Stephen Wigmore

Why the West still needs the Bible

Without Scripture, we cannot understand the ideas that have shaped our world and thought

Why the West still needs the Bible
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If you look to our schools and universities, you will not see a serious engagement with the Bible as part of the study of politics, of philosophy, or even of literature and culture more generally, despite the huge influence of Biblical ideas on the development of British, American and European politics – and so also across the Commonwealth and the world. University courses on political philosophy take a fundamentally ahistorical position of focusing on purely secular philosophers, rather than facing the reality of the Bible’s impact on the actual development of modern politics. 

From Bristol to Warwick to Glasgow, the works of Hobbes and Rousseau, Mill and Rawls, are compulsory study; but across dozens of modules available, none focuses on the Bible or the role of religion, historically and in the present day. Similarly, university courses on literature rarely involve study of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, despite the fact their influence on the English language and its literature is matched only by Shakespeare. At school level, I have spoken to English teachers who comment that students increasingly have so little Biblical awareness they cannot understand even basic religious references in works by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, which prior generations would have taken for granted.

In political philosophy, Hobbes may have advocated an absolute monarchy based on an ahistorical conception of the state of nature, and Rousseau may have advocated a proto-fascist ‘General Will’ as more important than individual freedom and choice, but their work gets a privileged place because it was resolutely secular in an age that generally wasn’t. More importantly though, they had remarkably little influence on how our political institutions and understanding have developed compared to the Bible and the generations of statesmen and thinkers who drew on Scripture to develop our shared life. 

The Bible’s importance lies in the fact that it has not just been a source for intellectuals and elites: it has been a shared heritage of the rich and poor alike, often even more so for ordinary people without the additional influence of a classical education. 

From the 14th-century peasants’ revolt – ‘when Adam delve and Eve span, who was then the gentleman’ – through to the non-conformist and Catholic contribution to the development of the Labour Party, which ‘owes more to Methodism than Marx’: it is the Bible that has given ordinary people a moral language to challenge the domination of the rich and powerful, just as it did in the 1960s for Martin Luther King.

In modern academia, study of the Bible is almost entirely restricted to Theology departments. Many modern universities, founded in the 19th and 20th centuries on self-consciously ‘secular’ lines, lack even those, while schools restrict it to the ghetto of ‘religious studies’ and so isolate it from its wider impact. But the Bible should be studied not just to better understand Christianity, political and moral philosophy. It helps us to understand the ideas and stories that have shaped our world and thought.

Outside the United Nations Building in New York there stands an enormous bronze figure, 13 feet tall atop his pedestal. He is caught mid-stroke, muscles flexed and hammer raised, about to bring it crashing down on a bent blade, the hilt in his other hand. ‘Let Us Beat Swords Into Ploughshares’, the work is called, quoting 2,700-year-old words from the Prophet Isaiah. The statue was built by a Soviet artist in 1958, but despite the state atheism of the Soviet Union, Evgeniy Vuchetich knew where to find a symbol recognisable across the world to express the aspirations that lay behind the United Nations.

The aims of the UN, one of the central institutions of the post-war ‘rules-based’ world order, can be traced back to the Atlantic Charter of 1941: a joint declaration of British and American hopes for future peace, the result of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill meeting. Despite the urgency of that brief conference, time was found for a church service with both leaders choosing hymns. Churchill selected ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past’, a paraphrase of Psalm 90, and after the War he remembered that service as ‘a deeply moving expression of the unity of faith of our two peoples [that] none who took part in it will forget’. It serves as a reminder that the Allied fight was defined, not by realpolitik, but by a Christian spiritual vision based on charity, self-sacrifice and peace that was totally incompatible with Nazism and its worship of power, race and conquest. 

As Churchill said in his famous ‘Battle of Britain’ speech, what was at stake in the war was no less than ‘the survival of Christian civilisation’. He was not alone in that view. The war began for Britain with Chamberlain’s famous address, including his prayer, ‘may God bless you all and may He defend the right’. It ended on the same note, with Clement Attlee addressing the House of Commons after Japan’s surrender to say ‘one feeling, I am sure, predominates in all our hearts, the feeling of gratitude to Almighty God for this great mercy’.

Such words from the resolutely agnostic Attlee testify to how deeply, in the mid-20th century, a Biblical moral and spiritual basis was taken to define the hopes and aims of western civilisation – even by those with no strong orthodox Christian faith. It formed both the vocabulary and the grammar of figures on left and right, providing a shared underlying framework of ideas and ideals. Not just in war, but equally in peace, with Attlee’s Labour famously describing their post-war programme as building the New Jerusalem in England’s ‘green and pleasant land’ – making fresh use of the powerful image from Revelations, where there shall be ‘neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’, via the 18th-century radical artist William Blake.

It was not only in building just institutions that 20th-century leaders reached for the Bible for inspiration, but also in demolishing unjust ones. In the fight against Jim Crow, Martin Luther King Jr., a serving Baptist minister, drew constantly on his deep understanding of the Bible to lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference against institutional racist discrimination across the United States. From the Old Testament prophets, particularly the words of Amos (‘let justice flow like a river, and righteousness like a never-ending stream’) he took a fierce belief that God requires us to struggle for justice without delay. And from the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount (‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also’) he took inspiration for a non-violent campaign against evil, insisting on returning hate with love.

It would be a mistake to think mid-20th-century politics continued to draw on the Bible only for rhetoric. The structures of the international order built after the second world war, often merely credited as ‘liberal’, relied on intellectual traditions shaped by millennia of Christian theology, including ideas of just war, natural rights, and international law; to draw nations worldwide into a framework that had, until then, existed only as an aspiration among western Christian nations. For example, just war theory originated with Saint Augustine’s reflections on reconciling traditional Christian pacifism with the need to defend the Roman Empire from attack. It was developed by philosophers such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the Salamanca School of the 16th century, before being taken up into modern institutional efforts to limit and prevent War. 

These figures were also crucial in the development of a theory of human rights based in natural law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights developed on earlier declarations of rights in the English-speaking world, including the Declaration of Independence, with its ringing statement that ‘all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights’, and can be traced back to the Magna Carta in 1215, itself heavily influenced by the renowned scholar and Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton.

Natural law theory is often traced to Aristotle, but the original pagan idea was very different to our modern conception. Pre-Christian philosophers believed that reason revealed a natural law of fundamental moral inequality among mankind: with citizens divided from foreigners, the free from slaves, men from women, and philosophers from everyone else. Aristotle spoke of certain people as ‘natural slaves’, a rational deduction from his overall framework. 

This was transformed by the Christian belief that Almighty God became man and suffered death on the cross, to bring all people to a new life defined by their individual faith and belonging in Christ. This replaced the assumption of fundamental spiritual inequality with a faith defined by spiritual equality, summed up in the words St Paul wrote to the Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

Over centuries this belief worked against the inertia of power, hierarchy, and self-interest to transform the world, not just spiritually, but politically. It drove movements ranging from the abolition of slavery to the rise of democracy until eventually, in the 20th century, it was embedded in institutions such as the UN, intended to represent all humanity.

What is true of the political structures built during the crucial years of the mid-20th century is even more true of the preceding centuries. The safest summary of British politics from at least the 16th to the 19th century would be that it was a branch of applied theology: from the reformation to the civil war, to the Glorious Revolution, to the importance of non-conformist, evangelical Christian communities to the reform movements of the 19th century and the labour movement of the early 20th. At every stage, the drive towards representative government, the political and civil rights we take for granted and the organisation of working-class communities were intrinsically linked with Biblical motivations. This is not just a matter of understanding our past, but our present, and the world outside us. Religious awareness is often poor among our professional politicians and commentators, too.

Britain is one of the most secular countries in the world, but it is still a multi-religious country: we have a deeply Christian monarch, churches with widespread roles in schools, communities, parliament and charities across the country and active Jewish, Muslim and other religious communities. In the world, Christianity is the largest religious community, and Islam is the second; there are fewer atheists than Hindus, and most of those atheists live under Chinese communism.

Beyond the sheer size of religious communities there is the reality again, that the challenges we face in the political world – whether from Russian nationalists, Chinese communists or Islamist militants – are deeply ideological, and only by understanding in detail our own ideas of conscience, of tolerance, of charity, of equality, can we hope to understand and overcome them.

During the Platinum Jubilee celebrations I watched Trooping the Colour. It was astonishing to watch the footage of soldiers cut between them practicing for modern urban warfare and the 19th-century drill of Trooping the Colour. There they stood in bearskins and red coats, with automatic assault rifles on their shoulders. This could be a metaphor for the entire British political system, where 21st-century elements sit alongside structures and forms dating back centuries, like the leaves and branches of some ancient oak. But that great tree is coming under increasing pressure.

We have inherited ideas and assumptions about democracy, liberalism and tolerance that were forged in the 20th, 19th and earlier centuries that are now being threatened by an ever more globalised economy, technology that challenges what it means both to be human and free and an increasingly strident progressivism. 

Questions about abortion, trans rights, privacy, our place in Europe, our obligation to nations under attack, economic fairness, and reforming our constitution, all hinge on fundamental values; on how ethically, even metaphysically, we understand the nature of our humanity. And whether in understanding ourselves, our institutions, or our moral ideals, everyone in Britain – and across the West – approaches these questions within a framework that has been profoundly shaped by the Bible for more than a thousand years.