How often have I heard it said that it is the precepts of Christianity that are the foundation of Western civilization? My typical response when confronted with this claim is to roll my eyes and think “that old chestnut.”
This is particularly the case when the claim is framed so egregiously by the likes of Glenn Beck who stated, in referring to origins of the United States, “it is God’s finger that wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
This is God’s country; these are God’s rights. I have no idea what he wants us to do with them, other than protect them, and stand with Him.”
(As cited in Tony’s Curricublog) While it is easy to dismiss such claims as stuff and nonsense, it is worth considering the role of religious belief in the growth and development of Western civilization, its transition from the primacy of Christian doctrine in public life to the rise of liberal democracy and the rule of law in the secular nation state, though not in the way many religious folk, such as Glenn Beck, imagine it to be.
I have an interest in the study of religion as a social phenomenon, having studied the sociology of religion an undergraduate at Queen’s University, and as an ex-Catholic, I have a good knowledge of Christianity.
History remains a subject for which I maintain a great interest too. My ancestors hail from the British Isles, so it should come as no surprise that I am especially interested in English history, particularly as it pertains to the rise of Western civilization.
Christianity was introduced to the British Isles by missionaries in the 2nd Century A.D. King Henry VIII established Protestantism as the state religion in 1534, in breaking from the Papacy, founding the Church of England, and making the Sovereign head of the English Church.
Henry VIII assumed dictatorial powers, used the Church of England, its hierarchy of bishops and vicars, and the Reformation Parliament (Parliament existed only at the will of the Sovereign at the time) as a means of consolidating his rule.
Christian doctrine was pervasive in public life in shaping the mores of English society in Tudor England. This organization of English society was accepted by the English as having been divinely ordained.
By the 17th century new thinking in Protestantism, natural rights and the role of Parliament had taken hold leading to a struggle between King and Parliament culminating in the English Civil War (1642-1651). The primary figures in this struggle were Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and King Charles I (1600-1649).
Both men were Christian and deeply religious, but held opposing views in matters of doctrine. Cromwell was a Puritan, an adherent of Calvinism (decidedly anti-Catholic) who had no use for the hierarchy and sacramental liturgies of the Church of England; whereas, Charles I sought to employ the sacramental liturgies and Church hierarchy to consolidate his rule.
Cromwell was a Parliamentarian and sought a greater role for Parliament in advancing his dream of a godly nation. Cromwell remained true to his faith and vision for the nation. In a speech he delivered on April 3, 1657 he stated:
If anyone whatsoever think the interest of Christians and the interest of the nation inconsistent, or two different things, I wish my soul may never enter into their secrets [… ] And upon these two interests, if God shall account me worthy, I shall live and die. And […] if I were to give an account before a greater tribunal than any earthly one; and if I were asked why I have engaged all along in the late war, I could give no answer but it would be a wicked one if it did not comprehend these two ends. (as cited in Oliver Cromwell and Parliaments)
Charles I sought to rule without Parliament and was able to do so as was the case during the reign of Henry VIII, Parliament existed only at the will of the Sovereign. In doing so, Charles I believed he ruled by divine right, that in the divine order of society his subjects were not to have a say in how they were governed.
His obstinance in this belief led to the English Civil War, his defeat and ultimately his trial and execution on January 29, 1649. He offered as his defense at his trial the following:
I would know by what power I am called hither […] I would know by what authority, I mean lawful; there are many unlawful authorities in the world; thieves and robbers by the high-ways […] Remember, I am your King, your lawful King, and what sins you bring upon your heads, and the judgement of God upon this land. Think well upon it, I say, think well upon it, before you go further from one sin to a greater […] I have a trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent, I will not betray it, to answer a new unlawful authority; therefore resolve me that, and you shall hear more of me.
The trial and execution of Charles I put paid to the belief that the King ruled by divine right, but Oliver Cromwell’s vision of a godly English society never came to pass either.
However, what did emerge from the English Civil War was the ascendency of the idea of natural rights. A faction in the Parliamentary side in the conflict, known as the Levellers, put forth the idea of natural rights, asserting:
all men were born free and equal and possessed natural rights that resided in the individual, not the government. They believed that each man should have freedom limited only by regard for the freedom of others. They believed the law should equally protect the poor and the wealthy. (History of the Levellers)
While Cromwell suppressed the Levellers, they resorted to mutiny (Banbury Mutiny) in putting forth their demands.
Three of their leaders, Cornet James Thompson, Corporal Perkins and John Church, were executed by firing squad May 17, 1649, but the idea of natural rights prevailed and was taken up by the men of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Diderot, John Locke, and Adam Smith, for example.
In the century that followed the idea of natural rights was applied in establishing England as a constitutional monarchy (the monarchy was restored following Cromwell’s death), and the founding of the republic of the United States of America, where in both societies civil law, the rights of the individual and equality before the law has replaced the old order where Christian doctrine once had primacy in public life.