How Christianity created the free society
by Samuel Gregg
The Christian roots of modern liberalism.
In many books that trace the development of Western civilization, “the birth of freedom” is often identified with the various Enlightenments. Certainly, the Enlightenment made contributions to human liberty that Christians would not wish to do without, as no less an authority than Joseph Ratzinger once observed. Nonetheless, it is a myth that serious appreciation and promotion of freedom and its moral and institutional supports was somehow dormant until the late seventeenth century.
Christianity and Freedom: Historical Perspectives, a new collection of essays edited by Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke, explores the many ways in which Christian beliefs and institutions made critical contributions to the freedoms cherished by Christians and non-Christians today.
The first of a two-volume set, this book brings together theologians, patristic scholars, philosophers, historians, political scientists, legal theorists, medievalists, and classicists from different religious backgrounds. In various ways, each illustrates how Christianity influenced concepts such as limited government, private property, constitutionalism, and religious freedom.
As Shah states in the introduction, this narrative flies in the face of the contemporary Rawlsian consensus that liberalism somehow liberated us from the dead authoritarian hand of the past. In this schema, Christianity was the problem to which liberalism was the solution. Closer attention to what John Rawls himself called “the facts of historical experience” demonstrates that this is simply not true.
Christians as Liberators, Christians as Persecutors
Any discussion of freedom and Christianity quickly surfaces the numerous instances in which Christians have undermined human liberty. Reference is invariably made to the various Inquisitions, the witch trials conducted by Puritans, forced conversions, and other instances of intolerance.
A particular strength of this collection of essays is that none of the authors denies that Christians and Christian institutions have on many occasions violated the rightful freedoms of others. This frank acknowledgment, however, is accompanied by an argument that permeates many of the papers: that it was, for the most part, Christianity that provided the moral, theological, and cultural principles upon which Christians and others have drawn to condemn unjust coercion.
In other words, people have relied, consciously or otherwise, on Christian resources to identify and correct violations of freedom, including those committed in the name of the Christian faith. This suggests that liberalism by itself did not—and perhaps never could—generate the conceptual tools needed for this type of critique.
In this vein, several authors point out that arguments against religious persecution don’t originate with figures such as Locke, but go much further back. Before the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and the Middle Ages, third- and fourth-century Latin Church Fathers such as Tertullian and Lactantius had already articulated strong cases for religious toleration. It is important to note that these ideas had to be worked out in a context in which there were no arguments for religious liberty that could be “pulled off the shelf.”
It is common to claim that this interest in securing religious freedom was a result of Christians being persecuted. The implication is that as soon as Christians got hold of the levers of power they conveniently forgot any commitment to the religious liberty of heretics, pagans, and Jews.
It is true that after Constantine, many Christian rulers and thinkers embraced some acceptance of religious coercion of heretics and non-Christians. Nonetheless, chapters by Shah, Robert Louis Wilken, Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, and Kyle Harper illustrate how these early Christian arguments for everyone’s religious freedom were firmly rooted in the Christian conception of human nature, its understanding of the economy of salvation, and its insistence on the reality of free will.
Similarly, Elizabeth H. Prodromou’s overview of the Eastern Orthodox treatment of liberty shows how its foundational teachings give “pride of place” to freedom and to man’s consequent responsibility for his own condition. Particularly intriguing is the claim by the distinguished Augustine scholar, John Rist, that Augustine’s qualified endorsement of force to deal with heresy is inconsistent with some of his most important theological and philosophical arguments about the nature of freedom.
Medievals and Early Moderns
If there is a significant lacuna in this book, it is that only one chapter addresses the contribution of medieval theologians and canonists to the development of freedom. Fortunately, the chapter concerned contains a thorough treatment of this subject. Without trying to excuse medieval Christendom’s failings, Ian Christopher Levy points out that this is a world in which everyone believed that the state’s responsibility for the common good meant that people had to be protected from heretical ideas. People’s souls were, after all, considered to be at stake.
Levy also shows that the medieval world was far more tolerant than most people realize, provided that one tries, as Levy does, “to understand that society on its own terms.” The point being made here—one that should be noted by those who would reduce religion to a purely private phenomenon—is that projecting highly secularist twenty-first century conceptions of tolerance upon the medieval period is a deeply anachronistic exercise.
Levy examines the judicial workings of canon law, as well as inquisition and trial procedure. These, he argues, embodied a high degree of due process and protection for the rights of defendants. Indeed, Levy notes that this was a society in which “there remained a consistent recognition of religious freedom by both divine and natural law.” Of course, such religious freedom was not unlimited. The same is true today in all societies that recognize religious liberty as a right. Moreover, if religious liberty can be derived from the natural law, then the same natural law provides this freedom with its ends and parameters.
One reason for this relative freedom in medieval Europe was the Christian teaching that the faith had to be freely chosen. Another was the medieval world’s particular concern for knowing the truth—including religious truth—and its conviction that truth could be established through rational demonstration. A precondition for such exercises is a high degree of freedom of inquiry. Not only did this result in the world’s first universities emerging in medieval Europe; it also implied limits on what could be compelled. For what was at stake was truth, first and foremost, rather than freedom of speech for its own sake.
This Christian reliance on natural law for thinking through people’s freedoms and responsibilities vis-à-vis the truth did not disappear with the Reformation. It made its way across the Atlantic to the Americas and was crucial, as David Lantigua states, to Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas’s defense of the Amerindian peoples. John Witte outlines how it also shaped the political and legal treatment of liberty questions by many Protestants. Prominent examples include John Calvin’s treatment of the idea of rights and Johannes Althusius’s explication of the relationship between the Decalogue, natural law, and religious and civil liberties.
Revision, Not Rejection
Many of the Reformers’ ideas about liberty, church, and state were highly influenced by covenant theology. This played a crucial role in shaping the American treatment of particular freedoms. It did not amount to a complete break, David Little establishes, with the idea of unity between church and state. Nonetheless, this set of ideas did help establish a strong attachment to conscience protections in some American colonies. In William Penn’s case, Little argues, conscience protections were also grounded in the demands of reason.
These reflections have implications for one of those perennial debates about the American Founding: i.e., how much colonial America’s commitment to liberty was shaped by distinctly secular Enlightenment concerns rather than Christian claims about freedom. Surveying a range of sources, Matthew J. Franck maintains that while the American Founding was certainly influenced by Enlightenment and moderate Whig ideas, Christian theological arguments played an equally important role.
Franck goes so far as to maintain that “one cannot say with confidence that even among the elite founders (excepting always Franklin and Jefferson, clearly the most heterodox) there was a self-conscious ‘jettisoning’ of key Christian beliefs, much less any consensus on their part that among the people at large, the Christian faith was a mere opiate of the masses.” Though Franck does not press the case, I’d suggest that his argument should be considered carefully by those Christians of what might be called a traditionalist disposition who doubt the American experiment’s long-term compatibility with orthodox Christian belief.
In this regard, Franck’s essay underscores one of this book’s more important themes. As Daniel Philpott writes in his essay on Christian contributions to modern democracy, “the secular liberal narrative merits sharp revision. Revision, not rejection.” It is not a simple matter to sort out which (and how) different and sometimes opposed forces helped actualize particular political, cultural, and economic achievements. Yet these essays make it clear that the widespread liberal claim that Christians and the Christian religion somehow stood holus bolus in the way of the development of free societies is untenable.
Regardless of one’s religious and philosophical convictions, the powerful Christian impact on the emergence of societies that take liberty seriously should be recognized by anyone interested in truth rather than pressing particular ideological claims. The unanswered question, which falls beyond the scope of these essays, is how many liberals are willing to reconsider some of their urban legends about the relationship between Christianity and liberty.
On that subject, alas, I am not optimistic.
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. His most recent book is For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (Crossroad, 2016). This article was originally published on The Public Discourse. View the original article.