This edition of Nurturing Justice is written in response to a joint Theos (UK) - London School of Economics seminar, Is there a future for multiculturalism?, held on 20th October 2011, at the LSE to launch the recent publication Multiculturalism - a Christian Retrieval of Dr Jonathan Chaplin, Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (Tyndale House, Cambridge).
In our last edition of Nurturing Justice we discussed some of the problems which would result should the parliaments of this country accept the argument (which we suggest is based on a humanistic religious dogma) that marriage is a civil right. By passing legislation that assumes that marriage is the creature of government, the parliaments may find themselves mandating a form of language by which all citizens must henceforth refer to marriage. The critical argument was set forth in terms of "freedom of speech", and to some correspondents it came as a pleasant surprise.
On reflection, we should emphasize that a Christian political option also needs to clarify its use of this word "mandate". And it is to this clarification that we turn in this edition of NJ and the subsequent one. We will make a beginning to formulating a comprehensive concept of "mandate" that can serve us in our political and legal reflections.
We may well accept that Government's "mandate" is to ensure public justice. But as far as political theory is concerned that can only be the beginning of any analysis of Government's relationship with non-government structures and relationships. We are immediately confronted by the way Government must justly relate to the other structures and institutions - marriage and family, as well as all the other responsibilities like schools and businesses - which have "mandates" of their own. How is the Government to fulfill its mandate to give these other "mandates" their due? These structures are all part of our complex and differentiated social life. At this point political theory must enter into complex analysis that also must face the limits of these other non-state mandates, and not only about the limits of government in its responsibilities. Just as political life is a matter of government giving due respect to non-government relationships and structures, so it is also about the way of the government mandate is respected by those acting from out of these other responsibilities. And so, public policy is in need of a theory offering comprehensive political and legal guidance for negotiating these "border areas", where a mandate of one kind meets other kinds of mandate in the exercise of their own responsibility. That is where there are often seemingly intractable "border conflicts" that can prevail for generations.
So we need a coherent account of the diverse responsibilities to which Government in its administration of public justice must give due respect. To do this and assist our readers in this task, this edition of NJ and the next (26 & 27) will refer to a recent Theos / LSE seminar "Is there a future for multiculturalism?" held in London (see details at top of the page). In considering "multicultural justice and schooling" we look at only one facet of that worthwhile on-line discussion. NJ readers, who avail themselves of Chaplin's report, and who connect to the on-line recording of the LSE seminar, can evaluate the full discussion and criticism of multiculturalism for themselves. NJ strongly recommends that readers avail themselves of this resource. Here the discussion will be limited to issues of the philosophy of public education.
We commence by considering the response of Alan Craig, party leader of the Christian People's Alliance, a former local councilor, and a strong critic of the way multiculturalism has made an impact upon British society. He gave the following example which I here summarise:
recently in his local community, at the time of the Ramadan fast, Muslim parents requested local school authorities to respect this and refrain from giving their children any food or drink during school hours. Even though it was during a time of unseasonably warm weather, the school authorities complied presumably doing so because of a government requirement that due respect be given to the views of religious minorities in the school's daily program. In his comment, Craig draws attention to the "duty of care" of teachers which, in that instance, was ignored when the health of the children themselves was put at risk by this "multicultural" restraint. The children were not allowed to be offered a drink even though it was unseasonably warm weather.
In this situation there are three parties: 1. the Government and their regulations for how schools are to conduct their affairs; 2. the School authorities, principal and teachers, who have in loco parentis and "duty of care" responsibilities for the pupils; 3. the parents of the children who attend the school. My subsequent analysis assumes that these three "authorities", in their own ways, are indispensable pillars for the school as an educational community. These three "pillars" represent three distinct but mutually interdependent mandates which require the responsible attention of the respective office bearers (government officials, teachers, parents). And policies formulated for the running of a school community need to be rightly and equitably balance these three "pillars" and this in turn requires the co-operative and mutual respect from and between each of these.
As a commentator, writing this NJ broadsheet from 12,000 miles away, my contribution simply comes down to saying that such issues need to be resolved by all three parties respecting each other's responsibilities. Simply to say that no one of these three should presume to "trump" the other two in the overall process might not be saying anything very profound, but without such co-operation the school can hardly avoid serious ruptures. In the relation to the problem raised by Alan Craig, Chaplin's concept of "multicultural justice" (as outlined in his report) can help us to sharpen what might have simply sounded like a moral truism. "Multicultural justice" is a norm for conduct in the civil and public sphere, and thus it is also a guide for how those in each of these three "pillars" should form their contributions in order to resolve such problems.
In its turn, government's public policies must give due recognition to the ethnic and religious diversity present in its polity, and when it promulgates guidelines for resolving problems that arise in schools, it cannot avoid it's own normative requirement to respect the school authorities, the principal and the teachers, as well as the parents of any child at the school. Any promotion of multicultural justice must be hand-in-hand with respect for the parental authority of all parents and the structure of the school as an educative community. Schooling is a vital social venue where government, school and parents severally and together should ascribe due respect to each other's "duty of care" for the children involved. And then it will have to be via this ongoing mutual respect that any split between genuine public health issues (what to do for all students on hot days) and respect for parental religious wishes (what to do during times of religious festivals) will be avoided.
Craig's example has indeed identified a serious problem in the application of "multicultural respect for religious minorities" at that school. His example pinpoints a problem that had to be negotiated and overcome, but what he does not do in his response is to explain why the problem was not anticipated well in advance. Can this lack of foresight be simply due to "multiculturalism"? I find that hard to believe. A school policy, also oriented by a sense of multicultural justice should be actively anticipating such situations, and in Chaplin's terms the acceptance of "multicultural justice" as a norm would indeed encourage such foresight - not least among the Muslim parents of the school's pupils themselves. No doubt schools have much to do already without going looking for more problems to solve. But when a religiously diverse public / state school has a significant number of children from Muslim families, the time to develop policies for how the school will operate during Ramadan is not during Ramadan itself.
But as we have experienced in Australian politics, not least political debate about schooling, public controversy regularly avoids normative questions. The controversies over multiculturalism are no exception to this; as in UK, so in Australia. Chaplin's explanation of "multicultural justice" is a helpful corrective to such narrowly focused debates because it gives a cogent explanation of why the question of normative political principle cannot be avoided - not for the government, nor for the school and also not by all the parents concerned.
By appealing one-at-a-time to specific problems that arise across a polity, critics of multiculturalism may try to prove that "multiculturalism has had its day". This is the regular fare of politicians, prominent academics and radio shock-jocks. They actually give the impression that they want a society with less ethnic and religious diversity than it now has. But when the problems are framed in that way, they all too easily focus upon examples here and there, while ignoring the fact that market-oriented societies like ours [i.e. the UK and Australia] are now characterized by "irreversible ethnic and religious diversity". The political solution which is proffered is that since multiculturalism has failed we must simply move on. But move on to where? The argument avoids the structure of the situation by a sentimental appeal a previous (mythic) era when parents of religious and ethnic minorities accommodated "mainstream values" by keeping religious and ethnic values to the privacy of their own homes.
From Chaplin's standpoint, the appeal to "mainstream values" avoids the fact that it may well be some of these same "mainstream values" which encouraged the emergence of ethnic and religious diversity. Societies such as our own have sought to live up to our stated commitment to be truly representative, and liberal, democracies, by protecting public space for the expression of minority views, and welcoming migrants and asylum seekers because that is what our "mainstream values" have expected of us. If they can't live in freedom where they come from, they can at least do so here! And we should also not forget that the religiously inspired political claims from citizens can be enormously helpful in promoting the common good. Religious views should not be suppressed or privatized; the claim that the public sphere has to be kept free from "divisive" ethnic and religious views is spurious.
Chaplin's contribution seeks an answer to the question: how should public policies address such problems? how should multicultural justice be understood? For him, public justice confronts the false ideology that insists upon religious views being privatized, and he therefore aims to provide a framework from which we can "retrieve multiculturalism" from its naysayers if we carefully and consistently face up to the diverse "mandates" that are implicit in public life, and in the present case, the public schooling of children.
Of course, the kind of "duty of care" problem Craig raises in his reply needs to be openly anticipated and resolved. A policy which aims to privatize religious and minority cultural values effectively suggests that "No worries!" is the norm; it is simply not necessary to spend time anticipating such problems. Presumably, someone else will take care of it, which probably means a government department. There are many such issues which are crucial for any school's on-going functioning. They won't be resolved by a "no worries" approach, nor will they be addressed by leaving it to the Department of Education. And the school needs to ensure that it does not use the children as a conduit for information and policy dissemination about decisions made "higher up": "Dear Parents, It has been decided …". No, the contact needed for active anticipation and resolution of these issues needs to be direct - face to face; the parents need to be encouraged to see their responsibilities as parents of the school's pupils, a responsibility which is integral to their children's schooling, and the school's praxis. And newcomers to the country, city or community, will certainly need to be inducted into the school's educational philosophy. Such a philosophy will need to be awake so that it responds dynamically to the changing demographic of a school's "catchment".
is written by Bruce Wearne, Point Lonsdale, to encourage a sustained Christian political contribution by seeking justice in the gentle and merciful rule of Jesus Christ, the ruler over all of the earth's political regimes.
November 2011 © The contents of this email are copyright. Editions may be photocopied or retransmitted in their entirety but not otherwise reprinted or transmitted without permission. "Nurturing Justice" is a project to encourage Christian political reflection based upon wise and loving civic participation. Comments are welcome and should be sent to