Biblical Insights into the Good Society (Ebor Lecture 2011)

Ebor Lecture 2011

November 30, 2011
Ebor Lecture 2011 logo

I want this evening to retrace three fascinating journeys of thought, two that took place 180 years ago, the third some 3,000 years ago, that I think shed light on exactly what is meant by ‘A Big Society’ or ‘A Good Society’.

180 years ago, in 1831, two people set out on journeys that changed their lives and indeed changed ours, enabling us to see the world differently and more deeply. The two men were in many ways similar: young, from well established families, with an intense curiosity about the world around them. Superb observers who saw what others missed, they had the ability to theorise about what they saw and hypothesise novel explanations. To my knowledge, their names have never been associated, which is strange because their journeys both began in the same year and led them to strikingly similar insights. One of them was the young British naturalist on HMS Beagle, which would eventually take him to the Galapagos Islands; a man by the name of Charles Darwin. The other was a young French aristocrat who set sail for the United States to see explore their handling of politics; a man by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville.

Despite their utterly different interests and fields of research, I will argue that both discovered essentially the same thing, namely, the necessity in any form of collective life for both competition and cooperation. This is harder than it sounds because it calls for two sets of completely different instincts, one for aggression and the other for altruism. But Darwin and Tocqueville discovered that, somehow or other, we have to manage both instincts. Understand this, and we will gain valuable insights into what the big or good society is.
The Darwinian miracle

Let us begin with Charles Darwin. At the heart of his evolutionary theory, Darwin saw what appeared to be a glaring contradiction, and he was wise enough and honest enough to see it and say so. If natural selection were true, if the evolution of species was determined by competition for scarce resources, then you would expect only the most ruthlessly self-interested to survive. Selflessness has no place in the Darwinian system, and Darwin rightly acknowledged that. Altruists, especially those people who risk their lives for the sake of others, would tend to die disproportionately young because of the risks they took before they had a chance of handing on their genes to the next generation. In short, altruists should be extinct everywhere.

Instead what Darwin discovered and saw was that in virtually all human societies altruism was valued. Those who took risks for the sake of the group were highly admired. Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela: these were people admired, not for their ruthlessness but for the opposite, their willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of others. To his credit, Darwin saw the general form of a solution which, put in today’s language, is this: we hand on our genes to the next generation as individuals, but only survive as members of groups. A human being on his or her own cannot survive. This was the extraordinary contradiction at the heart of natural selection. As he says in The Descent of Man:

“There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common would be victorious over most other tribes and this would be natural selection.”

The Descent of Man, p. 166

This is the nearest Darwin ever came to the concept of group selection. What Darwin saw was that it is very difficult to work out how anyone could arrive at altruism in the first place. In his words:

“The problem, however, of the first advance of savages towards civilisation is at present much too difficult to be solved.”

The Descent of Man, p. 113

Unsure of how it worked out, once Darwin arrived at this solution, it became essential to preserve and develop the habits of altruism. Thus, on the one hand natural selection works on the basis of competition for scarce resources, but on the other hand it depends on cooperation which is vital to the survival of the group, and the group is vital for the survival of the individual. As a result, a kind of miracle takes place. In natural selection, as in all species, but above all in homo sapiens, the miracle is that selfish genes get together to produce selfless people. That is the Darwinian miracle!
The social power of religion

In the same year, Alexis de Tocqueville visited America to see the new phenomenon of a democracy built on the principled separation of Church and state. What fascinated him was a paradox very similar to Darwin’s paradox of competition and cooperation: if Church is separate from state, then religion has no power, and if it has no power, it should have no influence, either. The logical conclusion therefore was that in a country where Church is separate from state, religion should be a marginal phenomenon. Yet Tocqueville found the opposite: a nation where religion played a central role.

Indeed, nearly two centuries later it still does. In 2009, the editor of The Economist, John Micklethwait, and Adrian Woolridge, its Washington correspondent, published a book, God is Back, where they claim that ‘a higher percentage of the American population go to a place of worship at least once a week than do so in the theocratic Stateof Iran’, specifically, that 40% of Americans go to a house of worship once a week, while only 39% of Iranians do so. America remains a highly religious society.

This was the problem Tocqueville set himself to solve. How can a nation in which religion has no power be one in which it has enormous influence? Through interviews with clergymen, Toqueville discovered that religion was influential in America because of the separation of Church and state: because religion never got involved in politics. He writes in Democracy in America:

“When I came to enquire into the prevailing spirit of the clergy, I found that most of its members seemed to retire of their own accord from the exercise of power and they made it the pride of their profession to abstain from politics.”

Democracy in America, Book 1, ch. 17

When he asked the clergymen why they stayed out of politics, they said, in essence, ‘Because all politics is intrinsically divisive. Therefore if we got involved in the political system we too would be divisive. We want to be a unifying rather than a divisive force. Therefore we avoid politics.’ Instead religious leaders in the 1830s were involved in strengthening families, building communities and starting charities.  They inspired people to a sense of the common good, educating them in “habits of the heart,” and giving them what Tocqueville called “their apprenticeship in liberty”.

Realising that there is an enormous weight in a democratic society that falls on families, communities, local groups of all kinds – what he called the “Voluntary Association” – Tocqueville realised that the whole arena often called ‘civil society’ (the part that is not the state) is vital for the health of democracy. That is where we learn the logic of cooperation, not competition. In families and communities, we do things for one another because their very existence depends on reciprocal altruism.

This element of family and community building was what religion focused on. Tocqueville writes: “In the United States religion exercises but little influence on the laws and the details of public opinion but it directs the customs of the community and by regulating domestic life it regulates the state.” Therefore, he concluded, “there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America and therefore religion has, if it is to survive and thrive, to be kept apart from politics.”

In a strange way, therefore, Darwin and Tocqueville came, at the same time, to the same conclusion. They both recognised that although the struggle to survive involves competition, there must be protected space within the group where we learn and constantly enact the habits of cooperation, altruism, and concern for the common as opposed to the individual good. That is the conclusion on which these two very different journeys converged.
A biblical social contract

The third journey took place 3,000 years ago, in the days of the prophet and priest Samuel, in the events recorded in 1 Samuel 8. Until then, the Israelites did not have a centralised authority in the Holy Land. They did not have a state; rather, they were a loose confederation of tribes. They had, as it were, local, not central, government. When the nation was in trouble and they needed to defend themselves in war, they would turn to a charismatic leader, such as Gideon or Samson, who would lead the people in battle.

Toward the end of Samuel’s life, the people asked him to appoint a king. Samuel was much displeased. He turned to God and said, ‘They are rejecting me,’ only for God to respond, ‘No, they are rejecting Me’ ( 1 Samuel 8:7).

God then says to Samuel: ‘Warn the people of the consequences of appointing a king: If you have a government, you are going to have to pay taxes. If you appoint a king, he will take the best of their lands, he will take your children into service, and make similar demands on you and your family. If, despite this, they still want a king, then give it to them.’ Samuel tells the people, ‘You will cry out in that day because of the king you have appointed over me.’ However, the people say, ‘We still want a king,’ and God says, ‘Give them a king.’

This episode has puzzled Bible scholars for centuries since it seems to represent a complex ambivalence about whether monarchy is a good thing or not. If it is good, why does God say they are rejecting Him in asking for a king? If it is bad, why does He allow the people to appoint one?

The best answer is that 1 Samuel 8 represents the first recorded instance of what Hobbes, Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau called ‘a social contract’. A ‘social contract’ means that people agree to give up certain of their rights and freedoms, handing them over to a central authority, which in return, will ensure the rule of law within the society and the defence of the realm against external enemies. By asking for a king, the Jewish people chose to prioritise the rule of law and defence of the realm over certain freedoms and rights belonging to them. History’s first ‘social contract’ thus took place in the days of Samuel and it turned the Israelites, for the first time, into a kingdom and thus a State.
Contract and covenant

In the course of writing The Politics of Hope, I suddenly realised that there was something strange in the political structure outlined in the Bible. If you look at political philosophy from Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics to modern times, the central question is the authority and legitimacy of the State. The main idea of modern times, beginning with Hobbes, is the idea of a ‘social contract’. In biblical terms this was the issue at stake in 1 Samuel 8, when the Israelites made their social contract that brought into being a government in the form of a king.

However, this was their second foundational moment not their first. The first took place several centuries earlier at Mount Sinai, when, in the days of Moses, God made a covenant with the people. It involved the accepting of the Ten Commandments and the people agreeing to become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” the collective mission statement of Jewish life.

The story of the transformation of the Israelites from a group of escaping slaves into a body politic and thus a nation is told in Exodus 19 and 20. Clearly, however, that moment, when the Israelites became a nation under the sovereignty of God, did not create a State. The Israelites were still in the wilderness. They did not yet have a land and they had none of the instrumentalities of a State. What then did the covenant create? It created a society bound in mutual responsibility to God himself. If so, then we find a dual political theory in the Bible unlike any other, based on both a social contract that created a State and an earlier social covenant that created a society.

What then is the difference between a contract and a covenant? A contract involves two or more people agreeing to do what it is in each of their interests to do. You have the social contract that creates the state, and the commercial contracts that make the market where there is an exchange of goods and services. You hand over your money, and you get the goods or services. In a contract, each person believes they are going to benefit from the agreement.

A covenant is different. It is made when two or more people pledge themselves in loyalty to one another to achieve together what neither of them can achieve alone. A covenant is not about solely me, it is about a me and a you who become an us together. It creates a new identity. The clearest example we have of a covenant is a marriage, which is why the prophets always compare the covenant between God and the Jewish people to a marriage. Indeed, part of our prayers six mornings a week comes from the second chapter of Hosea, reminding us of this relationship:

“I will betroth you to me forever,” says God. “I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice kindness and compassion; I will betroth you to me in faith, and you will know the Lord”.’

Hosea 2: 19-20

A contract is about advantage, a covenant is about loyalty. A contract is about interests, a covenant is about identity, about belonging to something bigger than me. From a contract, I gain, but from a covenant, I am transformed. I am no longer the person I once was, but am part of something larger than I once was. Thus, a social contract creates a State, but a covenant creates society.

Judaism had both contract and covenant, and was therefore able to do what no other people has ever done in history: survive the loss of its holiest place of prayer, the Temple, its land, its independence and its power and yet keep its identity intact despite the fact that Jews were scattered across the world for more than 2,000 years. How so? Because even though the Jewish people had lost their state, they still had their society – their community of communities. Even though the social contract was in abeyance, the social covenant remained. Jewish identity survived because of this dual theory of contract and covenant. That is the third story.

If we take the Darwin-Tocqueville story and the biblical story together, what do we learn? From Darwin and Tocqueville, we learn that species survive, and humanity survives, only on the basis that there is not only competition but also cooperation. From the Bible, we learn there is such a thing as a State and a society, but they are different things. The State is created by a contract; the society is created by a covenant. How do these lessons apply in today’s world?
The state, the market, and the big society

For the last 50 or 60 years, two institutions have dominated the modern world. One is the State, and the other is the market. The State is about politics, the market is about economics but both these arenas are about competition: politics is about competition for power, and economics is about competition for wealth. But where are the arenas that are not about competition at all, but about cooperation? They exist in families, in communities, in congregations, in neighbourhoods, in voluntary associations, in charities and fellowships of all kinds – all the places where we work together with one another, not as competing individuals but as members of a group who are there to help one another, to be altruistic towards the other, to make sacrifices for one another. Together they constitute society or more precisely civil society.

Civil society is the sum total of our interactions that have nothing to do with competition for wealth or for power but have everything to do with cooperation. It is in these arenas that we learn to do things for one another without thought of power or monetary advantage. They are the natural habitat of covenant relations. Society, therefore, is the third element in our social ecology: the first is the state, the second is the market, both of which are arenas of competition, but the third is society, which is the arena of cooperation.

That we have to have arenas where we cooperate, not just ones where we compete, is what Darwin and Tocqueville saw, and it is what the Bible sought to emphasize when it differentiated between the State and its social contract, and society and its formative covenant. It is possible to have a State without a society, and it is possible to have a society without a State. A State without a society resembles Stalinist Russia: a tyrannical and totalitarian regime, where there is the individual and there is the State but anything between will be suppressed by the State. A society without a State, as I argued above, is what the Jewish people had throughout 2,000 years of exile.

For 50 years after the end of the Second World War, the central argument in British politics was whether the market or the State was the better way of solving social problems. The political Left preferred the State, the Right preferred the market. But little attention was given to society. Following Margaret Thatcher’s famous remark, ‘There is no such thing as society’, I published a book, The Politics of Hope, in 1997, arguing for the importance of society, and, a decade later, I published another book called The Home We Build Together, in 2007, arguing that society is the home we build together.

Though they are different books dealing with different issues, they make a similar point: that we must remember what we seem to have forgotten, namely, the importance of families, communities, congregations, voluntary associations and charities. It is in these groups, these arenas of cooperation, that we rehearse our altruistic instincts, which are as fundamental to what makes us human as our instincts to competition. These instincts form the ecology of freedom because without them, we would have only the market and the State, and that is not enough for human beings to survive. Therefore, it was clear to me in 1997 that if, for any reason, there were to be an economic crisis, government cutbacks and a smaller state, you would need to put in place, merely to survive, a big society. This is not a political point; it is simply the way to ensure good things get done.

If there is one thing that religions know, it is how to help shape a good society. We know it, and we have been doing it for centuries. That is what Tocqueville discovered when he went to America. He would also have discovered it in Britain at the same time, with churches supporting families, sustaining communities, creating charities, and building voluntary networks. The Church of England was doing it, Roman Catholics were doing it, Methodists were doing it, and from 1865, onward the Salvation Army was doing it. It is what religions do. Religions belong to the arena of cooperation, not that of competition, and a big society is what allowed America and Britain in the 19th century to have small governments, small states, but exceptionally strong societies.

This is what we tended to neglect in the 50 years after 1945, an era of big governments and a smaller society. I am not passing judgement: I do not presume to judge that one is right, the other wrong. But when you have a big government and a small society certain things happen, such as fractured families and atrophying communities: fractured families because marriage comes to seem as not important and so declines, and atrophying communities because churches and religious groups – the greatest, though not the only, builders of community – become marginalized. In a society with fractured families and weak communities, there is too little that stands between the individual and the State, and freedom demands intermediate associations between the individual and the State.
The present need for a big society

Anyone who did the arithmetic knew that the government expansion could not go on forever. Though it is possible in a national economy, it is not possible in a global economy, and I expected the moment to come 14 years ago, which is why I wrote The Politics of Hope. I was wrong, and that is why I am Chief Rabbi and not Chief Economist of the Bank of England. But in the end, the moment was delayed only at the cost of piling up debt, both national and individual, at a level that was unsustainable in the long run.

There will be deep challenges in the years ahead. We cannot deny the hurt and the pain that we are all going to suffer, but some much more than others. This, then, is the moment for religious groups and other voluntary bodies, like the Rowntree Trust and many other great charities, to re-enter people’s lives, helping to build communities and strengthen families, to encourage community service, social action and volunteering, not only because we will need them economically, but because we need them personally, morally and existentially.

People do not just compete; they need also to cooperate. Darwin understood that this is part of our nature. Tocqueville saw that this is part of our politics. The Bible saw that it was essential to a free and good society.

For half a century or more we have neglected the single greatest renewable source of energy: the moral sense. We care about others, not just about ourselves and that is why a consumer society which is saying, ‘Me, me, me’ all the time is a denial of our essential nature. The truth is that giving is at least as important to human happiness as getting, perhaps more so.

That is why we need covenants as well as contracts. We need families and communities to be strong for it is these bodies that make up society which itself has to be strong if it is to counterbalance the State on the one hand and the market on the other. In truth, family and community are the places where we are bound to one another, not because of wealth, power, or advantage, but because of loyalty and love, and that is where happiness is found.

So, while the economy contracts, the State tries to balance its budget, and the future of the Eurozone and even the European Union is under strain, let us see not just the bad news but the challenging and potentially good news as well. Now is the time to focus on the home, the neighbourhood, the congregation, and on helping others less blessed than we are. Even if this is not a time of economic growth, it is certainly a time for moral and spiritual growth.

The truth is that when we lift others, we ourselves are lifted. When the world outside looks dark, that is the time to light a candle of hope in other people’s lives. By being a blessing to others, we ourselves are blessed. That is the logic of cooperation, of covenant, and of the good society. Now, if ever, is the time for each of us to play our part in creating it.


Darwin, Charles. 1871. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: Murray).

Micklethwait, John and Arian Wooldridge. 2009. God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World (New York: Penguin Press).

de Tocqueville, Alexis. 1863. Democracy in America (Cambridge: Sever and Francis).