John Richardson returns to the theme of society and personal freedom

MY PREVIOUS ARTICLE about the way we are being governed unfortunately upset at least one person for the wrong reason. In quoting Margaret Thatcher with approval I was not, of course, uncritically endorsing every outcome of all her policies. I was simply agreeing with her observation that the term ‘society’ does not refer to an independent thing in itself but rather to a network of relationships between individuals. It is these individuals who constitute ‘society’, just as instrumentalists constitute an orchestra. The logic is similar to that of the philosopher (I believe it was A J Ayer), who pointed out that you could show someone round Oxford or Cambridge all day without them ever seeing ‘the University’.

Thus in the same way that the quality of a particular orchestra depends on the skills of the individual players, so the quality of a society depends on the character of its individual members. Current European social policy, however, tends to neglect a ‘bottom up’ development of the individual in favour of ‘top down’ social engineering. And for this reason it is likely that our own society will become more oppressive in the future than it has been in the past.


In his book Church and State in the New Millennium, David Holloway observes that Lutheran and Calvinist theologies each developed different models of secular authority. Luther thought of the state as having a minimalist rôle, largely in restricting the worst of human sinfulness. He therefore rejected Millennarian Utopianism in favour of a pragmatic separation between the ‘two kingdoms’ of church and state. Calvin, by contrast, saw a more positive rôle for the state in not merely restraining sin but pursuing the moral good on the basis of religious truth. The government should therefore actively promote Christian standards through social policy: “no government can be happily established unless piety is the first concern; and … those laws are preposterous which neglect God’s right and provide only for men” (Institutes, IV xx 9).

Throughout most of the second millennium the difference between the social outworking of the two views was minimal. Whether Calvinist or Lutheran in this respect, the Protestant cultures of Western Europe (including post-Marian England) differed little from one another in social essentials. Furthermore, the increasing secularism of Western Europe at first obscured even the remaining differences between Protestant and Catholic states. The Enlightenment was a much a Catholic as a Protestant social phenomenon, and its social goals were still recognizably ‘Christian’ in their particulars, in spite of a widespread rejection of Christian theology.


However, within a relatively few years the accelerating pace of social change, coupled with a general ignorance of history, has meant that the difference between these ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Lutheran’ social models is becoming crucial, even as an understanding of the underlying theologies is disappearing. Holloway points out that these models have been variously adopted by Europe and the United States respectively. Thus, although not founded as a Lutheran state, there is nevertheless in the United States a strong tradition of resistance to governmental ‘interference’. The Constitution of the United States is therefore a minimalist document which prioritizes the preservation of individual freedoms, rather than the legitimization of state control.

This is seen most notoriously in the Second Amendment which enshrines “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”. Regardless of the fact that its intention is specifically to allow the establishment of “A well regulated militia … necessary to the security of a free state”, the practical interpretation of the Amendment focuses on the right of the individual to carry a gun. To the European mind, this ‘right’ seems bizarre, especially given the enormous death toll exacted by these guns each year. To a substantial number of Americans, however, these deaths are clearly the price of freedom – a freedom which must be maintained at all costs, for the alternative is precisely a return to the European model of government from which their Founding Fathers escaped.


On a more immediately relevant note, however, Europe and America also differ radically on the understanding of freedom of religion. The American Constitution simply states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. By contrast, whilst the European Convention on Human Rights seems also to establish the right to freedom of religion, it simultaneously confers on the State the ‘right’ to limit this freedom. Thus Article 9:1 states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, but then 9:2 continues, “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject … to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”.

The formal recognition of a “necessary” limitation “prescribed by law” to manifesting “one’s religion or beliefs” is in obvious contrast to the enactment that there will be “no law … prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Thus American and European legislation both apparently recognize the freedom of the individual. Yet the ‘American Constitution’ mindset emphasizes a ‘Lutheran’ freedom within the framework of a minimalist legislature, whereas the ‘European Convention’ mindset emphasizes a ‘Calvinist’ rôle of the State in legally channelling human freedom towards desirable social outcomes.


However, whilst the Calvinist approach may be acceptable when operated within a broadly Christian cultural framework, it becomes highly undesirable, and indeed positively dangerous, once that framework has been abandoned. Within Europe in general, and the United Kingdom in particular, it means that even under the banner of ‘Human Rights’, the individual may find himself operating within a socially coercive system which attempts to extend the arm of the law into previously private aspects of daily life.

Naturally this will be done in the best possible taste. It is in the interests of combatting racism, for example, that our own government has seriously proposed abolishing the England Football Supporters’ Club. But can racism be eradicated by law? The Christian answer is “No”. Of course it could be argued that racism can and should be restrained by law. But should this legal restraint allow the abolition of organizations which in themselves exist for lawful purposes? It is surely a measure of how ‘punch drunk’ with repressive legislation we have already become that this proposal met with barely a whimper of public protest.


At the start of the new millennium it is vital that Christians begin to realize once again the conflict between law and gospel. Whether in church or state, you cannot by definition establish gospel values through legal instruments, whether they originate from Brussels, Moses or the General Synod. Thus to the extent to which our society enacts more and more legislation to produce desirable social outcomes, to precisely that extent it becomes less and less Christian. Indeed, it may be that in the near future the distinguishing characteristic of true Christianity will be its resistance to law in favour of the risks of freedom.

John Richardson is Assistant Minister, somewhere near Stansted Airport