The opening ceremonies of the Olympics in London paid homage to Chariots of Fire, so it is worth taking a second look at that movie’s message for modern Olympians. Chariots of Fire is a complex movie because it gives the audience two heroes, two plotlines—the story of Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross) and of Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson). Abrahams, an English Jew, runs to prove himself in the face of a life turned into an agony by covert, ever-present racial prejudice. Liddell, a Scottish evangelical minister, runs to give glory to God. What gives unity to the two stories and to the film is that Abrahams and Liddell face the same enemy: the bland, pseudo-tolerance of secular humanism.
Chariots of Fire is fundamentally a critique of the kind of civic humanists who staff Cambridge and run the British Olympic committee in the film. For the Cambridge dons and the national bureaucrats the goal of participation in the Olympics is social glory—glory for college and country. The college masters (played by John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson) and the Olympic committee members, Lord Birkenhead and Lord Cadogan (played by Nigel Davenport and Patrick Magee), represent the old school that had sent young men to their deaths in the trenches and expected from the Olympians the same “country first, God second” attitude. Human society itself—whether the national society or the society of reason represented by the university—replaces God and individual human dignity.
The movie sandwiches these secular humanists between two forces that might seem strange bedfellows but for this common enemy. Abrahams is the son of a Jewish financier, which in the movie associates him with capitalism, competition, individualism, and reliance on professional expertise—verboten for the college dons who ideal the amateur spirit and effortless victory. He is a nuanced and problematic figure—warped by self-absorption but driven by the demons of his past. His Olympic victory is over both external and internal obstacles, as he learns to share the agony of his motivations with his fiancée, his coach, and the rest of the Olympic team–and in the process enables them to share in his sense of victory. He overcomes the psychological isolation of being a perpetual “outsider” and enters into genuine human friendships.
Liddell is the son of a Christian missionary, born in China and sensing a vocation to return to continue his father’s work. His anxious sister worries that running in the Olympic games might turn his thoughts away from his divine call. Just as with Abrahams, Liddell is a nuanced figure, caught between the pious rigour of his sister, his father’s hopes of using his wins as propaganda for the mission, and his brother’s laxity and dreams of Olympic glory. Liddell is guided the interior voice of conscience. “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
The movie endorses neither sabbatarian rigorism (Liddell famously would not run on Sunday) nor the self-absorbed competitiveness which has become a shell for Abrahams. It celebrates Liddell for running for the glory of God and Abrahams for running to extend the glory of man by individual achievement. What the movie condemns is the dishonest “civility” which seeks to destroy both conscience and the aspiration towards greatness. The Cambridge dons and the committee members deny the divine spark in the individual human person. For them, only society is immortal, only society is divine.
Chariots of Fire, re-released this month in honour of the London Olympics, is a good reminder of the coalition that was forged during the Cold War years between religion and liberty. The Catholic Church’s defence of the sovereignty of small nations against global communism, of the sovereign dignity of human life against a pragmatic disdain for the individual person, and the sovereignty of families against the ever-growing power of the state — these were a beacon for many during the twentieth century.
Mother Theresa and John Paul II were hailed on their death by millions as genuine humanists. Their clear proclamation of the truth that sets man free was inseparable from their work on behalf of humanity. They represented a coalition that shook the smug reign of secular humanism to its core. Resurgent religiosity destroyed narratives of “secularization.” Libertarianism had a wildfire appeal that ripped through the idea of a growing progressive “consensus.”
The project of the twenty-first century is to discover how to sustain the coalition between religion and liberty — against those who would privatise all churches, families, and voluntary associations of conscience, making the secular state the only “public” entity. Without a renewal of the coalition of religion and liberty, the lessons learned in the great struggle between the USA and the USSR that used to dominate the Cold War Olympics will not be passed on to the next generation of Olympians. And, to paraphrase Galadriel in Lord of the Rings, “some things which ought not to be forgotten, will be forgotten.”
Susan Hanssen is an associate professor of British and American history at the University of Dallas. She is interested in the role of religion the development of national identity and in the history of higher education.