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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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Veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, who died this morning, frequently graced the pages of The Tablet, mentioned either taking part in anti-war marches or in discussions about employment and education.
On one occasion in 2004 he spoke to us about his religious upbringing, which informed the course of his political career.
“I was brought up in the dissenting tradition,” he told us, recalling that both his father and paternal grandfather were Congregationalist ministers and his mother led a Non-conformist denomination.
Benn took to heart his father’s frequent injunction to Dare to be a Daniel, and he used the phrase as the title of his childhood memoir, which included the Christianity of his upbringing and was published by Hutchinson in 2005. He told The Tablet a picture of the biblical Daniel surrounded by snarling lions hung in his study as a reminder.
Benn retired from the Commons in 2002 after more than 50 years as an MP. Ever the darling of the Labour Left, he became a popular figure outside political circles.
Asked about his religious beliefs he said: “I am a Painite so I would say: ‘My country is the world and my religion is to do good.’” He described himself as a lapsed atheist who believed there is a spirituality in everybody that has to be nourished and cherished.
In 1988 Benn, then MP for Chesterfield, introduced a bill advocating the disestablishment of the Church of England. The Tablet noted: “Mr Benn's Bill is not expected to make progress.”
Read more about Tony Benn's religious background and its influence on his life and work in an article by his friends, the former Labour MP, Tam Dalyell and his wife, Kathleen, in next week's Tablet.