Fiji - A Secular State
Does Religion Have a Role to Play in the State?
Fr. Kevin J. Barr
Today, in most countries of the world, there is a recognised separation of Church (or religion) and state. Both are autonomous and one is not subject to the control of the other. Where this separation of religion and state is recognised we say that society is “secularised”. Peter Berger defines secularisation as “the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols”. In a secularised society institutional religion in the form of a state religion ceases to impose order on the world by way of external controls.
However one of the characteristics of a secular state is that it recognises the freedom of its citizens to practise the religion of their choice and respects their religious traditions – be they Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sihk – or perhaps non-religious stances such as humanism or atheism.
The secularisation of society has given rise to two different interpretations and reactions among religious people.
Some see the church and religious organisations as having no role to play in politics and in the development of this world. They think that they should be concerned only with ‘spiritual’ things and ‘other-worldly salvation’. Religion is a private matter for individuals. Its concern should not be with this world but with the world to come. Some may even say that this world is evil and that religious people should have nothing to do with it. We should look for salvation only in a future life beyond the grave.
Others however react strongly to this “privatisation” of religion - to the narrowing down of religion merely to the inner life of the private individual. They say that religion must always be personal but not private. They stress that our religious faith cannot remain aloof from what happens in this world and that religious people can and must exert an influence in the social, economic and political areas of their societies. Our religious faith must help to enlighten and direct our existence on earth. Religion is not a separate compartment of our lives. We cannot separate faith and life. Because politics, the economy, culture, and religion are all part of life, we cannot dissociate faith and the economy, faith and culture, faith and politics. Moral principles and religious values are involved in the areas of economic and political decisions. Mahatma Gandhi once remarked: “I am told that religion and politics are different spheres of life. But I would say without a moment’s hesitation and yet in all honesty that those who claim this do not know what religion is”.
It should be clear that religious organisations do not seek to be involved in politics in the sense that they promote a particular party or political platform. But, if they are to fulfil their prophetic role in society, they must be ‘political’ in the sense that they bring the message and values of religion to this world today. This message cannot be divorced from the economic, social and political dimensions of a particular historical situation and the challenges and demands that arise from it.
It would be naive to think that the church or religious organisation must support any government simply because it happens to be in power. Those who use Romans 13 to uphold the status quo misunderstand Paul’s meaning and the total message of the scriptures. It is incumbent upon the church in its prophetic role to hold up to the scrutiny of the gospel and the values of the Kingdom any government or regime in which it finds itself and under which its children must live, and to evaluate and, if necessary, criticise the actions and policies of that government.
In 1976, President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya said to the Catholic Bishops of Kenya: “The Church is the conscience of society, and today’s society needs a conscience. Do not be afraid to speak. If we go wrong and you keep quiet, one day you may have to answer for our mistakes”. And the American theologian, Monika Hellwig, wrote: “The task of the churches is at all times to protest against injustice, to challenge what is inhuman, and to side with the poor and oppressed.” The church must raise its voice in criticism whenever the values of human dignity, justice, freedom and community are at stake.
So religion and religious organisations are still important in a secular state and exert an influence on the lives of individuals and, through them, on society – its policies and its structures.