Rethinking secularism:

Radical Orthodoxy’s new home?

posted by Matthew Engelke
There is no such thing as a secular realm, a part of the world that can be
elevated above God and explained and investigated apart from Him.

—Phillip Blond

This past November, a new think tank called ResPublica was launched in London, in the opulent surrounds of the Royal Horseguards Hotel. It’s not every day that a think tank appears, of course, but even so this one attracted an unusual amount of attention. The meeting room in which the launch took place was overflowing. David Cameron, the Conservative Party Leader, modernizer, and hopeful Prime Minister, provided the opening remarks, and introduced its director, Phillip Blond. In the lead-up to the launch, Blond got prime coverage on television, in the broadsheets, and throughout the blogosphere, building on what had actually been almost a year’s worth of buzz over his rise to the top.

ResPublica’s signature approach is what Blond calls “Red Toryism,” which he outlined in the February 2009 issue of Prospect as “the tradition of communitarian civic conservatism,” and about which we’ll soon hear more. (Blond’s book, Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It, is set to be published in London this April, just before the British general election.) As Blond once described them in an interview, these communitarian Red Tories are “rather lovely people who say: ‘I’m a little bit Red, I’m a little bit Tory. I’ve been a conservative all my life, but I want to look after poor people.’”

Blond has been described by the New Statesman as the Conservative Party’s “philosopher-king,” but it is probably more accurate to say he’s part of Cameron’s scholastic stable—something like Tony Blair’s Tony Giddens. He is not every Tory’s Tory, to be sure. But his “progressive conservatism” has been useful as Cameron and his allies (the Cameroonians) try to erase the Conservative Party’s lingering image of being the Nasty Party.

Perhaps not surprisingly, media portraits of Blond have often been built around a few talking points, some glib, others intriguing. Firstly, and for fun, that Blond is the step-brother of the actor Daniel Craig (with much being made of the Blond/Bond pun). Secondly, and more seriously, that, in his capacity as a Red Tory, Blond doesn’t much like Tesco and other monopolist corporations; he wants a return to the butchers and bakers of yore, rooted in community networks. Blond talks up the virtues of society and talks down any and every liberal tradition of individualism (including Thatcherism). And finally, that Blond is an Anglican theologian who left his job at a provincial university to make his mark in the Westminster Village.

It’s this last point I want to focus on here, as a way of reflecting in part on Blond’s political vision as it has been set out thus far, and in part on how that vision relates to the secular arrangement in early twenty-first-century Britain. To date, what has grabbed the most attention in terms of Blond’s faith (other than the fact that he has one in the first place) are his opposition to abortion and his lack of enthusiasm over gay couples being able to adopt. These are important issues, but in and of themselves they do not get to the heart of the matter. What is most notable about Blond’s foray into the public square is the extent to which his theology would seem to demand the radical transformation of the public square itself. It is not just that Blond is fed up with New Labour and Conservative complicity in fostering neoliberalism, and it is not just that he wants to bolt cultural conservatism onto an economic progressivism. It is that the very language of politics, as well as that of culture—and thus the very terms of the secular system in which they operate—have to be reconfigured at the ontological level. This, at least, is what one would expect on the basis of his theology.

As many readers will know, Blond is not just any Anglican, or any theologian. He is a student of and advocate for Radical Orthodoxy, the Anglo-Catholic (yet ecumenical) “project” that came in part out of Peterhouse, Cambridge, in the 1990s, and is perhaps best known through the work of John Milbank (who taught Blond at Peterhouse). In recent years, Milbank has garnered attention outside theology through his regular sparring with such continental atheist philosophers as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. But his most important achievement to date (which, incidentally, has not received nearly enough attention from social scientists), is Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. In that book, Milbank took a swipe at almost every theological and social-theoretical tradition stretching back to the days of Duns Scotus. The framing argument is that theology should not accept social theory’s terms of debate: religion (God) cannot be understood in terms of the social, but only in terms of itself. Inasmuch as theology has accepted a secular arrangement, it has ceased to be true theology. Secular social science—indeed, any secular norm—is, we might say, abnormal and, ultimately, a failure in its own terms because it harbors metaphysical impulses. “The secular episteme is a post-Christian paganism,” he writes. Theology has to become the master social science, the channel through which all social thought passes. “It is theology itself that will have to provide its own account of the final causes at work in human history, on the basis of its own particular, and historically specific faith.” The importance of this account, in Milbank’s view—and why it both must be and deserves to be universal and encompassing—is that it will allow us to replace an “ontology of violence” with an “ontology of peace,” the latter being the true position of Christianity. Secular reason, as expressed in social theory and the compromised theologies that it tolerates, is always ultimately nihilistic, always based on this ontology of violence.

Blond’s take on this all is expressed quite passionately in his introduction to Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology. It is worth quoting the first paragraph at length:

We live in a time of failed conditions. Everywhere people who have no faith in any possibility, either for themselves, each other, or for the world, mouth locutions they do not understand. With words such as ‘politics’, they attempt to formalise the unformalisable and found secular cities upon it. They attempt to live in the in-between and celebrate ambiguity as the new social horizon, always however bringing diversity into accord with their own projections. Always and everywhere, these late moderns make competing claims about the a priori, for they must be seen to disagree. Indeed such thinkers feel so strongly about the ethical nature of their doubt that they argue with vehemence about overcoming metaphysics, about language and the dangers of presence. […] Blind to the immanence of such a world, unable to disengage themselves from whatever transcendental schema they wish to endorse, these secular minds are only now beginning to perceive that all is not as it should be, that what was promised to them—self-liberation through the limitation of the world to human faculties—might after all be a form of self-mutilation.

In transforming this theological manifesto into a political one, Blond has had to “formalise the unformalisable” to a certain extent. He cannot move in the think-tank world by talking about metaphysics and presence, still less—this being Britain—by talking about God. So what has not appeared in the Red Tory rendering of his work is a clear sense of whither the secular city, or, for that matter, whither the church. Indeed, what struck me most at the ResPublica launch, since I attended with his theological work in mind, is that neither Blond nor anyone else (during the Q&A session) made mention of religion, or even faith in the most generic, banal of ways. The closest Blond got was to say things such as:

A capitalism based on trust does not require external regulation or control. A capitalism based on reciprocity—free, open, honest exchange—has little bureaucracy or state power associated with it. A civil economy drives down the cost of suspicion that self-interest creates and crowds in good rather than bad behaviour. A culture of internal ethos rather than external regulation creates a whole new model of social capitalism that radically reduces the barriers to market entry that suspicion creates, and it prices in the very things that human beings most value and like about each other: trust, human affection, and open and honest behaviour. We can create a civic economy based on trust, sustainability, and reciprocity.

Sounds great! And as an anthropologist, it was hard not the hear echoes of Marcel Mauss in his words. Indeed, in a perverse way, Red Toryism does not seem all that far off from David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, which also wrestles with the legacy of Mauss. The anarchism is actually not surprising. What it means in a radically orthodox sense is not no governance but no state, a point made by the American exponent William T. Cavanaugh in his essay in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology. In a radically orthodox view, the problem with the state is that it leads to an “atomization of the citizenry.” The state is elemental to an ontology of violence (think Hobbes, think Rousseau), but anathema to an ontology of peace.

But as with any lovey-dovey statement about how wonderful we can be, the question to put to Blond is, how do we engender such trust? How can we create such a civic economy? The point is that Blond is not spouting empty rhetoric. Unlike many politicians, who are compelled just to sound inspiring and optimistic, Blond actually does have an answer: be radically orthodox.

I want to make a couple of things clear. First, I’ve never spoken to Phillip Blond, and I certainly don’t have the ability to read his mind. Second, I’m not a conspiracy theorist; I do not claim that Blond is covertly trying to foist a radically orthodox social arrangement on us through a political proxy set up in the secular city. What I am saying is that this double register of Radical Orthodoxy and Red Toryism is a near perfect encapsulation of the paradoxical location of religion in British politics: best hidden in plain view.

It is difficult to have a discussion or debate about the place of religion in British politics these days without someone bringing up the famous remark by Alistair Campbell (Tony Blair’s spin doctor) that “we don’t do God.” Campbell said this to a reporter from Vanity Fair who asked Blair about his faith; Campbell did not wait for Blair to answer. Since that time, “we don’t do God” has circulated as the a priori aperçu in all discussions of religion and politics: political talk cannot be religious talk. One problem with such a summary, though, is that British politicians do talk about religion—even if not in the same way as, say, their American counterparts. Blair did on occasion, and he made no secret of his strong faith.  In his first Labour Party Conference Speech as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown stressed that he got his values from his father, a minister in the Church of Scotland, and at one point quoted the Gospel of Mark.

Don’t get me wrong: too much public religiosity in politicians makes most Britons uneasy. It was only after he stepped down that Blair could openly be as Christian as he in fact is. And yet, what I think makes Britons more uneasy is the thought that religion is shaping things behind the scenes. Indeed, it’s not public religiosity in their politicians that bothers the British, but private religiosity, or, perhaps more accurately, the possibility of a “covert” religiosity at work. In my view, the key exchange on religion in politics in the past ten years is not that between Campbell and the Vanity Fair reporter. It’s one between the BBC’s bulldog Jeremy Paxman and Blair himself. It was February 2003, in the run-up to the Iraq War, and Paxman was chairing a question and answer session with Blair and an audience for Newsnight, the program he hosts. Paxman asked several questions, too, including one about Blair’s faith:

Paxman: … I want to explore a little further about your personal feelings about this war. Does the fact that George Bush and you are both Christians make it easier for you to view these conflicts in terms of good and evil?

Blair: I don’t think so, no, I think that whether you’re a Christian or you’re not a Christian you can try perceive what is good and what is, is evil.

Paxman: You don’t pray together for example?

Blair: [Blair smiles] No, we don’t pray together Jeremy, no.

Paxman: Why do you smile?

Blair: Because – why do you ask me the question?

Paxman: Because I’m trying to find out how you feel about it.

Blair: Possibly.

Smile. “Possibly.” What the transcription of this exchange cannot fully relay is the extent of Blair’s annoyance, the extent to which Paxman’s not-so-innocent question cut Blair to the bone. It is this exchange, in which Paxman and Blair almost square off on the question of whether the world’s leaders seek answers to the world’s issues by appealing to the divine, that captures a more central tension in how politics in Britain should or shouldn’t work. In this imagination of the secular, Politics has to be separate.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Blond has found favor in the political world with a politician who is, at best, what I referred to earlier as “just an Anglican.” Blair would surely be more interested in discoursing on theology with Blond than would Cameron. The most explicit David Cameron has gotten about his faith is to say that it’s a “fairly classic Church of England faith, a faith that grows hotter and colder by moments… If you are asking, do I drop to my knees and pray for guidance, no… But do I have faith and is it important, yes. My own faith is there, it’s not always the rock that perhaps it should be.”

When Cameron introduced Blond at the ResPublica launch, he said it was the largest such launch he’d ever been to, and that ResPublica would be “very important.” He also said that he did not agree with all of Blond’s positions, and would doubtless not agree with all of ResPublica’s platforms. But with that, Cameron left, apparently unable to stay for Blond’s speech.

Blond has maintained the public stance of an admiring outsider with a critical eye. He is not a full blooded Cameroonian. “We live in a time of crisis,” Blond begins in “Rise of the Red Tories,” his article for Prospect that provides the outline of his public-policy political vision. A time of crisis set within a time of failed conditions. What will be interesting to see is if and how Blond brings these times into sync, and in which res publica.

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One Response to “Radical Orthodoxy’s new home?”

  1. Will somebody name one—just one!—period in human history that was not “a time of crisis set within a time of failed conditions”?

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