Learn from the Levellers about faith and politics

by
24 October 2007

Cromwell’s debates on religion and government have much to teach multifaith Britain now, argues William Whyte

‘The debates recognised that religion is always about politics, and politics invariably touches on religion’

In 1890, the historian C. H. Firth made a remarkable discovery in the library of Worcester College, Oxford. Rooting through the archives, he found the only copy of the transcripts of the Putney Debates: first taken down in shorthand in 1647; written up in 1662; deposited in Oxford in 1736; and apparently condemned to moulder away.

Realising the importance of his discovery, Firth printed the manuscript — and it has remained a key text for historians ever since. Recently, the Putney Debates have become still more important as symbols of England’s Radical history. Last year, Guardian readers voted Putney the single most significant site of counter-cultural heritage in the country. This week, at St Mary’s, Putney, the debates will be commemorated with a lavish exhibition funded by the Heritage Lottery Commission.

All of this raises the question why Putney should be seen as so important. True, it was here that the members of the Parliament’s New Model Army wrangled over key constitutional matters. There were fights over universal suffrage and freedom of conscience, with passionate speeches by Oliver Cromwell on one side and the leaders of the democratic Levellers on the other.

The words of the Leveller Colonel Thomas Rainborowe still have the power to move: Really I thinke that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sir, I thinke itt’s cleare, that every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his owne consent to putt himself under that Government.

Yet it is also true that the Putney Debates had almost no effect on the politics of their day — or that of the years that followed.

The opposition to authoritarian rule which was expressed at Putney was soon crushed. Indeed, that probably explains why the transcript of the Debates was not written up until 1662: it was too dangerous to be written.

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The egalitarianism of 1647 was now irrelevant. The world of Restoration England was no place for the sort of ideas that men such as Rainborowe articulated. Nor did these radical notions become any more influential in the 18th or 19th centuries. Putney was forgotten. The Levellers were forgotten, too.

All this was changed by Firth’s discovery in 1890. Not only had he found an important historical text, but he had also found one at a time when the ideas debated in Putney were more current than they had ever been before.

Britain was becoming a democracy: only six years before, working-class men had been given the vote for the first time. The question whether all men — and even women — should be enfranchised was widely debated. More than this, the struggle between Nonconformists and Anglicans was sparking discussion of the state’s part in regulating religion.

Perhaps that also explains the recent upsurge of interest in the Putney Debates. Although the context is wildly different, the fundamental issues can seem strikingly similar. In the first place, this was a debate about the impact that ordinary people should have on government. Second, it was a battle over the place of religion in politics.

Third — and most importantly — it was a debate that recognised something we seem to have forgotten: that religion is always about politics, and politics invariably touches on religion. As Tony Blair admitted last year, the decision to invade Iraq was as much theological as it was political. Likewise, as Rowan Williams appears to have acknowledged, his decision not to oppose the war more forcefully was as much political as it was theological.

In modern Britain, we the people have the vote, but, increasingly, we tend not to use it. Nearly 40 per cent of all voters failed to turn out in 2005. It seems likely that people opt out when they believe that their views have no impact. In that sense, the consent that Rainborowe talked about has yet to be given. Four in ten of our fellow citizens are choosing to disenfranchise themselves. They have not, in his words, put themselves under the Government.

The question of the state’s part in regulating religion has also been stressed recently, in discussions about the place of faith schools, the blasphemy laws, and the wearing of religious symbols and clothing. The concern for religious toleration which animated the Putney debaters seems strikingly pertinent to multicultural, multifaith Britain.

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Above all, it is the fact that the arguments at Putney mixed religion and politics, theology and ideology, which makes these Debates so salient. In the past few years — and especially since 11 September 2001 — it has become clear that any attempt to separate the two simply fails. It is not possible just to apply the old secular sticking plasters to problems such as the marginalised Muslim youths of Britain or the crisis in the Holy Land. More and more politicians recognise this.

As the Anglican Church tears itself apart, more and more church people are being forced to acknowledge it, too. The battle over homosexuality is not just about the Bible, it is also about a post-colonial Global South fighting back, and being used by conservative Christians in the North, who also have their own political agenda.

The Putney Debates are back in vogue, not because of their intrinsic importance, but because of their contemporary resonance. Britain needs to integrate many different voices — some of them rather threatening — and to persuade an ever-larger group that our system of government is both legitimate and worth participating in.

The Church of England has similar dilemmas. It, too, is slowly learning how to listen, how to make space for different views on homosexuality, on the place of women, and on the structure of church government. Yet, as Putney teaches us, it will learn nothing as long as it tries to separate the religious from the political.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Tutorial Fellow in Modern History at St John’s College, Oxford, and Assistant Curate of Kidlington.

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