Thursday, 11 December 2014

Church and State

Fiji - a Secular State
Does Religion Have a Role to Play?
Fr. Kevin J. Barr

"Dear Croz, I read with interest the article of Max Wallace - interesting but also selective. I attach an article of mine published in the local press about the secular state. I enlarged upon it in my booklet called The Church and Politics.   Kevin 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 society 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 should not normally 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. Like everyone else in society they have the right to express their opinions freely.

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.

As Marcus Borg (2006:27) notes:
          “Much of the Bible protests the injustice of political and economic
          systems.  Indeed, perhaps half of the biblical message is political in
          this sense.  Moses, the prophets, Jesus, Paul and the Book of
          Revelation all protest against human systems of domination and
          advocate a very different vision of life under God.  They are
          passionately against injustice and war, the two great scourges of the
          ancient world and passionately for justice and peace. In this they
          participate in God’s passion, for God is passionate about justice and
          peace.  Indeed this is what the Kingdom of God is about – it is for
          the earth.  It is what life would be like on earth if God were king and
          the rulers of this world were not.”

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.

Recently (2014) our Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama stated:
“Fijians are a religious people, and our government must depend on people of all faiths to be our moral compass – not to impose their religious practices through law but to ensure government’s actions respect the guiding  principles of all faiths.”

 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.


  1. And where, if anywhere, in a secular state, is there a line, between religious organizations and their spokespersons and the 'business' of politics? Should, for example, religious organizations endorse candidates for political office? Should religious organizations be allowed the license of endorsing one political party as opposed to another one? Should religious doctrine be a part of the curriculum in taxpayer funded or subsided
    public schools? Under the guise of 'science' should 'creationism' be taught in taxpayer funded or subsidized public schools? These--and many other similar issues--are surely matters for intelligent public debate. Many of these issues may well have to be litigated and settled within the confines of the Judicial system--as has been the case, for example, in the United States (where, by the way, religious organizations have tax exempt status and must abide by certain rules subject to judicial review).

    The sources that Kevin Barr cites to buttress his arguments are, as one would expect, narrow and very selective. There is a huge body of well reasoned source material (including Judicial decisions) on this touchy subject from which contrary arguments can be drawn.

  2. Some of your readers ought to be interested in reading Christopher Hitchens, for example--in the interests of 'balance.'

  3. A matter that ought also to occupy Kevin Barr's attention is the issue of secularizing the governance of religious organizations in Fiji. A good place to start might be the Catholic Church itself. Members of Churches ought to have rights similar to those of citizens in the greater body politic. Is it still too early in the day for Catholic priests to be assigned to Parishes rather than have Parish Priests being elected to their position in a given Parish for a given (possibly renewable) term? A little bit more home rule for Catholics in far flung outliers of the Catholic empire would be nice too.Some vigorous internal open debate between members of the flock and their shepherds would help oil the machinery of intelligent debate which is likely to have a flow on effect in the larger social and political order.

    The "clergy" who administer and control tax exempt religious organizations ought not to rely simply on their monopoly access to the pulpit from which they can speak unchallenged. Reliance on the power and authority of the clerical collar (even where the 'bula' shirt has become fashionable) and the power to call the shots from the pulpit are hardly very democratic. Members of the lay community in any religious organization ought not to continue to be treated as if they were potted plants--or to tweak the metaphor a bit--as mere hewers of wood and carriers of water--and as contributors to the coffers of their "churches". Comeon, Kevin, taxation with some representation--and not just the smoke and mirrors stuff.

    And, Kevin, the next time you get a chance to, get a copy of The Wind that Shakes the Barley and watch it closely.
    There's a point here and a point there that you might find interesting, useful and instructive. There's a dozen frames at least on the Parish Priest spouting off from the pulpit on Sunday and the reaction of several members of the congregation (Irish men and women). No there's a message in that for you--and for Fiji Catholics in general. Please don't patronize me by saying: "We're not ready for that yet." Make us ready, Father, that's a fundamental part of your job--unless you have one standard for the civil polity and another one for the Church.

    Have a great Christmas and do great, imaginative, bold things in the New Year.

  4. my wish for 2015 - retribution. Those that haven't done the wrong thing and not benefitted themselves from the rise to power of the thugs and cronies, need not worry.

  5. The late Christopher Hitchens is of course de rigueur for anyone with the wit and inclination to question the 'status quo' or indeed the 'status quo ante'. But in a land where some bookshops have long had the temerity to post "No Free Reading' signs that is scarcely likely? This kind of foolish attitude must first be fixed and the individual must be encourage to question and to challenge the nonsense that daily passes for reasonable argument.

  6. Fiji is a sad place when it comes to book stores. What you say, Welcome Home, about signs in bookstores that say 'no free reading', if true, is appalling. The last time I checked in Suva there were no book stores except the one at USP which is hardly a real bookstore. There is a lot of "nonsense (in Fiji) that daily passes for reasonable argument"--you are absolutely right.

    1. Second bite at the apple: The attitude to which you refer, Welcome Home, and encouragement to "question and challenge the nonsense ...." etc. etc. one might have reasonably expected to be the job of the USP but it has fallen mightily short. Just take a look at the string of recent Vice-Chancellors of USP--including the present one--they're a pretty desultory lot. Desultory, small minded, unimaginative Vice-Chancellors tend to run desultory, small minded, unimaginative institutions. The uSP's mission statement seems to say: "We are deeply committed to train and produce mediocre minds who will become good, pliable civil servants and pliable low to mid-level under educated and under informed personnel with degrees in the sciences." I think the fervent hope in the Pacific islands that USP is supposed to serve is that there is a deep and abiding hope that the questioning types will pack their bags and fold their tents and seek the pleasures of exile in far away lands.

    2. Got an eMail the other day from someone who described Fiji as being "demon-cratic" --demon-cratic Fiji.
      I said that was a bit farfetched. The reply I got back: But it is so poetic. I decided I could not argue very plausibly with that especially when I thought of the sign in Fiji bookstores that say: "No free reading."

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