BY RICHARD HARRIES DLT, £12.95
‘Politics,” as Richard Harries puts it, “is too important to be left to politicians.” It’s therefore a shame that political apathy and disenchantment seem to be reaching epidemic levels in the United Kingdom. As Harries laments, people don’t trust MPs, they rarely join political parties any more, and a scandalous proportion of them can’t even be bothered to vote. Harries’s vigorous new book wants to revitalise political discourse by seeking out the moral and historical underpinnings of our system: the “values from which it springs”.
Harries rightly challenges the notion that the Enlightenment was solely responsible for modern political ideals like democracy, freedom and equality. He has “no desire to knock the Enlightenment” but he asks us to spare a thought for deeper, more ancient roots and routes. Many of the political nostrums we now take for granted are, he opines, “deeply embedded in a Christian understanding of what it is to be a human being in society”. There is, he suggests, an obvious linkage between latter-day liberty and a Christian commitment to the exercise of free, rational choice. Modern ideas of equality, meanwhile, have a clear echo in the Christian conviction that we are all equal in dignity before God.
Positing Christianity as the taproot of democracy is, Harries admits, a tougher sell: “a quick read of the Bible” can easily suggest “that by modern standards, God is rather autocratic and authoritarian”. No kidding, but look a little more closely and, by Harries’s calculation, the Christian God can be seen as “backing” the democratic impulse and a Christian justification of democracy is readily available.
This is a familiar but still worthwhile territory and Harries is right to remind us that Christianity played a starring role in cultivating the western philosophical worldview (the Enlightenment included). There are several problems with the overly ambitious reach and schematic nature of Harries’s thesis, however. It relies upon a very specific interpretation of the Christian message. Through the centuries Christians have patently not agreed about the kinds of issues Harries is discussing. Classic Calvinism, as just one example, was not much impressed by ideas of Christian equality and it didn’t pay much homage to the concept of human action and free will securing eternal bliss.
As for Christianity being the seedbed of democracy, it could certainly be argued that the Christian faith laid stress on the power of community and its talk of loving our neighbours and helping the poor dripped with charity and inclusiveness. Then again, the historical manifestations of Christianity have rarely been democratic. That’s not a criticism: just an acknowledgement of the obvious fact that modern democracy didn’t exist until the modern age.
The solution, I suppose, is to insist upon the existence of a pure version of Christianity that encapsulates ideas like liberty and equality. The trouble is, even if we accept this concept it is difficult to plot a neat trajectory from this gleaming Christian core to the political nostrums of the modern world. Teleology and an ahistorical belief in eternal verities enter the room, and that is never a welcome devel opment. Harries suggests, for instance, that modern Christianity provides a wonderful basis for a belief in human rights. So it does, but this is very different from demonstrating that there was something inherent in Christianity that created such a belief. Human rights (lovely as they are) were an invention of the late 17th and 18th centuries.
The Christian legacy (or one interpretation thereof) played a part but the whole rights bandwagon was still the result of historical circumstance and contingency, not some jewel embedded in the Christian message waiting to be discovered. The same goes for modern democracy, modern equality and modern liberty.
To suggest that the tenets of contemporary Christianity can chime with the liberal political nostrums of the 21st century is perfectly reputable. It is riskier to start talking in terms of historical cause and effect. Harries is careful to point out that Christianity does not have a monopoly on ideas like freedom, equality or fraternity but there is still an undertow of inevitability in these pages.
It really wasn’t that straightforward. As the history books show, Christians in any given age have adapted the Bible’s message to suit political circumstances and agendas: it could bolster everything from the divine right of kings to Liberation Theology. In sum, Harries is over-egging his pudding. This is a pity because his fundamental points are robust. He tells us that people of faith are entitled, even duty-bound, to influence political debate. No argument there. He tells us that the law should always be the product of a broader moral perspective. That sounds reasonable.
As a call to political engagement the book works very well, especially for Christians. There has always been a fault line within the Christian tradition. Some have sought encounter with the workaday world; others have veered towards a dualistic position in which the life of the spirit and the murky, sordid realm of politics and quotidian concerns have been starkly separated.
Harries argues strongly that Christians should bring the “imperative of Jesus to bear upon the hard realities of the world as we know it”. This is a good sermon to preach but I’m not convinced that the accompanying, slightly wayward history lesson is helpful.
We ought to remember that the ways in which people have defined the “imperative of Jesus” have always been in flux. Harries envisions a royal road from firstcentury musings to modern liberal democracy. In order to accompany him down that path we would have to stuff an awful lot of anachronism into our backpacks.