Christianity and Liberty: Closer Friends Than You Think

By: Daniel Philpott

October 30, 2017

Conscience, Reformation, and Religious Freedom Across the Centuries

Reading political philosophy and political theology in recent decades, one might be forgiven for thinking that Christianity and modern liberalism are enduring enemies. There are philosophers who follow in the enlightenment liberal tradition of regarding the rise of liberal institutions as possible only when traditional Christianity was dissevered from politics. John Rawls, widely regarded as the greatest political philosopher in the English-speaking world in the past generation, voiced several times in his writings, especially during the last decade or so before he died in 2002, his conviction that Christianity is endemically illiberal and that modern free institutions emerged only when politics could break free from Christianity. The prominent political philosopher Mark Lilla argued much the same—quite starkly, in fact—in his 2007 book, The Stillborn God. Other political philosophers like Pierre Manent tell a similar historical story but from a perspective that laments Christianity’s break with modern politics.

Over the past generation, a number of Christian theologians have also come to see Christianity and liberalism at odds, worrying that Christianity has sold its soul by conforming itself to liberal institution and the modern state. Stanley Hauerwas, whom Time Magazine placed on its cover as “America’s Best Theologian” in 2001; scholars who were his students like Michael Baxter and William Cavanaugh; scholars like John Milbank who belong to the “radical orthodoxy” school; and the prominent theologian David L. Schindler all espouse this thesis in one way or another.

For Christians who believe in the worth of liberal democratic institutions, the thesis of enmity, from its many angles, is worrying, especially during a time when populist politics calls into question aspects of Western liberal politics taken for granted since the aftermath World War II. If the thesis is right, then Christians will and should be less and less contributors to the legitimacy of these institutions, while secular defenders of these institutions will be less and less able to look upon Christians as potential members of the coalition who supports them.

A look at history, though, shows that Christianity and liberalism are not as estranged as today’s theorists make them out to be. Let us look in particular at the stance of Christian intellectuals and politicians toward liberal institutions during precisely the historical period in which these institutions developed most fully and rapidly—the late eighteenth century up through today. In fact, the record reveals numerous Christians who propelled, not hindered, the expansion of political institutions based on liberty.

Consider a few examples. In nineteenth-century France, which tended to be polarized between anti-clerical secular republican legatees of the French Revolution and Catholic monarchists, there emerged a party of Catholics who advocated for free institutions based especially on religious freedom. Some of them were conversation partners with English Catholics who also supported free institutions like John Henry Newman and Lord Acton. They also inspired American Catholics who supported free institutions and looked to their own country’s constitution as evidence that free institutions could be good for the Church. In Belgium, Catholics allied with the liberal party in advocating for Belgian independence and liberal institutions. In the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy, Catholics and Protestants could be found who were outspoken in advocating liberal institutions. Protestants were critical for the advocacy of the abolition of slavery in the United States and England. In the twentieth century, Catholics like Jacques Maritain, John Courtney Murray, Heinrich Rommen, and Luigi Sturzo, and Protestants like Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth, were outspoken advocates of free political institutions. Finally, more recently, Christians, especially Catholics, have been instrumental in motoring the past generation’s global wave of democracy. Of 78 cases of democratization between 1972 and 2009 that my co-authors and I examined in God’s Century, 48 featured the involvement of oppositional religious actors.

To be sure, it is also the case that more than a few Christian intellectuals, clerics, and politically active laypeople advocated for the ancien regime, censorship, the restriction of religious dissent, and other illiberal practices during this same period. However, the number of Christians who propelled liberty is significant enough to challenge the theses of disjuncture that have become so popular today.

Importantly, these Christians articulated their case for liberty on grounds that drew distinctively from Christian texts and traditions. They were Christian liberals, not liberal Christians. That is, they did not simply come around to defenses of democracy that secular intellectuals and activists had already pioneered.

It is also significant that these Christians often advocated for liberal institutions in milieus in which their own liberty to practice their faith was curtailed or restricted. Catholic liberals in Bismarck’s Germany, for instance, wrote in an environment in which the Church was being actively persecuted. In places where the liberal republicanism of the French Revolution took hold—late nineteenth-century France and Italy, for instance—politics were typically anti-clerical and often denied religious freedom. An ironic upshot is that Christians who espoused a liberalism that included religious liberty in these environments were in this respect more truly liberal than secular, anti-clerical liberals.

The possibility of an authentic Christian liberalism is one that we would do well not to forget, despite the skepticism of so many intellectuals, both secular and Christian. This is not to say that Christians should be sanguine or naive about curtailments of religious freedom in recent Western history—what Pope Francis has called “polite persecution.” Christians who are thoughtful about connecting their faith to liberal democratic institutions may well be the truest liberals around.

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