King Charles I

Since another British General Election is imminent, I’m planning a few blog posts on the values of our political culture and how they compare with religious values. As a Christian I shall focus on the Christian tradition, but many of the points would apply equally to other traditions.

This post is about the relationship between the two. Modern western culture has developed a distinct theory. It has now been exported all over the world but it began in Europe just over 300 years ago for specific reasons.

The problem was how to establish peace after religious wars inflamed by two deeply held beliefs in conflict with each other.

One was as old as history. When King Charles I believed in the divine right of kings to rule, it may seem strange to us but he stood in a tradition going right back to the dawn of history. 4000 years ago Hammurabi believed the same thing. It was a common belief that the king should ensure the proper worship of God.

In conflict with this was a newer theory, characteristic of late medieval western Christianity. Church leaders taught that people who didn’t belong to the true Church would, after they died, suffer agonising torture in hell for eternity. I can’t imagine any more oppressive, cruel belief. One result was that many people preferred to be burnt at the stake rather than obey their king’s instructions about church attendance.

The search for peace produced a new solution: to separate the two. A classic text is John Locke’s first Letter Concerning Toleration, written in 1689. To Locke, the state was a society of individuals constituted purely for the ‘procuring, preserving and advancing of their own civil interests’. A church on the other hand was a society of individuals who voluntarily join together for the public worship of God ‘in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him and effectual to the salvation of their souls’.

This is the foundation of modern secularism: church and state are henceforth to deal with completely different things. The state deals with this life, the church with the next.

This outcome, often proclaimed as a great step forward, has in reality proved disastrous. The best that can be said of it is that it did bring to an end those wars caused by an even greater tragedy, the lives spent in terror of what was to come after death. However it bequeaths to us an assumption that politics is all about individuals seeking their own interests – the very opposite of the love taught by Jesus and the compassion taught by Buddha.

On the other side of the divide, for the last 300 years Christian theologians have produced pietist theories of Christianity, all about how individual souls relate to a god whose only concern is individual souls. As long as people feared punishment in hell after death, religion had its relevance. When, mercifully, they stopped fearing it, religion had no remaining purpose at all.

The result? Countries previously steeped in Christian values are now dominated by the values of individual selfishness. The Christian churches, by accepting the idea that they should keep out of politics, no longer have spiritual or moral resources to challenge them. Islam still can, and to that extent is rightly perceived as a threat to western capitalism.

Of course our secular society offers more than individual selfishness; but nothing strong enough to stand up to it. Our laws, our economic theories, our technologies, our political policies and above all our ubiquitous advertising, all express the supreme value of individuals being free to do whatever they want. Caring for other people, on the other hand, is relegated to voluntary charities – just another freely chosen activity for those who like to do that sort of thing.

Charles I was wrong about having a divine right to rule; but he was right to think that religious values can teach us how to live here on earth before we die.