in a ‘post-Christendom’ age we still want governments to ‘secure’ the church, in the sense of protecting its civil freedom to advance its own mission – alongside that of many other religious or secular organisations. And we also want a church that ‘ministers to’ government, not in the sense of securing the privileged ear of the state, but rather of offering prophetic testimony against the state’s injustices and excesses. 

Christian pluralists also endorse the ‘post-sovereigntist’ perspective Heathershaw affirms. They would normatively affirm a wide dispersal of political authority and power, and repudiate any Schmittian account of sovereignty, regarding it as an egregious and dangerous aberration from the central commitment of modern Christian political theology to a limited, accountable and inclusive state. Many would also argue that, empirically, such a dispersal of power still persists to some degree, and may yet be further recoverable, notwithstanding systemic state, market and other pressures to concentrate power.

These two commitments – to ‘post-Christendom’ and ‘post-sovereigntist’ stances –  were embodied in two of the principal twentieth-century representatives of Christian pluralism: postwar European Catholic Christian Democrats working in the line of Jacques Maritain; and ‘neo-Calvinists’ working in the line of the Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper (wrongly conflated by Heathershaw with American Christian nationalism). Both schools developed searching critiques of modern doctrines of sovereignty, defended a wide dispersal of social and political power, and worked for broad religious freedom. Normatively, they affirmed two parallel and mutually reinforcing manifestations of pluralism: a pluralism of intermediate bodies such as families, neighbourhoods, trades unions, businesses, professional bodies, and political organisations; and a pluralism of religious and moral visions, each of which should be granted freedom to express itself in the public sphere, within the law. The later might traverse the former, so that there appeared during the heyday of these movements a wide variety of faith-based bodies such as schools, youth movements, universities, workers’ and employers’ associations, broadcasting outlets, political parties, and more (often working alongside, but sometimes against, the churches from which they sprung). 

Religion would then work its social and political influence from the bottom-up via democratic means, rather than top-down by enlisting the power of the state to promote a religious mission. This was already true of the ‘new Christendom’ model commended by Jacques Maritain as early as the 1930s, which was very far from the contemporary ‘neo-Christendom’ positions Heathershaw rightly critiques. Bryan McGraw, for example, has shown how these twentieth-century movements broke with a Christendom stance and worked for the consolidation of constitutional democracies premised on a limited state, a vigorous civil society of independent associations, and religious freedom (Faith in Politics: Religion and Liberal Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2010)). 

Such Christian pluralism represents a viable third option that seeks to affirm, simultaneously, the indispensable roles of the church, of many other non-state actors, and of states or other political authorities, in contributing to a flourishing human society and a just global order. To claim that, for a post-Christendom political theology, ‘the primary subject of politics is not the state but the church’ is, from this perspective, too narrow an ambition. An empirically and normatively adequate post-Christendom political theology should focus equally on all three institutional sectors, even while frankly acknowledging the radically shifting, and often deeply distorting, balances of power between each of them in today’s insecure globalized world. 

Cover image concept by Dr. Tornike Metreveli, developed with the assistance of OpenAI.

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