Interview med Forskningsdirektør Nick Spencer

Som optakt til arrangementet den 6. november i Sankt Ansgar, bringer vi her et interview med Nick Spencer, fra den britiske tænketank Theos. Se mere om arrangementet her 

1. As Europe becomes more and more secularized, will Christianity still have a role to play in the shaping of societies’ values and institutions?

Undoubtedly, but in a different way than has heretofore been the case. Up until quite recently, the way in which Christianity has shaped societies values and commitments has tended to be top-down; senior clerics, or in some cases Christian politicians, have articulated a model of the common good to which society has aspired (or at least pretended to!). That isn’t going away entirely, but I suspect the more common model for the 21st century will be bottom-up and practical (rather than rhetorical): localised examples of churches “doing good” and “living well” in their communities, and – hopefully – attracting others to join them.

2. In your book "The Evolution of the West" you write that historically "Christianity has been neither an unqualified friend nor an un unqualified foe to democracy." How would you consider this relationship today? Has Christianity become a better friend of democracy? In a Catholic context has "Dignitatis humanae" and "Gaudium et Spes" had any measurable effect on how Catholics view and practice democracy?

I would like to think Christianity is now a critical friend of democracy; generally supportive but not in an unqualified way. The historic Christian objections to democracy still stand – that vox populi is not vox Dei and that societies require a commitment to the good that popular opinion doesn’t always necessarily honour. That said,  you need a very good reason to deny the democratic voice – the British people voting for Brexit is not good enough, as some ‘Remainers’ have implied! More broadly, the Catholic shift towardsdemocracy in Vatican II was hugely significant, and in part responsible for what some academics have called the second great wave of democratisation.  Christianity is far more pro democracy today than it has been at any time in its history.

3. In your book you write about the "the religion of human rights" and you quote Deborah Orr for writing in 2013 that "for human rights to flourish, religious rights have to come second to them." In contrast to this view, you write that "it was Christian-inspired or at least Christian-flavoured parties and movements that were responsible for the embedding of human rights within European and even global politics." If we look at this not only historically but also with a view to the future, will Christianity still be important for the theoretical and normative underpinnings of human rights?

My sense is it will, in two particular ways. The first is in helping guard the familiar boundaries of human rights. What I mean is that there is no question about whether refugees should have their human rights respected, but there are questions about what this actually entails, and there is and will be popular – populist! – pressure against honouring such rights. I think the Church will be important in reminding states of their duties here – as indeed Pope Francis repeatedly has done. Secondly and more abstractly, the questions of what is a human right, to whom is it owed, and on what grounds are inherently contestable. We see this in debates around the start and end of life and will see them more as AI comes to challenge our notions of the human. Christianity should and will play a role in this difficult and subtle debate about the grounds and the contested (as opposed to familiar) boundaries of human rights.

4. Nationalism is again on the rise. Often the more nationalistic leaders appeal to the religious roots of the majority of this or that nation. Many of the founding fathers saw what later became the EU as a community based on Christian values and saw it not only as a community of free trade but a transcending community based on common human rights and the respect for the dignity of the human person. Christianity, it seems, can be used to divide us or to unite us. In that regard, what are roles and the responsibilities of the Christian leaders and the laity in the different churches and ecclesial communities?

I have just written an essay on “Christian populism” which will, I hope, be in any second edition of the Evolution of the West. The short answer is “essential”. As you rightly say, populist leaders in Europe regularly (although not ubiquitously) reach for Christian language and imagery to define and defend their nation (sometimes against liberalism, often against multiculturalism, usually against Islam). However, it tends to be a theologically-light language and imagery, in which, say, the cross is the emblem of “our” tradition and identity, rather than of supreme divine self-giving. The people best placed to point this out and pull the rug out from under populist rhetoric are church leaders – and it’s something by and large that they have been doing.

5. In Denmark and much of the protestant world we are currently celebrating the reformation’s 500thanniversary. You often write about “Christianity” as a common denominator. But what about Christianity’s internal divisions?

They are all too many! We have just completed a project at Theos on ecumenism in England, using Churches Together in England as the case study (not least because it incorporates an impressive 44 denominations!) The signs are positive – bridges that were detonated in the 16th and 17th century have long since been rebuilt and there is much traffic across them. But we also see the most positive signs not in face-to-face dialogue but in side-by-side action which builds the trust for dialogue. That, given the challenges of numbers that face so many denominations in Europe, leads us to recommend than the future healing of Christianity internal divisions lies in shared local action and mission. There’s already much of this going on but we need more!