The Secular State and the Oxford Union

Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan on the 27 December 2007. She had twice been Prime Minister of Pakistan and the first woman to lead a Muslim state. She was, at the time of her assassination, chairing the Pakistan Peoples Party in the run up to the country’s elections.

In the 1970s she had studied at Oxford University. While there she was elected president of the Oxford Union, becoming the first Asian woman to head the debating society. For this current term the Standing Committee had already planned the first debate to be on the motion, "this House believes that the ideal state is the secular state;" and I was invited to take part. Having agreed in early December, just before the day of the debate (17 January 2008) I found that not unreasonably this had become the Benazir Bhutto Memorial Debate. There would first be tributes to Benazir by Alan Duncan MP and Victoria Schofield, both of whom knew her personally having been themselves former Presidents of the Union in Benazir's time at Oxford. Then, at the start of the debate, would follow a minute's silence "in memory of this strong and impassioned leader".

On the order paper it was announced that two undergraduates would propose and oppose, followed by (for the proposition) the Chief Executive of the BVCA (the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association); the President of the Oxford Secular Society; and the Executive Director of the National Secular Society (Keith Porteous Wood) and (for the opposition) myself; the former President of the Young Muslim Association; and the new Bishop of Worcester, John Inge, formerly vicar of Wallsend and someone I know.

Apart from the sad death of Benazir Bhutto, this was a very important subject and attracted a standing-room-only crowd. However, much of the arguing in favour of "secular states" seemed to be on the grounds that in religious states there was no sexual freedom particularly for homosexuals and the worst and most brutal Islamic states were clearly in mind. No distinction was attempted between different sorts of religious states. In 10 minutes (with interventions) it is very hard to make a sustained case on such an important subject. However, my contention is that the secular state (in the normal meaning of the term) is not the ideal state. The following is a transcript of how I tried to argue the case.

At the Oxford Union

"To oppose the motion when we are remembering a distinguished former member of this Society who was wanting Pakistan to remake itself as a secular, democratic, liberal state may seem perverse. So may I say that I wholeheartedly agree with her desire for a democratic liberal state. For such a democratic liberal state, I submit, is the ideal state.

However, such a democratic liberal state has been the fruit not of secularism, but of Christianity (I speak as a convinced Christian). To say that is not to want to go back to the middle ages and the wars of religion. Of course, not. But while we do not want to go back, we need to look back. So unashamedly I am going to talk about Britain and how we have got a democratic liberal state that is the envy of many in the world.

At the heart of democratic liberalism, you have to have something like the Judeao-Christian belief that each man and women is made in the image and likeness of God, so to be respected and equal before the law. It is a historical fact that when you lose the fatherhood of God before long you lose the brotherhood of man. You also lose other ingredients vital to democratic liberal societies - sometimes a concern for truth; often the antidote to moral anarchy; and, not least, its unique and essential liberalism. Classical liberalism – not libertarianism but liberalism - was born in the seventeenth century out of the wars of religion. It came from a Christian Puritan reaction, led by independent thinkers like John Locke of this University. The great watershed was his Letter of Toleration. In this he argued that beliefs must always be free and changed by persuasion not force. So the State (that part of society alone entitled to use force to secure obedience) must never use its force to enforce beliefs.

In the 16th and 17th centuries such enforcement was considered legitimate. There is a memorial just a few hundred yards away from this Oxford Union building to the Protestant martyrs, Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer, who in the 16th century were burnt to death at the stake in the Broad, outside Balliol, for their Protestant beliefs. The non-conforming Puritans, however, in the 17th century saw this as so wrong. After all, God allows men and women to be free. The Christian doctrine of final judgment and the doctrine of hell underlines God's willingness to allow men and women to reject him. Christian people of all people, therefore, must also allow others to reject God and his truth. So 1689, with the Act of Toleration and Locke's Letter of Toleration, was a defining moment in the history of human politics. But Locke's presuppositions were theistic not atheistic. He believed that the rights of men and women are given by God, our Creator. When his ideas 100 years later were incorporated into the American Declaration of Independence these words were used:

"… all men are created equal … they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, … among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

[After a floor intervention on the American Church-State issue, I pointed out that the American Founding Fathers were wanting to separate the State from the institutional churches not from the Christian religion. They did not want any one denomination privileged. Jefferson, indeed, allowed government sponsored chaplains in the Congress and the armed forces.]

Furthermore, not only did Locke ground his rights in transcendent reality, but his liberty was not absolute. Violence, sexual licence and religions that were clearly subversive were still not to be tolerated.

A theory of the secular state

So this British liberal Enlightenment tradition, like the American Enlightenment tradition, was tolerant of other views and beliefs while rooted in the Christian faith. This was so different to the 18th century French Enlightenment tradition that was un- (even anti-) Christian, often wanting, in the words of Tom Paine, a “religion of humanity”.

However, 100 years later still, in the 19th century, this Christian Liberal tradition was challenged by John Stuart Mill with his essay, On Liberty. This has been called "the first modern exposition of a theory of the secular state." Mill argued that the State must not only never use it power to prohibit ideas. Also it must not use its power to prohibit actions, however, self-damaging, foolish or immoral, unless harm was done to others (this clearly covered all sorts of sexual activity and related matters). But Mill's ideas remained politically dormant for the next 100 years until the 1960s. They then gave birth to a new kind of anti-Christian liberalism – which is what we now usually mean by secularism.

Since the 1960s, however, the resulting marriage breakdowns with dismembered families; sexually transmitted diseases with resulting infertility; abortions; and the results of many other anti-Christian initiatives, have given pause for thought. People are now arguing that these behaviours do harm others. On the one hand, there are harms to children who are often innocent victims; and, on the other hand, harms in terms of rising costs to tax-payers for the NHS, social services and the police as a consequence of these new secularizing permissions. It is for all these reasons that, I submit, the ideal state is not the secular state. However, the alternative to the secular state does not have to be a religious theocracy. Jesus Christ made it clear that the kingdom of God can never be coterminous with the kingdoms of this world. Furthermore, he taught the legitimacy of both God and Caesar, each with claims on us in public affairs. Secularists seem to want to do away with God and have only Caesar. That is dangerous. Some extreme religionists seem to want to do away with Caesar and have only God. That also is dangerous - this side of heaven. Mainstream Christianity, however, believes that Caesar (or the state) has a God given function. You need God and Caesar.

The power and empire of Christ our Redeemer

But a state must operate with some values and beliefs. No state can be totally neutral. For the good of all, as we have seen, a state must never enforce beliefs. There must only be persuasion with regard to beliefs. To that end, it is better, surely, for a state to have Christian values than anti-Christian secularist values. For those secularist values, grounded simply in the will of majorities, and not of Almighty God, have been, and are, too often a threat to legitimate minorities (think of Stalinist Russia and its replicas).

Such a state with Christian values, constitutionally, is Britain. So at the Coronation Service the Archbishop of Canterbury presents the orb to the monarch with these words:

"Receive this orb set under the cross and remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our Redeemer."

To remember that is no bad thing; and Britain and the world would be the better the more that was remembered. I beg to oppose this motion."

Back to top