Liberalism and Christianity

In the midst of a longer discussion, Jeff in England returned to a favorite theme of his, in which he tries to get me to admit that liberalism is a more important and positive aspect of our tradition than, as he sees it, I ever give it credit for being. He wrote:

Have you addressed the point that Christianity may be inherently liberal, at least in part?

I replied:

Well, that’s a troubling thought. If it’s correct, then the non-liberal aspects of Christianity would be unprincipled exceptions to liberalism, which keep getting discarded century by century until the “true” Christianity, which is liberalism, appears. But that’s absurd. It would mean that the present Archbishop of Canterbury is the true Christian, and the Church Fathers were false Christians.

More seriously, Christianity is the basis of liberalism in the old sense of the word in that it gives unprecedented importance to the individual human being, as the seeker and knower of the transcendent God, though of course the passionate relationship between the individual person and God originates in the Hebrew scriptures, especially in the stories of Abraham and Jacob and in the Psalms. Also, Christianity was the most important basis of political liberty, and thus of the older liberalism, in that it limited the power of the state, though again we’re talking of the older liberalism that put strict constraints on the state, not the present liberalism with its radical egalitarianism that expands the state into every area of life. Christianity—or more precisely the Catholic Church—distinguished God’s sphere from the secular sphere and thus established an independent and higher realm on which the state could not intrude. There is a very common misunderstanding today that the Catholic Middle Ages were a period of absolute rule. In reality, the state in medieval Europe was hemmed in by alternative centers of power, particularly the Church and the nobility. It was only in the 17th century that the state, casting off the medieval and Christian order, became absolute.

However, if we’re speaking of modern liberalism, with its cult of the human self as having nothing higher than itself, then Christianity is “inherently liberal” only in a false and decadent sense of Christianity. Christianity makes the individual self matter because it sees the self as the knower of truth and the follower of God. If you remove truth and God, as modern liberalism does, then the self devolves into pure desire and self-assertion, even though the self still claims extraordinary entitlements and rights for itself—rights that in fact are a product of the Christian order that the modern self has rejected.

- end of initial entry -

Maureen C. writes:

The question of the link between liberalism’s growth and Christianity also has been troubling me. Your reflections have been helpful in clarifying the dilemma. Liberalism refuses to combat evil because liberalism increasingly is unable to identify evil. Christianity’s role in creating that non-judgmental passivity is troubling.

LA writes:

I had drafted a reply to Maureen but it didn’t come together, so I’ll let her comment stand by itself for now.

(Note: there is a follow-up to this post here.)

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 22, 2007 07:53 AM | Send

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