We may live in post-modern societies – the rest of the world does not. What does that mean for our foreign policies? By Martin Griffiths

Goethe’s Faust is one of the defining works of European literature. One of the key parts of this tragic play is when Margarete ask Faust (who sold his soul to the devil) one simple but powerful question ‘So, what’s your take on religion?’ Germans know this question as Gretchenfrage, a question that goes to the core of a problem and often reveals an unpleasant truth. It is fascinating to think that this 200 year old question still resonates today.  

Not long ago I was talking to an old friend who is a senior diplomat for a western government. This is a man - let’s call him Al - for whom I have always had both a considerable respect and a lot of fellow-feeling.  Al and I share a sense of humour; we read similar books and we are both liberal sceptics. Al was putting me right on religion and its place in the world. 'You, go tell your Islamist friends' he said, 'that religion is a private matter and has nothing to do with the state or with government'. I nodded, as I usually do with Al, and we moved on to other topics. A few weeks later I was celebrating ‘iftar’ with an Arab friend well versed in the study and practice of Islam.  He was telling me how the aim of embedding the precepts of Islam into all social, political and moral behaviour is a central and historic preoccupation of the faith. I considered for a moment a mention of Al's polar opposite view but the food was good and the moment passed. 

Al's view is one we, in the west, have been taking for granted for a very long time. It is a belief that has its roots in Matthew’s gospels: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's” (22:21) Thanks to the various ways in which our world has both grown smaller and more dangerous, we now have to check it against an entirely contrary assumption. Why should religion be a private matter just because it is a core belief of western and Christian culture? 

Universal values? European values?

A secular society and the belief that religion is a private matter are values that Europeans cherish. But what gives this claim the right to universality? Is it right for us to advocate this belief system in our foreign policies? Of course we can and should continue to hold that view; and Al and I will remain comfortable together. But we need to realise that this is just one view and no more correct than any other.

We can have a similar argument about democracy. We may think this is a universal aspiration but a recent Freedom House report showed that the number of electoral democracies has not changed dramatically since the early 1990s. Seen from that perspective, is it really a good idea to promote democracy to the rest of the world? Or do we have to realise that democracy is in fact a local view about how to organise political systems? 

I do realise that there are obvious dangers in the kind of moral relativism which can become the default position of anyone taking this argument to its conclusion. But there are also dangers attached to being blind to the consequences of our attachments to universality and the superiority of European values. We may live in post-modern societies – the rest of the world does not. How to adjust our foreign policies to this reality may well be Europe’s new Gretchenfrage.