Politics & Policy

Thomas Becket and Religious Freedom in the Twelfth Century — and in the 21st

Detail of Thomas Becket in stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral (Dreamtime photo: Anna Hristova)
If his life feels like a lesson for our times, that may be because it is in fact a lesson for all times.

One of the nice things about joining the Catholic Church later in life, as I did, is that you get to choose your own patron saint instead of having one thrust upon you at birth by your parents, who hardly know you. Mine is Thomas Becket, the martyred archbishop of Canterbury, whose feast day is today.

Catholic saints have done well vis-à-vis English kings, particularly on stage and in the movies. Becket has T. S. Eliot’s great verse play, Murder in the Cathedral, and Richard Burton’s stoic, manful performance in Becket, which finds the great Peter O’Toole in one of his two great film performances as King Henry II. (The other is The Lion in Winter, of course.) Both Murder in the Cathedral and Becket remain fresh and vibrant. They feel like works for our times, and that may be because they are in fact works for all times.

Another Henry, another Thomas: Paul Scofield’s performance as Thomas More squaring off against Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons also has something of our time in it, too. For the past year or two, I’ve heard dozens of different people quoting More’s witticism at the play’s climax. Having been betrayed by an ambitious former student, More learns that the young man has, in return for his perjury, been appointed attorney general of Wales. “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world!” More observes archly. “But for . . . Wales?” And Wales is a whole kingdom (or at least it was until the time of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd), which is a great deal more than can be said of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

More’s last words before his execution were: “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” Becket lived by a similar creed. He had not wanted to be named archbishop (he was the king’s chancellor before his elevation) but, once he had been, he was no longer the king’s man.

That there is something — something — in this world that is not the king’s was the great scandal of both Thomas More and Thomas Becket. For Becket, the line was drawn at God’s kingdom on earth, the church in the world, or “Church Militant,” as we used to call it. For More, it was his conscience — he never denounced his king’s adultery and usurpation in public or in private, but he would not give a public sign of consent to them, either.

If you think either of those issues is a thing of the past, you might consider consulting the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of celibate women forced at gunpoint to subsidize the purchase of birth control thanks to the Obama administration. You also might ask one of those dissident bakers being hounded as civil-rights enemies, or the Houston pastors whose sermons were subpoenaed by a Democratic mayor hell-bent on leaving a transgender-toilet bill as her political legacy.

Becket’s rejection of the secular power was remarkable for his having been so deeply enmeshed in it. He not only was the chancellor but was also a very wealthy man. There is a legend that he once was sent on a diplomatic mission and arrived with such pomp and style that his hosts thought that there had been some terrible miscommunication and the king himself had arrived. There is a wonderful treatment of this in Becket, when Henry II complains that his chancellor serves his personal guests on golden plates, whereas the king uses silver. “Your expenses are heavier,” Becket counters. “I have only my own pleasure to pay for.” Later, Becket gives away all of his worldly goods in a dramatic (too dramatic, in the view of his Church rivals) gesture of the new life he is beginning. The archbishop, in a prayerful moment, worries that his liberation is too easy, so light does he feel without his possessions. “I wonder, Lord: Are You laughing at me?”

Which of us would give up what Thomas Becket gave up, or suffer what Thomas More suffered?

We may not all eat from golden plates, but there is not a one of us 21st-century Americans who isn’t richer than Thomas Becket was. (Or richer than his king, for that matter.) And while King Henry II thought of himself as something very close to an absolute ruler in principle (he was a canny enough politician to know that he wasn’t effectively that), he would have blushed to think of the powers taken for granted by our own liberal and democratic states, where the free citizens of the republic are forbidden to use the public roads without a license and where the level of taxation would in his time have been regarded as something between tyranny and piracy. Which of us would give up what Thomas Becket gave up, or suffer what Thomas More suffered? We are, most of us, more like More’s protégé, except we don’t even demand a high Welsh office in return.

Even the king may go too far. This is not an English idea. In the Book of Daniel, we find a similar ultimatum: “Be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.” And it is fitting that Thomas’s day falls during Hanukkah this year, when the Jews commemorate the rededication of their temple at the time of the Maccabees’ revolt. Some things are not subject to the king’s command.

The American constitutional order is an attempt to preempt these questions: The Bill of Rights protects the private conscience, as it is expressed not only in religious exercise but in political speech, agitation, publishing, and association. As the members of Alcoholics Anonymous say about their program: “It works if you work it.” But conflict is inevitable. Conservatives who today are the greatest friends of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its state-level counterparts were not always quite so enthusiastic about it back when it was a question of whether Indians could take peyote for religious purposes. There are many quondam friends of the First Amendment who want to imprison flag-burners and the like. This is only partly a question of hypocrisy — the more important issue is that it is not always obvious where the lines should be drawn.

#related#And that is where the martyrs, the dissidents, and the practitioners of civil disobedience come in. They show us that we have drawn our lines in the wrong places by standing on the wrong side of them — on the wrong side of the king, the wrong side of us, the wrong side of the mob, which is as often as not what is meant by “democracy.” Their motto is Mohandas Gandhi’s: “Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.” That is a dangerous way to live: “Fool, fixed in his folly, may think he can turn the wheel on which he turns,” Thomas laments in Murder in the Cathedral.

But, sometimes, the wheel does stop.

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