2016: Terry Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, delivers the ninth annual Theos lecture
The Political Bible, Part 3: How Britain Came To Accept Democracy
23rd August 2011
Christians have a problem with democracy – or, if they don't, they should. As we explored last week, the justification for political power in western Europe from the middle of the first millennium onwards was based on the king's faithfulness to the idea of justice as articulated and defined by careful theological reflection on the biblical witness. Only by securing peace, administering justice, protecting the poor and weak, and so on, was a king truly made king.
This could set onerous demands on kingship (even if they remained largely in the realm of theory rather than reality) but perhaps paradoxically it also stood in the way of democratic progress. Put simply, if there was a right way and wrong way to govern, how could you risk allowing the people to choose the wrong way?
It was this mentality that underpinned ecclesiastical, particularly episcopal, opposition to political reform. Although they said comparatively little about the (1832) Great Reform Act at the time, 21 bishops voted against the bill initially and only two supported it. Furious crowds demanding disestablishment, attacking bishops' palaces and overturning their coaches helped to change their minds – but only a bit. At the second reading the following year, the bishops were more vocal but also more divided, 12 voting for the bill and 15 against it. Those Christians had a big problem with democracy.
There is, however, a second, more affirmative strand to the Christian engagement with democracy that can be traced back to one of the most biblical and least democratically minded Christian thinkers in the English tradition.
William Tyndale was the most brilliant linguist and wordsmith of the English Reformation. Like all early reformers, he was a political authoritarian of the highest order. His most substantial work of political theology, The Obedience of a Christian Man, did what it said on the tin, locating an almost absolute duty of political obedience in the natural order of creation, as articulated in both the Old and New Testaments. "Neither may the inferior person avenge himself upon the superior, or violently resist him, for whatsoever wrong it be," he stated, uncompromisingly.
Tyndale the political theorist was matched – and badly undermined – by Tyndale the evangelist, however. As an "evangelical", which is how all the early Reformers identified themselves, his overwhelming concern was to make the scriptures accessible to everyone in their own language, no matter how poor or socially browbeaten they were.
Tyndale did this brilliantly. His simple, accurate, vivid translation, made from the original Greek and circulated in an (easily concealed) octavo or pocket-sized format, was the foundation stone of the English Reformation, and perhaps the most democratic text ever published in English. It placed before everyone the very founding document of their society and encouraged them to read and discuss it. So important was it to clear a path for the unmediated relationship between God and the individual believer that it was worth risking political disorder (which did ensue) in order to make that religious freedom possible.
This spiritual democracy inherent in Reformation Protestantism prepared the ground from which ideas of political democracy would one day grow. It was only because Tyndale had done what he had done that Colonel Thomas Rainsborough could remark during the Putney debates about 120 years later, "Every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government."
Rainsborough was out on his own even during the comparatively radical Putney debates, and it took a good century and a half for such views to fight their way back into the political mainstream. Nevertheless, when they were back in the limelight, it was often Tyndale-derived arguments that were used as their justification. Early 19th-century Christian radicals argued powerfully (and biblically), repeatedly drawing on the idea of a spiritual democracy to defend a political one. If God considered even the humblest man competent to judge for himself the means of eternal salvation, they contended, and government was simply the means of temporal salvation, it followed that government should involve the people in the formation of its laws.
Thus it was that Christian Britain came to accept democracy – with the same hesitant and sceptical willingness that it did toleration (see next week). Some secularly minded moderns will use this as an example of Christianity's natural and stubborn authoritarianism. Those with a more generous understanding of history may see it, more positively, as an example of how the Christian tradition can generate the justification and moral energy for democracy, while retaining a principled scepticism about a system that is the worst one we have, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.
This article was first published in the Guardian.