Religion and theology have a crucial role to play in preventing democracies from descending into populist states where ‘might is right’, a former Archbishop of Canterbury has claimed.
In his 2017 Harold Wilson Lecture, delivered to the University of Huddersfield, Dr Rowan Williams said theology might seem an abstract discipline. However, when properly understood as ‘the exploration of human dignity in the presence of the Creator’, it became a matter of real political significance, because it could muster resistance to the idea that power settles arguments.
Dr Williams said, ‘The theological perspective is that the state is limited by the innate dignity of the citizen. Without that, democracy is lost. It becomes only an argument about power’.
Therefore, he said, the role of theologically-informed religious communities in democratic society was to ‘pester’ secular government and ‘nourish debate’. He explained: ‘The will of the majority may be lawful and may decide what we can permit or sanction. But what it doesn’t do is close down argument’. A defensible, justifiable democratic system needed open discussion and argument and the possibility of minds changing, ‘and that’s why we need the possibility of governments changing’.
The 2017 Harold Wilson Lecture took place before an audience of 400 in the University of Huddersfield’s Outler Building.