Liberty Matters

Does Liberalism Require the Right Kind of Religion?


Immanuel Kant and Benjamin Constant both wrote philosophically important defenses of liberalism centered on rights and liberty, and both wrote much else besides. Constant devoted most of his life to his distinctive contribution of theoretically informed political action and action-guiding political theory, but still (at least sometimes) regarded his philosophical and comparative study of religion as his most important work. Kant's political writing was a small fraction of his philosophical work and not the centerpiece even of his moral and social theory. Kant's and Constant's central political concern with liberty and rights should not be mistaken for their whole accounts of the good human life. Alan Kahan is right to emphasize that they shared not only a concern for the positive ethical good that surpasses negative juridical and political justice, but also a belief that a liberal political order could only thrive with a citizenry who pursued that good. And they shared, moreover, a sense that the religious impulse was a key, maybe the key, to elevating our moral sights toward that pursuit.
In this, Kant and Constant were in agreement with the mainstream of thought in the classical liberal tradition and its predecessors. More idiosyncratic, but not entirely so, was their specific association of the relevant religious impulse with the individualist and egalitarian strand of Protestantism that grew out of the Pietist movement. While the specific theological resources at hand varied over the decades, we see similar religious sensibilities in thinkers from Locke to Montesquieu. As social thinkers sought to understand and entrench the civil peace that followed the Wars of Religion, they often offered up some idealization of a simplified Christianity that all could endorse as a shared foundation of morality, sometimes so stripped down as to shade into unitarianism or deism.
The idea endured after Constant's time as well. While Constant's successor as the intellectual leader of French liberalism, Alexis de Tocqueville, did not write about religion in nearly the same depth, I suspect his Democracy in America is the canonical source to which this association of religious morality and a free society is most frequently attributed. In 20th-century conservative and classical liberal thought, mentioning Tocqueville in this context became a common way to claim a kind of serious-mindedness, against the supposed moral shallowness of really existing liberalism.
Notwithstanding that long continuity, I think there is an interesting break around the early 19th century, with Kant on one side and Constant on the other. (Maybe Adam Smith subscribed to the 19th-century version.) Before that time, the worry about people who lacked religion or aspirational ethics was a general one about social stability, sometimes with an overlay of talk about republican virtue. Afterward, it was about the emerging new phenomena of bureaucratized, impersonal, democratic, and capitalist society -- mass society, as it has sometimes been called. And the worry was less often about general immorality and depravity than about the pursuit of base material interests and pleasures, and about the stupefaction of human faculties. Kahan has offered a book-length treatment of this latter worry in his Aristocratic Liberalism.[22] I am surprised not to see any mention of that earlier work in the present essay or to hear whether Kahan thinks his argument there applies to either Kant or Constant or both.
Kant had a general concern about humanity's immaturity and a teleological hope for its growth. But Constant shared with Tocqueville and Mill a specifically modern worry, a concern that the new kind of political and economic orders emerging in his lifetime would stunt our moral and intellectual growth rather than encourage it. Like Smith before him and Mill and Tocqueville after, he worried that this stunting might deprive us of the tremendous benefits those orders had to offer. Modern liberty, political democracy, and commercial growth were great social goods, but they might carry internal contradictions such that they bred citizens who could not sustain them. We moderns with our valuable private lives and commercial opportunity might accept the cynical offer of a Bonaparte: to protect our property from the mob and relieve us of the burden of governing ourselves.
The slight resemblance here to 17th- and 18th-century civic republicanism is misleading: Constant fundamentally approves of modern commerce and doesn't view it as intrinsically politically or morally corrupting. Moreover, what Constant thought Bonaparte offered the middle classes was not what the classical demagogues offered the masses: bread and circuses at public expense, an alliance of the one with the many against the few, with the one eliminating the few as power rivals and the many sharing the few's goods. Instead Bonaparte offered them protection against the many,security for their goods: things they wanted for good and legitimate reason. Where civic republicans had been entirely unsympathetic to the material interests that could corrupt a citizenry and open the door to demagoguery, Constant wanted to shore up and protect the modern commercial economy and liberal polity against their internal contradictions.
Kahan is right to identify relationships among these themes in Constant's philosophy. The selfishness that could lead us to neglect positive democratic liberty connects to the utilitarian pleasure-seeking encouraged by modern commercial prosperity. In modern mass society, my vote counts for little and my potential pleasures are vast, so why not prioritize the latter? And it is plausible that Constant always considered at least part of the solution to be an aspirational morality that could be found in religion of just the right sort.
But I'm not sure that we can say anything much more specific than that these ideas were related for Constant. While he had a historical hopefulness about moral improvement in religion, away from priestcraft and superstition and toward a full appreciation of the worth of each soul, he nowhere suggested that liberal political reform needed to wait for that improvement. And even in the concluding paragraphs of "Liberty of the Ancients and the Moderns" he makes the political point that property and modern liberty aren't secure under a dictator before and distinct from his rousing call to care about self-development and lofty moral characters for their own sake. And so I think Kahan stretches Constant's point further than the text will bear when he writes, "[T]he right kind of religion is necessary to enable a liberal, limited state to survive. Unlimited moral commitments are essential to Constant's liberalism" (emphasis added). Constant probably hoped for a virtuous cycle among moral, religious, and political improvement, but he never -- never, across many political moments in his long career -- suggested that France was not ready for liberty at that moment. And this, although "the right kind of religion" was mostly absent from a France divided between a Catholic majority and an anti-religious minority. The view that tempted his Idéologue friend Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy -- that liberty would have to wait until after a coercive reeducation had cured the population of their Catholicism -- never held any appeal to Constant.
And so much the better for Constant that it didn't. Those witnessing the transition to modern constitutional liberal democracy and to modern liberal capitalism were often too quick to be too sure about the precise conditions that could make that transition possible and about the precise conditions that would allow the new order to succeed in the long term. There are things that we know the early generations were wrong about, such as the idea that political parties would be inimical to the new order. (In fact they are essential to it.) And there are many things that we still don't know for sure; the relationship of individual moral characters to the complex extended order is one of them.
Expanding one's moral vision beyond selfish pleasures is fully compatible with giving oneself over to destructive and anti-liberal kinds of social altruism: subordinating the self to the race, the nation, the class, the party, or for that matter the crusading church. Selfishness is not simply the opposite of political virtue, and the desire to find meaning in a whole that transcends the self has often been a source of danger to the liberal order. And, on the other hand, religious commitment can be a call to quietism and withdrawal from the fallen political world. If liberalism depended on a very fine-tuned Goldilocks kind of moral and religious sensibility -- not a touch too collectivist, not a touch too quietist, but just right -- then we would expect the liberal commercial democratic order never to have gotten off the ground at all.
Instead, we find that there has been rather a lot of liberal commercial democracy over the two centuries since Constant's time. Not enough, and not always stable, and never immune to threat -- but a lot. And we find it in a variety of religious and irreligious cultural settings. Even in the current moment of crisis for the liberal order, we should be impressed by how successful it has been in societies that are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Shinto, and Buddhist over the last three-quarters of a century. It is true that liberalism and democracy have been both rarer and more fragile in the Islamic greater Middle East than elsewhere and that before Vatican II, one would have said the same about Catholicism. And yet the gradual transformation of much of western Europe from Christianity to irreligion didn't seem to destabilize the liberal order there. The current crisis doesn't show any religious pattern in Europe; it's not as though the more religious societies have proven more immune to populist nationalism. I think there is good reason why such different 20th-century liberals as Hayek, Rawls, and Shklar all avoided the mapping of statecraft onto soulcraft that characterized so much of the earlier liberal tradition. They all tried to analyze the norms of the arm's-length impersonal order on the assumption that they could, indeed maybe had to, differ quite markedly from the norms of personal moral excellence.
As I said: there is a lot that we don't know. But this is a domain in which intellectual humility would serve us well -- as, I think, it served Constant better than Mill's certainty served him a few decades later. Even as we appreciate the seriousness of the current challenges faced by the liberal order, we should take seriously how successful it has been -- and how much more successful it has been than one would have expected if just the right kind of religion were necessary to enable a liberal, limited state to survive.
[22.] Alan S. Kahan, Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).