Liberal politics, freedom and the role of Christianity in Britain

Originally posted on 1 September 2009

I don’t agree with the political leanings of The Spectator magazine in the UK, but it certainly contains the finest writing in the English language of any magazine in the world. I read the mag regularly, just to experience excellent English. It also contains the type of opinionated columnists I enjoy. They get you thinking, and they’re inteliigent.

In their Christmas edition, there was an excellent analysis of what the official religious institution of England (The Church of England) should do. I need to think this one through in more detail, but I hope it sparks as much thought for you as it did for me.

Does England need an “official” church? Would it be better, both for the church and State, to change the current state of affairs? The original article can be found here, or read it below.

The C of E should follow John Milton’s lead

by Theo Hobson, Friday, 12th December 2008, The Spectator

Milton was a great poet but an even greater theologian, says Theo Hobson. His vision of tolerant Christian liberalism should be our template for the future

It’s the debate of our day, the meta-debate if you like. It unites the issues of Muslim extremism, creationism, irritable atheism, faith schools, Britishness, the future of the monarchy, Sarah Palin, Ruth Kelly: all the juiciest talking points. The radio show The Moral Maze seems to return to it with increasing frequency: Michael Buerk has developed a special sort of quizzical-weary tone with which to pick at its entrails. I’m talking, of course, about the Place-of-Religion-in-Public-Life debate.

This is a debate that’s gradually turning into a culture war: over the past few years we’ve seen both sides digging deeper in, and the middle ground becoming less habitable.

How can this slide towards cultural division be halted? What public intellectual can help, even a bit? Rowan Williams maybe? Well, his thoughts on the issue will satisfy some of us, just as Dawkins’s thoughts will satisfy others. Is this inevitable? Is there no one who can take us beyond this sterile clash of religion versus secularism, and help us to see ourselves afresh?

We must seek to understand how our tradition of Christian-based liberalism arose, in order to see how it may be renewed. I think that the best guide to our ideological origins is John Milton. If only he were alive now, for he’s exactly what we need. The wonder is that we’re so slow to see it. Even though it’s his fourth centenary this year, and there’s an excuse to focus on him, his relevance has been missed. No one has quite noticed that he is the post-9/11 visionary we need.

Why him? Unlike any more recent thinker, he is able to speak to both sides of our divided soul, for he fuses two seemingly contradictory truths: we are a Christian nation, and we are the pioneers of liberty. He refutes the assumption that is ingrained in every contemporary debate: that religion and secular liberalism are at root opposed. He exposes this as a huge misunderstanding.

But hang on, says the received wisdom, surely Milton was a great poet whose thought was notoriously narrow — he was a Puritan, wasn’t he? This toxic label implies that he supported an authoritarian form of Protestantism that was intent on imposing itself on the nation, banning its fun, policing its very thoughts. This is the strangest reputation in the history of ideas. The truth is that he was one of the key inventors of Christian liberalism, and that he fought the narrow-minded Protestants as bitterly as he fought the Catholic reactionaries. He demanded that the old feudal order be replaced not by some grim Calvinist theocracy but by a new sort of culture, a culture of liberty. He was one of the key advocates of the freedoms we take for granted.

Why has the ‘Puritan’ smear persisted through intellectual generations? It seems that English intellectuals have tended to dislike Protestantism, whether on anti-religious or pro-Catholic grounds. Samuel Johnson admired Milton’s poetry but hated his thought, and the Romantics idolised a de-Protestantised version of Milton. In recent decades atheist, feminist and gender-studies scholars have been sneering at his thought. It’s time to tell these people to get lost: shoo! For we have need of him.

To understand Milton’s vision you have to understand the regime that drove this aesthete-loner to political engagement. It was the regime of Charles I, and of Archbishop Laud. The latter was a brilliant High Churchman, intent on changing the nation: Rowan Williams with teeth, if you can imagine that. He wanted a truly catholic Church of England, empowered to stage grand, orderly ritual in every corner of the land. Charles granted him and his bishops new political powers to crush dissent. Milton joined the Puritan revolt, writing a series of razor-sharp pamphlets. But when this Puritan revolution seized power, Milton warned of its illiberalism — most famously in Areopagitica.

The idea that this great tract is a defence of the freedom of the press is only half true. It is also, even more importantly, a radical religious manifesto. Milton insists that Christianity needs freedom in order to flourish, to be itself. With amazing boldness he explains that the Protestant reformers of the previous century — Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and their followers, didn’t go far enough — they failed to hitch religious reform to the new cause of freedom. This is England’s task, to complete the Reformation in a liberal direction — he calls this ‘the reforming of Reformation’. How is this to happen? Through the state assuming a new role: instead of imposing a new uniformity, as the reformers had wanted, it must ensure toleration.

Does that mean that the state should be a neutral space, holding the ring for all ideologies? Not quite, for some ideologies want to undermine this new liberal ideal, and return to a religious monoculture. Roman Catholicism and episcopal Anglicanism have such a strong desire for total religious control that they must be kept out, at least while the principle of the separation of Church and state takes root.

For a while Cromwell seemed to be serving this new liberal vision, which is why Milton agreed to serve him, as a civil servant and propagandist. The aim was to create a large Protestant tent, in which the freedom of the various Protestant sects was protected, and no denomination was privileged. Milton pushed for full disestablishment, which meant the dismantling of the tithe system, by which the Church received local revenue. But conservative Puritans persuaded Cromwell that a new established Church was needed, and their illiberal vision ousted Milton’s.

So Milton was a secularist, in that he demanded the exclusion of religious institutions from political power, but of course his motivation was Christian: only if clerical power is curbed can we have a new authentic Christian culture, in tune with political liberty. We must reinvent our Christian culture in the context of freedom.

Ever since Milton’s day, our religious identity has been a compromise between his liberal Protestant vision and the old order that was restored. We have had an established Church, constrained by Whig principles. It has worked reasonably well, until recently. But now we clearly need a new religious settlement. To retain an established Church is unreal and unhealthy, for the idea of an officially privileged religion is clearly at odds with liberal values. The anomaly is not Burkean and quaint: it damages our democracy; it spits on the liberal ideals that unite Britons. To reform this is not a rejection of our religious tradition, but a recovery of its true liberal thrust.

The problem with the entire Place-of-Religion-in-Public-Life debate is that it is utterly ignorant of how our modern religious identity was formed. The assumption is that society is either ‘religious’, meaning full of powerful religious institutions, or ‘secular’, meaning dominated by atheism. We seem to have forgotten that our modern ideological identity shuns both of these alternatives in favour of a ‘third way’, whose supreme pioneer is John Milton. Yes, he’s a great poet, but his true significance is in danger of being Paradise-Lost. Buried beneath our second greatest poet is our greatest religious thinker.

Source: The Spectator

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