AuthorSmith, Steven D.

Introduction 1497 I. What Is Liberalism? 1500 A. The Liberal Project 1500 B. The Vulnerability of Liberalism? 1504 II. Liberalism and Christianity 1508 A. Harmonies 1508 B. Divergences 1510 C. Conflicts 1514 III. Liberalism or... What? 1518 Conclusion 1522 INTRODUCTION

Christianity and liberalism were made to fit each other, like hand and glove. According to some interpretations, anyway. Liberal constitutionalism, with its commitments to freedom and equal human dignity, is the political system that reflects and embodies Christian commitments; (1) and the constitutional legal order that accompanies liberalism, (2) centrally including legally enforced rights of religious freedom, is the mode of government that best permits Christians to live in accordance with their faith in a fallen and deviant world. Thus, a couple of decades ago, Robert Kraynak reported that "[a]lmost all churches and theologians now believe that the form of government most compatible with the Christian religion is democracy," (3) and Kraynak used the terms "democracy" and "liberal democracy" almost interchangeably. (4)

Kraynak explained, however, that this is a modern view, contrary to the overall authority of Christian Scripture, thought, and practice through the centuries. (5) And in other interpretations, congenial to some who are Christians and some who emphatically are not, liberalism and Christianity are intrinsically incompatible, even antagonistic. From the non-Christian side, a tradition going back at least to Voltaire and Hume (and to figures in the ancient world like the emperor Julian "the Apostate") portrays Christianity as the embodiment of illiberal qualities--intellectual narrowmindedness, superstition, intolerance, moral repressiveness. (6) From the Christian side, liberalism, with its perceived inclinations to secularism, moral relativism, and rampant individualism unconstrained by truth or natural law, may seem the antithesis of Christianity's sober beliefs and commitments. (7)

So, which family of interpretations is more credible and commendable? Answers to that question must necessarily be tentative, for at least two reasons that should be noted at the outset. First, "liberalism" and "Christianity" are both contested and protean terms: both come in a variety of forms, (8) and both have evolved, or degenerated, or evolved and degenerated, over time. Second, if St. Augustine was right, then we know a priori that the City of Man and the City of God will never be in complete harmony; at least latent tensions and conflicts will always exist. (9) Consequently, it will not be dispositive for critics to point out discrepancies between a prevailing political order and Christian commitments. Of course such discrepancies exist; that much can be taken for granted. Indeed, the presentation of any this-worldly political arrangement as unqualifiedly in harmony with Christianity should for that very reason arouse suspicions.

From what I am calling the Augustinian perspective, the aspiration would be for some kind of practical peace (10)--probably a modus vivendi at best--and even that ideal will never be fully and securely realized. Every political arrangement will be flawed and unsatisfactory, and the practical question will always be one of more or less: is some particular form of government and society more or less compatible with the Christian life compared with the available alternatives? (11) And it would hardly be surprising if the answers to that question vary, not just from person to person but from time to time and place to place. One kind of political regime may be compatible with Christianity in some ways but incompatible in others. And a relatively Christian-friendly regime that is possible in some historical circumstances may not be a realistic option under other historical conditions.

In this Article, I will pursue these elusive questions in three stages. Part I will offer an interpretation of what "liberalism" is, at least for purposes of this Article. Part II will consider broadly the various ways in which liberalism so understood is in harmony or, conversely, in conflict with the received core of Christianity. Part III will address the question: If not liberalism, then what? Reflecting on various alternatives, the section will suggest, cautiously, tentatively, that all things considered and despite its shortcomings, liberalism may be, for now, for us, in our historical circumstances, the alternative that prudent Christians should prefer. The conclusion, however, will indulge in some second thoughts about that prescription. (And I hope this preview conveys the ambivalence that is intended.)


    Taken generically and not as designating a particular set of policies traditionally favored by the Democratic Party, the term "liberalism" comes associated with a set of familiar commitments--to rights (especially including rights to freedom of religion and speech), equality, rule of law, and probably some kind of separation of church and state. These are standard features, but different liberal regimes interpret and prioritize and implement them differently. And on a philosophical level, the positions of three leading liberal Johns--Locke, Mill, and Rawls--differ significantly among themselves.

    Amidst this diversity, we might nonetheless seek some common core, or logic, or spirit of liberalism, by briefly considering how and why the liberal project arose and how the associated ideas or commitments have evolved out of those origins.

    1. The Liberal Project

      As Rawls and others have suggested, (12) it is helpful to understand liberalism as a project arising in response to the breakup of Christendom and the ensuing "wars of religion." For a thousand years, Western European peoples had lived under the ideal of a Christianity presided over (at least in theory) by the Roman Catholic Church; but with the Protestant Reformation that sacred canopy was rent asunder and men and women had to devise new ways of living together. This was no simple task: it was not easy to imagine what the alternative to Christendom should be, much less to achieve it. For a century and more, therefore, hostile factions attempted forcibly to reestablish Christendom and then (with the Peace of Westphalia) mini-Christendoms under a Catholic or Protestant banner. (13) The failure of those bloody campaigns eventually led to the development of a different and on its face gentler strategy for dealing with the now apparently ineradicable pluralism. Namely, liberalism.

      The primary aim of liberalism was thus to achieve peace amid religious and cultural diversity. (14) But not just any kind of peace. Not surprisingly, the peace envisioned by liberalism was shaped by Christian assumptions inherited from the previous centuries.

      Thus, a central liberal assumption--the central assumption, arguably--was the value and dignity of the individual person. Larry Sieden-top observes that "the fundamental feature of modernity is an individuated model of society--a model in which the individual rather than the family, clan or caste is the basic social unit." (15) So you are not just a subordinate part of some larger entity--a family, a class, a caste, a nation. Rather, you are you, yourself. Your own person, with your own identity, valuable in and of and for yourself.

      This emphasis on the independence and dignity of the individual person was not a feature of--it was scarcely imaginable in--the ancient world, in which persons were perceived more as subordinate cells in the body of the family or the city. (16) But Christianity taught (following Jewish scripture) that every person is created imago Dei--in the image of God. And that people are saved into eternal life, our ultimate good or destination, as individuals and only through a free and sincere personal acceptance of the Gospel. To be sure, the implementation of these ideas during the centuries of Christendom had been, to put the point charitably, uneven--as, arguably, every regime's implementation of its defining ideals and aspirations is always uneven. (We will notice the point again.) But now, with the irresolvable conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, or Protestantisms, the Christian tradition suggested a solution that initially seemed radical (and thus, to the Church, suspect (17)) but that came to seem obvious: let every individual person choose for himself or herself what religion he or she would follow, and then respect that individual's choice. This individualistic solution came to be advocated by innumerable proponents of freedom of conscience (18)--of the individual conscience. (19) And the commitment to respecting individual freedom in matters of religion and conscience expanded into other domains--first speech and then conduct more generally.

      Respect for--sometimes perhaps an obsession with--individual autonomy thus came to be the central defining feature of liberal modernity. (20) Social peace would be achieved by granting individuals the right to believe and speak and live as they wished, so long as they did not harm others--a "very simple principle," according to Mill, that has turned out to be far more convoluted and often question-begging than he anticipated. (21) And the commitment to the individual as the locus of value directly informs other standard features of liberalism--freedom (for individuals), rights (primarily individual rights, or rights to be one's authentic self in expression and conduct and sexuality), and equality (of individuals). Barack Obama expressed the ideal: "As a nation, we're founded on the belief that all of us are equal and each of us deserves the freedom to pursue our own version of happiness; to make the most of our talents; to speak our minds; to not fit in; most of all, to be true to ourselves." (22)

      Which leads to a second defining feature of the liberal project. The decision to leave the choice of religion and other important matters to...

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