Santa Claus and Secular Democracy

Mika Vähäkangas

I was attending a highly interesting PhD seminar at the University of the Western Cape. There, I presented some of my ideas on the relationship between Christianity and politics in the West emphasising their interconnectedness. A Muslim colleague commented that you can hardly even talk of Christianity and politics as two entities in the West because western politics and political systems are Christianity. They are not two separate things. That was a valuable comment.

Santa Claus lives in Finland – right?

In my previous post On Political Islam and Political Christianity, I argue that western political systems and structures are heavily influenced by Christianity and both religions are political by their very nature. Does this mean that there is no other alternative than theocracy or religious politics? As a child of Enlightenment, I would not want to think so.

Let me try to illustrate a realistic pluralist approach to religion and politics through an analogy of Santa Claus. As we all should know, Santa Claus comes from Finland. He lives in Lapland and rides in his sleigh drawn by reindeers to all good children of the world every Christmas. There is even a beautiful TV-footage of him leaving his home every year. Millions of eager children wait for him, and millions of parents have leverage over these kids to fool them into decent behaviour.

However, that is all FAKE NEWS propagated by the liberal media. The sad reality is that Santa Claus does not exist in the form he is presented. Yet, I claim that such Santa Claus is still very much needed. Christmas is more fun, more peaceful, and more magical with Santa Claus than without.

Image: Creative commons

Secular democracy does not exist

It is very much the same with secular democracy. In reality, it does not exist. The idea of separation of religion from the state has its roots in Protestant reformations. Ecclesiastic meddling in the politics appeared as corruption of both the church and the state. The aim was not yet separation but distinction of their roles. These two were still tightly interwoven for centuries to come. However, the idea of the separation had been planted and especially some persecuted religious minorities propagated for such a separation.

For both theological (purity of Protestant faith) and political (sovereignty of the state) reasons, this idea was carried forward and eventually gave birth to secular democracy. Secular does not mean here that the state would be against (any) religion but that all citizens have equal rights and duties irrespectively of their religion and no religion plays a public role. For that to happen, one needs to separate religion and politics. This is a beautiful political-theological principle except that it being political-theological it violates itself.

Every secularity is of its own kind. In each case, the religious meddling in politics and statecraft is different – it is different religion or different forms of the same religion, and different societies. In each case, secularity reacts against a specific form of religious-political intermingling even if one may create universal-sounding principles on the basis of that specific case. Each democracy is thus a contribution to a specific debate on how to organize the relationship between overlapping faith and political communities. In that sense, no secular state is truly secular in the sense that it has to negotiate with the dominant religion(s) in order not to slide into theocracy or political use of religion. Secular state is one of the myths spun by modernity – modernity, by disenchanting the world, enchants us with its new myths.

Finnish fells, the alleged natural habitat of Santa Claus. Image: Mika Vähäkangas

Do you hear the bells jingle?

Yet, if we believe (like children) or act as if we believed (like adults) in Santa Claus or in secular democracy, it will be more fun, more peaceful, and more magical. Believing in or acting as if there was or should be equality between everyone irrespective of religious belonging makes politics and democracy far better than giving up that ideal. Faith in secular democracy curbs down religious majorities’ claims for organising the society only according to their principles. The result is increased religious liberty for the minorities. The myth of a secular state also undermines religious-political alliances that narrow down the political moving-space of the opposition, which is happening in some Eastern European countries banking on Christianised political rhetoric. The outcome of faith in the secular principle can also be increased political liberty.

Secular democracy is an ideal to strive for despite its impossibility. Secular democracy points to deeper political values beyond itself: equality, tolerance, and inclusion. Depending on your interpretation of your religion, they probably would not be in violation to its core values, either. From a historical perspective one may even claim that these values are a reinterpretation of the Christian Gospel in the political realm.

Christian-sounding sectarian identity politics is exclusive. Through such politics, Christianity becomes a vessel of power struggle between us and the others. This is the Constantinian model where Christendom is in the centre as if a fortress to be defended. Value-based Christian politics is inclusive in the sense that it promotes Christian values while communicating them in a manner that is open for any person of good will. In today’s world, Christianity as an identity in politics needs to die like a grain of wheat. Only then can it produce a good crop.

This Christmas time, if you listen very carefully, you may hear, together with all the children, the jingle of secular democracy. Those bells jingle equality, tolerance, and inclusion.

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