Within the secularization debate, disengagement is the process of religious institutions becoming less involved in political and social life. It is the general withdrawing of religious institutions from wider society.
If we take a long term view and compare the role of the church in British society today with its role in medieval times, religious institutions certainly seem to have disengaged from politics and society.
In the 16th Century for example, church and state were tightly bound together, through the doctrine of the ‘Divine Right of Kings‘. This doctrine was famously developed by James VI of Scotland, also James I of England. It held that the King, who was also the head of state, could only be judged by God, and no other human being.
However, as argued by Max Weber, the spread of Protestantism and especially Calvinism, laid the foundations for the collapse of this tight interweaving of church and state. Protestantism preached that individuals should get to know God personally, which led to more individualistic forms of worship. This in turn led to the decline of institutional religion – people no longer relied on the church for their spiritual sustenance, they could get this themselves in their own way.
This came to a head in the English Civil War of 1641-52, which established the English Commonwealth, and subjected the monarch to the will of Parliament rather than the ‘will of God’. From the mid 17th century forwards, the Divine Right of Kings, and the ‘total union’ of church and state was thus broken.
Although the Church of England still played a prominent role in politics for many centuries, the establishment of the Commonwealth nonetheless laid the foundations for ordinary people being able to challenge the monarch and play more of a role in politics, thus making the church more beholden to the power of a larger number of people rather than just the king.
Over the next few centuries, people became less religious and democracy became more representative, so gradually the church came to play less of a role in politics.
Institutional Disengagement in Britain Today
There is a lot of evidence that the church plays a less significant role in politics and society.
Even if political leaders have strong religious convictions, they generally keep these convictions out of politics. Tony Blair, for example, was a fervent Catholic, and yet his spin Doctor, Alistair Campbell was adamant that New Labour ‘didn’t do God’.
Some human rights legislation actually outlaws some religious practices on the basis of equality.
For example, Christians who believe homosexuality is wrong have been banned from being foster parents by the courts. This follows the 2010 Equality Act, which protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of a range of ‘protected characteristics’, one of which is sexuality.
The Church of England has become increasingly critical of government policy, and the government has largely ignored many of these criticisms.
For example, the C of E has recently criticized the Tories ideological decision to cut spending of public services. it has highlighted the horrific consequences these cuts have had on the poorest sectors of British society. The Tories, being Tories, have just ignored the C of E and carried on harming the poor.
Evidence against Disengagement
Jose Casonova argues that the trend towards disengagement in Britain and Europe are the exceptions to the global trend. Casonova suggests that globally, there are many examples which show that religion is becoming more prominent in social life. It is especially easy to find examples of religion playing a prominent role in political conflicts globally:
- The Arab Spring uprisings across Northern Africa and the Middle East
- The ongoing conflict between the Arabs and Jews in the Middle East
- The growth of Christian Fundamentalism in the USA.
Casonova effectively argues that since the 1980s, when we look at religion in global perspective, a process of deprivatisation has been occurring.