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British politics is still based on the Bible

13 July 2011

The values that underpin current politics are grounded on specifically biblical teaching, argues Nick Spencer

 

This year has threatened to do unto the Bible what 2009 did unto Charles Darwin. The 400th anni­versary of the King James translation has offered a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the nation to celeb­rate the impact of this remarkable text on British culture.

And celebrate we have: articles, books, lectures, programmes, and conferences have acclaimed the mark that this version of the Bible has made on our language, literature, and culture. Yet the chorus of praise usually falls silent when it comes to politics. Lauding the Bible is fine, so long as it doesn’t get close to anything as serious as running the country.

 

Against such received wisdom, we can make a good case that the Bible is the single most influential document in our political history, and that our commitment to political equality, toleration, democracy, the rule of law, and national identity would not have developed, at least in the way that they did, without it.

 

It is important to get two caveats in straight away. I would not claim that the Bible has always been used on the side of the political angels. It has not. Early Protestants justified ex­treme political authoritarianism with reference to the Bible. Abolitionists argued the way they did in part because they were against intelligent, faithful Christians who justified slavery on explicitly biblical grounds.

 

Nor would I say that no commit­ment to such political virtues could have grown up without the moral and intellectual foundations provided by the Bible. Rather, I want to recall that those virtues did emerge from biblical soil, and to argue, more tentatively, that, in the long run, they may prove unsus­tainable without Christian foun­da­tions.

 

Take, as an example, the notion of irreducible human dignity and equality that underlines any notion of political equality. Writing about Malcolm Mugger­idge’s book The Thirties in April 1940, George Orwell commented: “Brother­hood implies a common father. Therefore it is often argued that men can never develop the sense of a community unless they believe in God.”

 

Unbeliever that he was, Orwell naturally disagreed that such faith was necessary. Instead, he argued that the sense of brotherhood could also be achieved by our “dim” aware­ness that “man is not an individual, [but] only a cell in an everlasting body . . . some organism, stretching in­to the future and the past.”

 

That body is naturally limited to “fragmentary communities — nation, race, creed, class”, but, Orwell argued, “a very slight increase of con­sciousness, and their [i.e. human be-i­ngs’] sense of loyalty could be trans­ferred to humanity itself, which is not an abstraction.”

 

This is a hopeful idea, one that has inspired the great modern tradition of humanist thought, but it is not without problems. It is highly ques­tion­able whether the “increase of consciousness” that Orwell claims as necessary for transferring a “sense of [fragmentary] loyalty” to “humanity itself” is really so “very slight”.

 

If it were, we might well ask why humanity has so singularly failed to make it, why it was entirely absent in the pre-Christian world, and why, in an age in which our starving neigh­bours are hours away from our front door, if not already in our living room, do so many of us seem so in­different to their needs.

 

The shift from group to universal loyalty is not “slight” as Orwell im­agined. In reality, it demands compel­ling reason and much moral energy. Political equality rests on more basic philosophical and spiritual commit­ments, and in Britain these have long been informed — indeed, formed — by the Bible.

 

John Locke, who was both a committed Anglican and the leading figure of the British Enlightenment, put it this way in Reasonableness of Christianity (1695):

 

He that travels the roads now, applauds his own strength and legs that have carried him so far in such a scantling of time; and ascribes all to his own vigour; little considering how much he owes to their pains, who cleared the woods, drained the bogs, built the bridges, and made the ways possible.

 

In Britain, it was Christianity that — albeit slowly and painfully — drained the political bogs, built the bridges, and cleared the ways. Irreducible and inalienable human equality and dignity is only the most obvious example of this. Religious toleration was first justified, by Locke among others, on explicitly biblical grounds.

 

The right to resist political power was first defended by Protestant thinkers, although only after they had swept away centuries of rather more sophisticated Catholic resistance theories, and then spent 30 years defending political authoritarianism.

 

Thinkers as diverse as John Mil­ton, William Tyndale, and the 12th-century scholar John of Salisbury drew on Deuteronomy 17 to show how a monarch should be subject to the same law as his people. The conviction that only the practice of justice could legitimise political authority is as old as Christendom itself.

 

Even the idea of government as a contract has a surprisingly long Chris­tian prehistory: the Anglo-Saxon monk Aelfric, working from biblical foundations, remarked as early at the tenth century that: “No man can make himself king, but the people have the choice to choose a king whom they please.”

 

It is no easier to understand the basis of our political culture without recourse to the Bible than it is to understand the poetry of Donne, Herbert, Milton, or T. S. Eliot. The fact that we seem so reluctant to admit it says much about the political amnesia and leisure-time Christianity that mark our culture today.

 

Nick Spencer is research director at the think tank Theos, and the author of Freedom and Order: History, politics and the English Bible (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011) (Comment, 8 July).

 

 

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