First, Edmund Burke was a Christian, despite the doubts that critics have expressed about his faith. But he was the child of a mixed marriage between a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, a member of the Established Church of Ireland.
Because Edmund was somewhat sickly as a child he was sent to spend some years with his mother’s Catholic relatives in the healthier air of the Cork countryside. With them, he remained in friendly (and helpful) contact throughout his life. Always sympathetic with their lot and that of their fellow Catholics, he took an active part in relaxing the penal laws both in Ireland and England.
If Burke had a personal problem because of the religious division in his family, he resolved it by minimizing the theological differences among the various Christian churches. As he wrote to a Quaker friend while he was a student at Trinity College in Dublin, “we take different roads, it is true,” but “as there is but one God so there is but one faith and one Baptism.”
The one faith was, in his words, “Christianity at large.” It was “our common faith,” “our common hope,” the “one common bottom on which all the principal religions in Europe stand.” The European nations were thus members of “the great commonwealth of Christendom,” having “the very same Christian religion, agreeing in the fundamental parts, varying a little in the ceremonies and in the subordinate doctrines.”
Burke never troubled himself to list those fundamentals, but his conviction about them enabled him to favor a relatively high degree of religious tolerance while insisting on the value of national religious establishments, Protestant in Great Britain and Ireland, but Catholic in France. When the French Revolution arrived, he strove to rally the nations of Europe to defend the commonwealth of Christendom against it.
But he denied that he was pressing religion into the service of an aristocracy and its political order. On the contrary, he said: “Religion is so far from being out of the province or the duty of a Christian magistrate, that it is, and it ought to be, not only his care, but the principal thing in his care; because it is one of the great bonds of human society; and its object the supreme good, the ultimate end and object of man himself.”
The revolution in France, as he saw it, was the spawn of an anti-Christian Enlightenment and therefore an attack on a civilization whose basis was Christianity. If the Christian religion “is destroyed, nothing can be saved, or is worth saving,” because “on that religion, according to our mode, all our laws and institutions stand as upon their base. That scheme is supposed in every transaction of life; and if that were done away, every thing else, as in France, must be changed along with it.”
Burke can be faulted for identifying the survival of Christianity too closely with the preservation of a particular social and political order, but not for making religion a mere instrument of politics. Latitudinarian though his Christianity was, it was the soul of the civilization that he wholeheartedly loved, and furnished European society with its highest goals and norms.
They were not the only norms of politics, however. Burke is widely known as the teacher of expediency in politics and of the variability of political judgment according to circumstances. That was the burden of his criticism of the British policy that drove the American colonies into revolt. He
questioned, not Parliament’s right to tax them, but the practical wisdom of trying to do it against their determined resistance. But it is a mistake to take him therefore as a utilitarian. He drew, rather, on a much older doctrine of the moral virtue of prudence coming down from Aristotle and the medieval theologians.
Prudence, in Burke’s mind, was fully compatible with a conception of natural moral law that was more, much more, than merely the eighteenth-century
doctrine of natural rights. It was the supreme norm of politics, under which all prudential political judgments must be made, because it was the law of God, which is that “eternal and immutable law, in which will and reason are the same.” On this ground Burke conducted the prosecution of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal, for his alleged crimes against the people of India, excoriated the Protestant Ascendancy for its misgovernment of Ireland, and condemned the French Revolution. He also wrote out a carefully detailed plan for the gradual abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself in the British colonies. In true Burkean fashion, it began with the words:
“Whereas, It is expedient, and conformable to the principles of true religion and morality, and to the rules of sound policy, to put an end to all traffic in the persons of men, and to the detention of their said persons in a state of slavery, as soon as the same may be effected without producing great inconveniences in the sudden change of practices of such long standing.”
In the most general terms, Burke’s political theory followed the Christian principle that all authority is from God and is given for the good of the community. The first duty of a Christian statesman is to “provide for the multitude; because it is the multitude; and is therefore, as such, the first object . . . in all institutions.” This duty sets the limits of expediency: “Expedience is that which is good for the community, and good for every individual in it.” It does not justify everything a government may find it useful to do: “There are ways and means by which a good man would not even save the commonwealth.”
Burke’s theory is time-bound, yet he speaks to us today as none of his political contemporaries do. As the late Alfred Cobban wrote, “As a school of statesmanship, Burke’s constitutional theory remains of permanent value; as a working system it was dead almost before it was expounded.” The point made here is that it was a Christian statesmanship, framed for a universe created by God and ruled by His Providence. Today’s statesmen may learn from it, especially when confronting what Alasdair Maclntyre has called “the pluralism that threatens to submerge us all.”
An essay from Reflections, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2003), as published in Vol. 43, No. 1 of The University Bookman.