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From Obama to Trump and beyond (Jan 2017)

It is transition time in the world’s premier seat of power and, as an organisation working for interfaith conflict resolution, we might at this juncture ask what kinds of prevailing influences, flowing from a changing of the guards, are likely to affect our cause.

Why should Interfaith Conflict Resolution be concerned about the way temporal power is projected from one or more centres on the globe? We are not party-political. We are not even strictly political, nor strictly religious. We are not a religion, new or otherwise. We would be if we were a church or temple or congregation or denomination or sect within a faith. But our public mission is about the relations between these religious entities. The space where these relations are mediated (and hopefully harmonised) is in some respects political, since the dominant liberal, parliamentary democracy model of the secular state (pre 2017) must accommodate people of various faith backgrounds and guarantee peaceful coexistence between them. Yet in other respects we are concerned with church-state relations : with relations between the religious organisation of society and the political organisation of society.

Bear in mind that the term “church-state relations” is here used in a generic and universal sense. For example, in the world’s largest democracy, India, “church” refers to the (four-fifths) dominant religion, Hinduism. The governing political party of the day also has a Hindu colouring to it. The old term “Hindustan” conveys the notion of a religious organism, in much the same way as the old term “Christendom”. In Iran, church-state relations would be between the dominant Shia Islam, led by its clerical hierarchy, and the government of the day. In Israel, it is Judaism expressed through various strands - orthodox, ultra-orthodox, reform etc. - in relation to the (present) Likud-led political government that constitutes church-state relations.

In a nutshell, then, the concern of ICR is not only interreligious relations but also church-state relations, so defined. Furthermore, the concerns are global, because interreligious and church-state relations play out transnationally; not merely in one’s home country.

The secular state is a modern thing, an invention of the last 400 years. It has negative and positive implications for religion. The French secular state requires suppressing signs of religiosity in public. The American version prides itself on religious liberty - freedom to pursue the faith of one’s choice. But the liberal milieu of America means that no one religion should vie for supremacy over others in public. Their constitution is often interpreted as the separation of church and state. But ICR believes that a fuller truth - which may sound paradoxical - is that church and state should be both separated and united. This can happen if the state adopts a mature, authentic ideology of interfaith harmony.

We believe in unity in diversity for the sake of a peaceful, cohesive religious sphere. We believe in the oneness yet distinctness of church and state. In fact, we assert the oneness yet distinctiveness of church, state and economy. One society under three distinct aspects. But which society - or whose society? The only satisfactory answer for our generation is the global society, to which belong all human beings. So we are unabashed globalists at a time when the backlash to globalisation has been cited as the cause of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, along with the nationalistic populism sweeping many countries.

The pendulum has swung to one side : the anti-globalisation, anti-elite side. The “politically-correct” elites have been regarded as the promoters of the globalisation agenda, in its economic, political and religious aspects. Their inclination is progressive, backing the evolutionary impulse towards the mixing and interdependence of all the peoples of the world. The outgoing president, Obama, has been a leading member of the progressive elite. The incoming president, Trump, represents the forces of the inevitable reaction to the impulse. Republicans held sway; then came eight years of Democrat administration; now there will be a Republican period, and then, in all probability, there will be another Democrat administration succeeding it.

The pendulum swings one way and then the other, ensuring that a period of change is followed by one of stabilisation.

Now that the prevailing influence is a conservative one, it is a good time for localism, parochialism and provincialism to flourish, which it is possible to embrace without narrow-mindedness. We can love what’s small and near to us; strengthen the bonds of family, and close community. Visit the neighbours. Eat fresh local produce and patronise local industries. Get in touch with the traditions that mould our specific national identity. Get to know people who came to our country before us and were active in setting up the way things are today. Recall the simplicity of life in the past. Understand the gripes of old people and be merciful to those resistant to change. Take time away from the World Wide Web and explore the backyard without wifi and devices. Discover the natural beauties of our own postcode. Take private initiatives, without waiting for public authorities to solve all our problems. Remember the importance of subsidiarity.

In conclusion : yes, Interfaith Conflict Resolution can be seen as an organisation progressive by its very nature, since it works to facilitate globalisation - the intermingling, mixing and interdependence of the peoples of the world. It may well put out fresh growth faster during a period when the world’s pendulum swings in the progressive direction. Now that the pendulum swings in the conservative direction, we can adapt, and nourish our romance with localism, while maintaining our progressive ideals. Autumn and winter are followed by spring and summer.

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