His Grace Bishop Nazir-Ali has written an article in Standpoint, a new monthly magazine. In it, he argues that British values have been shaped by Christianity, and that the cultural revolution which has been going on since the 1960s has led to the decline of Christianity and a moral vacuum. I am going to leave the latter part of his discussion, and just focus on his contention that values like the rule of law, civility and suchlike arose from Christianity in Britain in the preceding centuries.
The Bishop has fallen into somewhat of a logical fallacy, which occurs when a person takes two facts which might or might not be linked, and draws a conclusion from that. A good example is when people point out that there has been no war in Western Europe since 1945, and that the EU (in its various guises) has existed for most of that time, therefore the EU has prevented war. His Grace argues that Britain has developed certain admirable values, at a time when it was a Christian nation; therefore Christianity must be the cause of these values. This is a poor argument, as he fails to prove the definitive connection between Christianity and British values. Christianity, being for so long the only major religion in Britain, did of course have an important impact on the way our island story developed. But not always in a good way.
Trial by jury is, for the moment, one of the cornerstones of our judicial system. Yet for hundreds of years before trial by jury, we had trial by ordeal in Christian Britain. Trial by ordeal involved various tests, such as suspected witches being dunked in water for a time. If they drowned, they were considered innocent, but if they floated, they were guilty of magic and burnt. Some medieval theologians eventually condemned this, not because of its inherent unfairness, but because it was blasphemous as it expected God to perform a miracle every time to save any innocents. Thanks mainly to our deep Scandinavian connection and our early break with the Romans, Britain developed trial by jury (with the jury held to represent Godâ€™s judgement), while on the continent, trial by ordeal was replaced with torture, based on the Roman model.
The Magna Carta (1215), and the Bill of Rights (1689), are the two most important written documents of our rights. Neither can be said to be inspired by Christianity. The Magna Carta was a response to King Johnâ€™s abuse of what were held to be traditional rights, in regards to such things as military service, taxation, property rights and hunting privileges. While couched in religious language (as all documents of the time were), the rights demanded were not drawn from scripture or church theologians, but from what were held to be long-established customs. Similarly, the Bill of Rights came shortly after the invitation from leading nobles for William of Orange to invade, and the subsequent dethroning of his father-in-law, James II, who was considered unsuitable because he was a Roman Catholic. Parliament then used Williamâ€™s precarious position (he needed English troops and money to fight Louis XIV) to demand a whole host of concessions over various rights and privileges. Both the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta were attempts to limit the powers of the monarch, a goal which the Bible does not definitively endorse or oppose.
This is not to say that the Bishopâ€™s thesis is completely wrong. Oliver Cromwell cared little for Britainâ€™s traditions and forms of government (â€œall dross and dung compared to the glory of Christâ€) and he strove hard for what he termed â€˜liberty of conscienceâ€™, and a loosening of the intolerant nature of the English state towards non-Anglicans. If we had to thank one man for the religiously tolerant country which we live in today, it would be Oliver. Yet even he fits uneasily into the notion of British values. He was a military dictator, who dissolved parliaments when they frustrated him and who ignored the traditional rights of many. Near the end of his reign, leading figures in the new regime tried to make him a new king, not because they loved him but because they felt that a king would at least be bound by law and custom.
His Graceâ€™s examples are also a bit strange:
â€The Reformation also had a view about governance as well as the significance of the individual, which was to prove important for the future. The theme of natural rights was taken up by the Dominicans on the Continent in the context of defending the freedom and the possessions of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. From there, it influenced prominent thinkers of the moderate Enlightenment in this country, such as John Locke, who were attempting to rethink a Christian basis for society. This was also the context for the Evangelical revival in the 18th century. While the Evangelicals drew inspiration from the Bible for their humanitarian projects, such as the abolition of slavery, universal education and humane conditions of work for men, women and children, the Enlightenment provided them with the intellectual tools and the moral vision of natural rights so that they could argue their case in the public sphere.â€
The Dominicans were a monastic order formed in the 13th century to combat heresy, and developed into some of the most intolerant and vicious inquisitors, so I am not sure that they should be the poster boys for values. It is true that there was a vigorous debate going on regarding the rights of natives in the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries (this book covers it well), but we all know what happened in the end. It was Christian evangelicals who were at the forefront of the fight against anti-slavery and other social ills, and at the same time they were the ones calling for a Christian India and pressuring Indians to change their whole way of life (which led to the Indian Mutiny). In 1770 British Bengal was hit by a wave of famine, leading to millions dying, and this was made worse by hoarding thanks to Britons and British-linked merchants. When the news reached Britain, it was said that people could not walk past Clive of Indiaâ€™s house in England without shuddering at the things its master had done, and the terrible treatment of Indians helped to inspire the anti-slavery movement. Which was the real Christian Britain at the time?
As for the Enlightenment, this was in part a reaction to a Europe in which dissent, especially dissent directed at church or state, was taken as a challenge to order. A number of the leading Enlightenment figures were anti-Christian, being either atheists or deists. Others were devoutly Christian, and believed that they were doing Godâ€™s work to try and bring about a more rational and just society.
With all these examples, you can find examples of good Christians and bad Christians, good Christian theology and bad Christian theology, and times where Christianity did not even come into it at all. Britain can be proud of her values and institutions that have eventually developed, but by ascribing this to a Christian, or a Judeo-Christian mentality, the bishop misses the point and risks alienating a whole host of people for no reason.
Update: Bartholomew has an excellent analysis of the Bishop’s article here.
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