The occasion of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, acting as guest editor of the leftist journal the New Statesman attracted much media comment. Most of this focused on Williams’ criticisms of the right-of-centre coalition government’s advocacy of the ‘Big Society’, intended to shift the balance of welfare provision away from the State towards the community and voluntary sector. A closer examination of Williams’ intervention into the debate reveals it to be part of a tradition of public theology in which Christian teaching informs fundamental principles underpinning the nature of political participation and societal values. In this incident of a church leader and the media, therefore, we have an opportunity to explore in greater depth a continuing debate about the place of religion in what many are calling a ‘post-secular’ society, in which the phenomena of secularization and religious revival co-exist in novel and often contradictory ways.
In this article I examine public statements about the relationship between private faith and public reason through the pronouncements of four leading politicians: Tony Blair (United Kingdom), Helen Clark (New Zealand), Barack Obama (United States of America) and Kevin Rudd (Australia). Of the four, Blair and Rudd have been most articulate about the way in which their own personal faith-commitments have informed their political motivations, but in doing so both men have had to negotiate a broader cultural suspicion of 'doing God' in public. Whilst religion may be regarded as representing a strong 'moral compass' for a politician, those espousing a religious faith in public also have to contend with public anxieties about religious extremism. Of the other two, I argue that Obama speaks into a more receptive public arena, and that part of his skill has been to tap into a long-standing tradition in American public life which, despite separation of church and state, is more attuned to the casting of political values in religious language. Helen Clark is the only one of the four to identify herself as 'agnostic', yet her support for the 2007 Statement on Religious Diversity signals a new willingness on the part of a political culture that has tended to be 'functionally secular' to embrace the notion of religious faith as a part of healthy civil society. All four examples, therefore, furnish us with insights into different dimensions of the relationship between a politician's personal faith and their public accountability in contemporary western democracies.
One of the most distinctive movements within Christian theology to have emerged over the past generation has been the various theologies of liberation which originated in Latin America but which now span a diversity of styles, including feminist and womanist, Black, Asian and lesbian/gay/bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) theologies. All theologies of liberation purport to give a voice to the experiences of those formerly silenced or marginalized by society and/or the Church. This is essentially an issue of power, since one of the authenticating marks of such theologies is the extent to which they enable such groups to move from powerlessness to empowerment. Yet theologies of liberation also represent, potentially, another redistribution of power, by enabling previously excluded groups to bring their interpretations and testimonies into theological discourse. This article examines the background to this intersection of power and knowledge in theology, and asks how public theology might assist such a process of theological empowerment.