Religion can provide early warning system against excesses of the market
Rite & Reason:The unjust ruling Protestant ascendancy established following the defeats at the Boyne in 1690 and Aughrim in 1691 took the best part of a century to unravel. This was accomplished through Catholic emancipation in 1829, the abolition of tithes, disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871, a series of land Acts and finally the establishment of the Free State in 1922.
The “special position” of the Roman Catholic Church enshrined in the 1937 Constitution, and the at times overweening influence of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the affairs of State, also constituted a privileging that has now been largely dismantled.
Through the constitutional campaigns associated with Garret FitzGerald and former dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin Rev Victor Griffin, a successful divorce referendum, and the social enrichment resulting from immigration, Ireland has become a more pluralist and secular society.
The churches should welcome this, and while still wishing to imbue society with their deeper values, should not seek to do this on the basis of advantaged status.
From John Locke onwards the default mode of political liberalism has been to separate church and state, religion and society, by seeking to confine religion to the private sphere.
The US has adhered closely to this model, while European democracies have had more variegated arrangements.
The question for Ireland now is what would be the best way forward given our distinctive history and present cultural composition?
While no religious tradition should be favoured, religion should not be progressively excised from public life.
Modern industrial societies exist in the context of powerful administrative bureaucracies and a globalised free market, and lack the resources to provide the necessary checks and balances to withstand these corroding influences.
A valueless secular autonomy cannot provide the kind of civic culture that can resist the evident pathologies of contemporary market economies.
We need a public sphere infused with the moral energies of not only a reinvigorated secular humanism, but also the ethical vitality that religion at its best can bring to society.
At the heart of Ireland’s recent economic collapse was the lamentable moral failure of a blind faith in the market, and if the present Government is to put any distance between itself and its predecessor it must act in step with the constructive moral energies in civil society.
Irish society is at a tipping point where it could very easily flip from a theocratic past to an ideologically driven secularism that offers no resistance to valueless economic liberalism. It would be ironic if this were to happen at the very point where much secular political theory has now come to acknowledge the critical role of religion.
Germany’s leading political philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, has described religion as offering an early warning system against some of the worst excesses of modern market-orientated societies.
Habermas argues that religious language has “inspiring, indeed, unrelinquishable semantic contents which elude . . . the expressive power of a philosophical language and still await translation”.
Social egalitarianism, human rights and democracy, he writes, “is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice”.
With political roots in the fertile soil of Irish 18th-century republicanism, we need to be reminded of two significant features of that tradition.
First, democracy requires a love of the civic virtues, which was central to the republicanism of the United Irish Society.
Second, the reception of the Enlightenment in Ireland worked in harness with and not in opposition to religious convictions.
In his A Letter to the People of Ireland (1796), Thomas Russell, without embarrassment, made religion the basis of his political credo.
The 1916 leaders bore witness to this heritage when they began their proclamation: “In the name of God . . .”
* Very Rev John Marsden is Dean of St Brigid’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Kildare