Book Review: Freedom and Order by Nick Spencer

Reviewed by John Hayward

The past few days I have enjoyed reading a new book, officially out today, Freedom and Order by Nick Spencer, Research Director at Theos. We caught up with him to ask him about the book:

1. On what basis do you argue in Freedom & Order that it is impossible to understand English politics without reference to the Bible?

The book begins from the premise that we seem very happy to say it is impossible to understand English literature without some grasp of the Bible, but we are peculiarly reluctant to say the same, even assuming we realise it, about politics. There is a vast and deep philosophical ground beneath our political feet that we often ignore, made up of ideas like: all humans are of equal worth, all are equal under the law, differences in religious opinion should be tolerated, the state should allow for religious freedom, government is justified by its commitment to the common good, the people should have a voice in selecting their political rulers, etc. These are moral ideas on which our politics depends. The book does not claim that such ideas would never have been generated without the Bible but it does draw attention to the fact that, whether we like it or not (and it is no secret that some secularists don’t!), they were generated in a culture that was underpinned and profoundly shaped by the Bible.

2. Is your message aimed at those inside or outside the Church?

Both, I hope. I think we could all benefit from knowing more about the Christian influence on our political history. Those outside the church, in particular those inhospitable to Christianity, need to be reminded quite how great the debt to biblical Christianity our country owes. But those inside it need to hear a particular and perhaps unpalatable message too, namely that the Bible has, in the past, been used to justify all kinds of political authoritarianism, disenfranchisement and inequality. There are right ways and wrong ways to read the Bible politically. We should not forget that one of the reasons why the abolitionist campaign was so explicitly biblical was because there were at the time, serious, intelligent and faithful Christians who argued for the slave trade on biblical grounds!

3. You identify the right to be free and the need for political order as the two dominant political themes in the Bible. How would you respond to those who say it contains far more about poverty, social welfare and justice and suggest you are, in your own words, plundering the text for your own political ends?

I don’t think the two are exclusive. The Introduction to the book explains that ‘the right to be free’ is not limited simply to negative freedom, i.e. freedom from interference and oppression. It also means positive freedom, freedom to enable the fulfilment of inherent human potential. If you understand freedom that way, you begin to see that it includes the duty to tackle poverty and other forms of social exclusion.

4. History is all very well, but are other influences not far more significant when it comes to determining a course for politics today and into the future?

That’s a fair point. It’s a fallacy to believe that just because things have been that way, they should remain that way. Moreover, the book is open about the fact biblical Christianity has never been the only influence on national politics. Even during the period when it dominated the political stage, between 1530s and 1650s, it worked alongside other political actors, not least of which were the basic influence of circumstance, events and realpolitik – which of course remain with us today. Furthermore, given the ‘deep diversity’ of modern British society, we should not expect, let alone demand, that biblical Christianity remains as influential as it has been in the past. Christians must participate in the battle of ideas like everyone else. The point, however, remains that we do a gross injustice to ourselves and our idea of who we are if we choose to forget how we got here.

5. The tension you identify between freedom and order, the individual and the state is perhaps illustrated well with our own two key books: Free to Live and Jubilee Manifesto. As a former Jubilee Centre researcher, in what ways would you like to see us working more with others to help equip believers for biblical political engagement and to help maintain a healthy political culture?

I think one of the most interesting areas today is the big question of what we expect – and should expect – from politics (and politicians). The combination of the expenses scandal and the arguments deployed in the voting referendum (coming on the back of already quite deep cynicism about politicians), and the prospect of significant spending cuts and a changed size (and shape) of the state, plus the whole Big Society Agenda (not to mention other issues like security and personal data) means that the question of the boundaries between state, market, civil society, and individual is a very live one. Who do we expect to do what in a healthy society? Where are the limits on what the state can and should try to achieve? How much autonomy can civil society organisations demand? This is an area that everyone, Christians included, need to do some careful thinking about and I believe the Jubilee Centre is well placed, with its excellent track record on biblical social ethics, to engage in it.

Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99 (currently just over £9 on Amazon and the Book Depository).

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Category: News and Reviews

May, 2011

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