Liberty Matters

Christianity and Liberalism

As a matter of fact, liberalism developed in a Christian culture. One can find elements of most western philosophical ideas in other culture’s philosophical traditions, but widespread liberalism appears in western culture under Christianity, and not elsewhere. As Ralph Raico has indicated, there seem to be clear intellectual sources in Christianity for liberalism, the most importance of which is the desacrelization of the state.
When I was writing A Brief History of Liberty with David Schmidtz, I was struck by how fragile the path toward liberalism seemed. It’s easy in retrospect to tell Whiggish history -- though I’m not accusing anyone here of that -- but it’s also easy to see how the elements of western Christian culture that help explain why liberalism developed could easily have failed to have led to liberalism.
1. Consider: as Perez Zagorin notes,[38] while Christianity might now be considered among the most tolerant of religions, at the time it developed, it was much less tolerant than the religions around it. Greek and Roman religion was pluralistic and disunified. There were many gods with many different names, a wide variety of cults, but no doctrine taken as official. Roman religion was largely syncretic. There were no official sacred texts. In general, most religious views were permitted, provided they could be integrated with other religious views.
Ancient Mediterranean societies tended to hold that their religions were largely the same. They weren’t entirely mistaken. Given cultural exchanges and similar ethnic backgrounds, they did tend to have similar mythologies. The Greek Zeus, Roman Jupiter, and Etruscan Tinia were largely the same god with the same stories. Still, partly they were made the same God because the Greeks and Romans were committed to viewing each others’ gods as the same. So, syncretism was partly accurate mythography and partly self-fulfilling prophecy.
The reason that early Christians were persecuted in Rome (keeping in mind the degree of their persecution is exaggerated by Christians) was because of their refusal to integrate. Christians were exclusivists. In their understanding of themselves, their God was not some variation of Zeus. (Their understanding of themselves was not completely accurate, as both Judaism and Christianity grew out of and adopted pieces of pagan religions.) The Christian refusal to assimilate made them seem to be a threat.
The ancient Greeks and Romans lacked a firm concept of freedom of religion in part because they lacked a firm concept of heresy. One crucial distinction is between heretics and heathens. The heathen, e.g., the pagan or the Jew, rejects the Catholic Church’s teachings, or often simply has not accepted them. The heretic, however, is normally considered worse, because the heretic perverts official doctrine. Jews, for instance, deny the divinity of Christ, but they belong to another religion. A heretic, however, accepts most official doctrine, but rejects certain pieces. In some sense, the heretic agrees with most of the Church’s doctrine, while the heathen disagrees. However, the heretic is considered more evil, because he is considered to have heard God’s word (as pronounced by the Church) and rejected it, while the heathen is considered not to have heard. More politically, heresy is a form of treason against the Church’s authority. Heathens, on the other hand, are enemies of the Church, but at least are not traitors.
2. Scottish Calvinist reformer John Knox was no friend of liberty -- he advocated the usual bans on theater and music, and even succeeded in limiting people’s freedom to move from one parish to another without permission.
Knox decided he wanted the Scots to become God’s Chosen People, and so moved to instantiate public education. He wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible, in order to confront the Word of God, and God himself, as individuals, rather than through intermediaries like the Church. But the problem with teaching people to read -- and he was immensely successful in that -- is that they might read and think about much more than you want them to. And so, Knox inadvertently sowed the seeds of the Scottish Enlightenment, by helping to create a culture in which even bakers and butchers were checking philosophy books out of local libraries.
3. Both Zagorin and Herbert Butterfield,[39] among others, claimed that freedom of religion in the West resulted in part out of exhaustion from the Wars of Religion. Zagorin goes further than Butterfield in articulating how people came to have a genuine commitment to freedom of religion rather than just a mere lack of will or means to keep fighting. And historians tend to regard most of our current-day commitments to civil liberties as outgrowths and generalizations of freedom of religion. But, then, imagine what might have happened if one side had won decisively early on.
4. Christianity desacralized the state, and yet we have had authoritarian, invasive, and illiberal Christian polities for 1200 years. I don’t want to gloss over all the things that happened in the first thousand years after the fall of Rome, but just consider that if one knew everything that had happened in Europe up until, say, 1450 AD, one could not easily predict the rise of liberalism.
I’m not so sure what the lesson is here -- just that there must be some lesson to be learned.
[38] Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).  
[39] Herbert Butterfield, Toleration in Religion and Politics (New York: Council on Religion and International Affairs, 1980), pp. 4-8.