Tony Benn – Lessons for Christians, Politicians and Secular Humanists
Today I am in mourning. Another key person in the country I grew up in has died. Tony Benn (aged 88) had the unusual distinction of being regarded as a national treasure even before he was dead! The facts about him are easily accessed and will be repeated many times in the next days as Britain sees another of its senior politicians exiting this mortal coil.
Elected to Parliament in 1950, he was there for over 50 years. For some he was a principled politician, whilst for others he was the aristocratic radical who almost destroyed the Labour party in the early 1980s. What no one doubts is that he was a charismatic and powerful speaker, an excellent writer and a conviction politician. He was one of the few politicians that I have listened to for all my life, and did happily travel to hear.
Without claiming him as a card carrying Bible-believing Christian, it is nevertheless interesting to see just how much Christianity was a primary influence on his life and politics. In a fascinating interview with John Cleary on ABC in 2003 Benn gave some key insights into his background and thinking. "My roots come from the dissenting tradition in religion, that's to say what my Mother used to call 'the priesthood of all believers'; you do not need a Bishop to help you....You know, it's a very, very different and very important and very radical idea. My great-grandfather was a Congregational Minister and my Mother was a Bible scholar, and I was brought up on the Bible, that the story of the Bible was conflict between the kings who had power, and the prophets who preached righteousness. And I was taught to believe in the prophets, got me into a lot of trouble. And my Dad said to me when I was young, 'Dare to be a Daniel, Dare to stand alone, Dare to have a purpose firm, Dare to let it (be) known.'
As well as his paternal grandfather being a Congregationalist minister, and his mother a Scottish Calvinist, his wife was a descendent of Huguenot refugees. He was very much part of the 19th century Protestant dissenting tradition – far more than he was that of the Marxist. Even to the extent that he was teetotal. His speeches, interviews and diaries were often interlaced with biblical Christian ideas. In his interview with Cleary he said that we had replaced religion with the worship of mammon; he indicated that he believed in God and the Day of Judgement and he lamented that we had replaced the Prophets with profits. I struggle to think of any modern political leader who would speak in such biblical terms.
In another interview with The Catholic Herald he recognised the vital significance of Christianity in bringing freedom and liberal democracy to the Western World. - I've never thought we can understand the world we lived in unless we understood the history of the church. All political freedoms were won, first of all, through religious freedom." I wonder if our militant secularists and our current crop of politicians realise the rock from which our democracy was hewn? Do they grasp that if they take away the Christian foundation of our society, they are also likely to lose the fruits of liberty, equality and social justice? Their faith encourages them to believe that everything is going to get better, everything is going to be alright in the end, and that 'progressive' politicians like them will of course make progress. I suspect that in the 21st Century, those who most loudly shout about 'freedom' will be the ones who in name of that 'freedom' seek to restrict religion and ultimately will lose the source of our freedom. Tony Benn grasped that. He knew where we came from and he appreciated it.
Of course our secular humanists immediately cry – no we are for freedom of religion and equality of religion (a cry that is made by Islamic theocratic states and Communist states as well). We just don't want religion to have any influence. In effect they want the church and Christians to be privatised, becoming the equivalent of a knitting club or a Trekkie convention. Its alright if its done in private and doesn't scare the horses! Tony Benn had some wise words for those who want such privatisation of religion - "How can you separate yourself from the world you live in? I can't imagine a world where people have their religion in a water-tight compartment. Religion can't just be a private matter."
Although I admired Benn, I did not agree with everything he said. However he represented a form of Left-wing politics based upon Christian principles of social justice which I suspect has largely been replaced by one which is based upon a liberal attitude to non-economic moral issues. The shibboleth issues for the Left (as for all who claim to be progressive) seem to be abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia. Benn may actually have been the last of the 19th Century radicals from the Christian tradition. They would have been appalled at how bourgeois and unegalitarian those who profess to be their successors' have become.
I leave you with this fascinating piece of television that Benn did for Channel 4 three years ago. Best summed up by this statement "The idea that Christian teaching can be out-dated by events is a mistake". Amen. RIP.