How religions can be a force for democracy

By Giles Fraser
October 2, 2007

Back on the 28 October, 1647, a meeting began in my church in Putney that was to change the nature of political life in this country forever. Over a period of weeks, a hundred or so men came together in St Mary's Church to argue about an idea that's been controversial ever since. That idea was: 'democracy'.

Records of this meeting, discovered at the end of the nineteenth century, are quite remarkable, for they reveal, arguably for the very first time, the political theory of ordinary people.

"For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he" says Thomas Rainsborough in a now famous speech "and therefore truly, sir, I think it clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government" It was indeed radical stuff.

And it didn't stop there either. For the Levellers, as they came to be known, went on to argue that every man in the country ought to have a vote, that people ought to be free to worship as they wished, that Parliament ought to be elected every two years, that the House of Lords ought to be abolished.

All of this was way too much for Oliver Cromwell. He and his senior officers believed it absurd to give the vote to just anybody and that only people with property could be really trusted with electoral power.

As the ideas of the Levellers spread, Cromwell and his officers became increasingly uneasy. They started to imprison Leveller leaders in the Tower of London . At the end of the Civil War, they rounded them up and executed the ringleaders. For a while at least, democracy had been silenced.

There are, of course, some very interesting parallels here with what's been going on in Burma recently - not least, the connection between democracy and religion.

For although we often tell the story of democracy as though it were a totally secular affair, the fact is, just as it's Buddhist Monks who are at the vanguard of the struggle for democracy in Burma, so too it was religion at the heart of the Leveller's radical political theory.

They believed that, before God, all human beings are counted as free. John Lilburn wrote that Adam and Eve were "by nature all equal and alike in power, dignity and authority". Furthermore, those forces that seek to bind ordinary people and control them are necessarily demonic and must be challenged.

It was with this sort of language that democracy first found its voice in England.

These days, it can so easily feel as if religion is an anti-democratic force in our polity. No one votes for Bishops in the House of Lords, for example. So it's worth remembering that in this country, as indeed in many others too, religion was the nursemaid of democracy.


(c) Giles Fraser. The author is vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy. His latest book is Christianity with Attitude. With acknowledgments to the BBC. This article is adapted from a recent Radio 4 Thought for the Day.

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