Who would have thought, even ten or 15 years ago, that matters
of Church and State, having seemed long settled and even boring,
would take centre-stage, often acerbic and worse, in our public
discourse? Part of the new urgency concerns the more robust
acknowledgment of the multicultural nature of our societies: it is
not just Church and State; it is Mosque and State, and Synagogue
and State, too.
There is also a surge in the culture of human rights, with the
concomitant Copernican revolution in the status of the individual's
becoming not simply an object of the state (or subject of the
realm), but sovereign: as a British or French or US citizen, I do
not belong to the state - the state belongs to me. So traditional
arrangements do not have quite the same persuasive power as before,
and contestation abounds.
The classical freedom of religion, to be found in all
constitutions, is now acknowledged by all courts to be
ontologically accompanied by freedom from religion.
Freedom from religion is not only, or even primarily, populated by
the lapsed and in- different, but by those for whom non-religion is
a form of religion itself, which deserves the utmost respect.
The seemingly simple formula that seemed to serve so well in the
past - we respect freedom of religion and freedom from religion -
now constitutes a contested battle-line. If I have a right to
freedom from religion, can we still adorn our streets with
Christmas decorations - even neighbourhoods with a predominantly
non-Christian population? The list of examples is endless.
It seems to me that the UK is by far the best place to serve as
the civil laboratory in which these issues can be discussed and
resolved, in a way that may even offer examples to others
This is because, first, it has historically avoided the easy
Laïque French solution, banishing religion to the private
sphere. It has acknowledged that religion may be so inextricably
linked with national identity that to opt for that Laïque
solution is to do violence to the very identity of the nation.
So the more challenging option of having a full commitment to
the liberal pluralist democratic state, and yet affirming the
principle and practice of an Established Church, with the head of
state serving as the Supreme Governor of the Church - this is, in
and of itself, an example of tolerance and accommodation in
What is so impressive and typical of the British experience is
that, although the Queen is indeed the Supreme Governor of the
Church of England, she clearly is perceived to be monarch of all
British citizens, religious and secular, Christian, Muslim, and
Jewish - as evidenced most recently last year in the royal wedding,
and this year in the Diamond Jubilee.
It is an illustration that religion, even as part of the very
identity and artefact of the state, need not compromise its
democratic and liberal identity, and need not alienate its
non-religious or other-religious citizens. It is a salutary lesson
for many regions of the world that may be looking for models to
reconcile democracy, human rights, and the religious artefacts of
Second, and only somewhat more nebulously, is the British
panache for "commonsense" accommodation, a virtue of a tradition
that eschewed a formal constitution, where the common law was
"written on the hearts of the judges". Compromise comes into play
rather than "principled" determination of a "winner wins all and a
loser loses all" character. This has its weaknesses, but in this
context it has great virtues, too.
Some principles might be categorical - one can never, for
example, not insist on the ability of the individual freely to
leave a religious community. Like most other rights, the freedom of
religion is never absolute.
If someone - let's call him Abraham - were to announce one day
that he had had a vision, and that he was to take his son to the
Lake District and sacrifice him as an offering to God, then we
would rightly call the police and discuss kindly with such an
individual the concept of infanticide. We will not accept that the
mere mention of "religion" is enough to displace other cherished
Likewise, however, Britain has never bought into the canard that
for the state to be "neutral" in matters of religion, it had to be
secular. So, for example, as in the Netherlands, but unlike in,
say, France or Italy, it practises both respect for religion and
true neutrality - agnosticism, one might say - in funding
denominational schools alongside secular ones. Unashamedly, such
funding comes with some strings - the curriculum of all schools has
to teach the civic virtues necessary for respectful co-existence in
a multicultural society.
Some issues are particularly fraught, such as adoption agencies
and same-sex couples. Would I really object to a Jewish adoption
agency that received children from observant Jews whose
circumstances sadly did not allow them to keep the children, and
insisted that they find a loving home that observed the rules of
kosher and shabbat, so that they could grow up faithful to their
I would, perhaps, be suspicious of an adoption agency that
singled out an aversion to same-sex couples, but what if it
insisted on placing children in families that followed a Catholic
life in a holistic way - traditional marriage (not cohabiting
partners) and church attendance, so that that child could grow up
faithful to his or her heritage?
This is a more complex question, especially in a society where
there were no shortages of adoption agencies corresponding to some
principal world-views, religious or otherwise. I give these as
examples of pragmatic, commonsensical attempts at accommodation
rather than doctrinaire drawing of lines in the sand.
There will be many who will rage at any of these accommodations;
there will be others who will find them examples of muddling
through. Others still will find them attempts at mutual respect for
incommensurable moral positions.
Europe leads by example, not by force. We know that in many
parts of the world, the concern for religion is the reason given
for rejecting values of pluralist democracy and human rights. In
some deep way, the British approach - with its Established Church,
its dual-role monarch, its multidenominational state schools, and
its "muddling-through" spirit of respectful accommodation - may
just be the kind of example one can humbly offer to an angry
Professor Weiler is Director of the Straus
Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice at New York
University. He is lecturing on this subject at Westminster Abbey on
24 October (www.westminster-abbey.org/faith).