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On ‘British Fair Play’, Christian Theology and the Rule of Law


Professor Rachel Muers is a member of the Centre of Religion and Public Life and works in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. Her areas of interest and expertise are modern Christian thought; feminism; Quaker theology and environmental ethics.

Should a British government pass a law that allows it, in ‘a specific and limited way’, to break an international agreement and to contravene other provisions of international and domestic law?

On the face of it, while this is a pressing and urgent issue at the time of writing, this is not a question that concerns theologians or scholars of religion. It is very clearly a question of ethics (among other things), and religious traditions are generally assumed to have something to say about ethics; but on this specific point we might think there is no particularly distinctive religious contribution to be made. Although, as is frequently noted, UK law has deep roots in Christianity, it is not obvious that there is anything specifically Christian about the questions raised by the Internal Market Bill. If, however, following the tradition of the Leeds Centre for Religion and Public Life (CRPL), we look below the surface of this acrimonious public debate, I suggest that we can discern, not only ethical commitments with specific theological implications, but also deeper foundations – in the religious and theological construction of national identity.

First, then, consider the frequent appeals in this debate to the ‘rule of law’. Although there is nothing uniquely Christian about commitment to the rule of law as such, there are ample grounds for arguing in the other direction – that Christian commitments support the rule of law, or to be more precise the principle that government should be bound by law. 

The basic idea that there are principles of justice that apply equally to all, including and perhaps especially the holder of sovereign power, is deeply engrained in the tradition.  In the biblical texts, rulers are judged according to their adherence, or otherwise, to the same divinely instituted laws that govern the people; the ‘nations’ are judged according to the same criteria that govern everyday interactions. The requirement that those who hold power respect the law and behave lawfully is frequently linked in Christian ethical discourse, not only to the primacy of God’s rule, but also to the protection of the weak against the strong and to the promotion of peace with justice. This is not just about the content of particular laws; rather, the very fact that the law as a whole is respected (assuming it isrespected) protects the interests of those who cannot resort to force to defend themselves.

It would not be surprising, then, if Christians in the UK were to advocate publicly for the government’s compliance with the law, appealing to arguments derived from their tradition but accessible to a wider audience. In fact, there have been few, if any, appeals of this kind. Instead there have been frequent references to the history of Britain, or more precisely of England, as a law-abiding nation. Such references invoke, in the background, a well-established mythology – of ‘British fair play’. England is celebrated as the land of Magna Carta; Britain is portrayed as the international defender of the weak, or as itself the plucky and heroic underdog defeating the tricky, and sometimes downright treacherous, foreigners. 

Just putting it in these terms reveals the shaky ground upon which this national mythology brings us. British – or again, more properly English - exceptionalism appeared on both sides of the parliamentary debate about the Internal Markets Bill. On the one hand, we saw the defence of the celebrated British tradition of the rule of law. On the other hand, there was the naked assertion of the supremacy of British interests over other European nations – who were rhetorically portrayed as inherently treacherous, ‘bad faith’ actors against whom, by implication, a little trickery or illegality was easily forgivable and perhaps unavoidable. In both cases Britain was being presented as the morally ‘good’ nation with an inherently noble and law-abiding character, and a unique set of moral responsibilities.

This national self-portrait has a long and complex history, at least one strand of which is based in religious identity. The history of English national identity is bound up with the history of the English churches. It includes the development across several centuries of a narrative of England – with its national Protestant church – as a bastion of law-governed freedom and rationality over papal authority and Catholic ‘superstition’. It includes the religious justification of English colonial projects, as bringing the twin gifts of ‘true religion’ and ‘lawful government’ to previously ‘unenlightened’ peoples. In the seventeenth century it includes, incidentally, both the laws that made my own church-community temporarily illegal, and the law that secured its toleration but only on condition of loyalty to the English monarch and repudiation of Roman Catholicism

All of this makes me somewhat more anxious about invoking the ‘great national tradition’ of the rule of law, with or without a religious gloss. However, it might also be possible to draw on Christian theology to challenge English exceptionalism and with it the blithe assumptions about the obvious rightness of the ‘British’ cause that is so evident among those promoting the Internal Market Bill. Theologians can look, for example, at the body of recent work that criticises various historically-Christian nations for appropriating to themselves the special status – as beacons of moral virtue or recipients of special divine favour – that is accorded to biblical Israel and specifically denied to ‘the nations’. They can look at numerous and diverse theological critiques of the notion of sovereignty, if sovereignty is understood – as it seems to be in some current political rhetoric– as exemption from the moral constraints that interdependence and finitude place on individuals and societies alike. In this way they can perhaps make a small contribution to helping England give up its national mythologies and re-find its place in the world.

Written By: Prof. Rachel Muers

Image Credit: M. Hawksey @Flickr