Here in the West, we like to think of ourselves as liberals. Freedom for all, we say. Individual rights! is the cry heard from Poland to Perth. As liberals we understand society to be made up of individuals, and believe those individuals to be equal, with each possessing inherent moral agency. This equality and moral agency, we believe, mean that each individual possesses a set of basic rights enforceable by law. Our society and our political structures and practices are built upon this liberal ideal. Everybody is free, and everybody is equal. This, it seems, is our most basic political and social assumption.
Liberalism defines the political structures and philosophies of Western Europe, parts of Eastern Europe, North America, and Australia and New Zealand. Its ideals are being enacted in parts of Africa, Asia and South America. In other words, liberalism holds sway over much of the world. In the West, liberal democracy is the only conceivable option among the many alternative political and societal arrangements on offer. This is partly because, in a highly pluralistic society, liberalism accommodates difference. For example, it allows people of contrary religious views to worship according to the tenets of their faiths. The space allowed by liberal society for competing and contradictory views is generous. But there seems to be a limit to this generosity. There is a growing sense that the liberalism of today has a deep-seated problem with Christianity.
To illustrate the point, one need only look at the response to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s appointment, back in January, to speak at an Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) event in the United States. Much of the media expressed astonishment that Abbott would do such a thing. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Mark Kenny reported that the ADF is “one of the religious right’s most reactionary bodies” which “opposes abortion, wants to end gay marriage and is pushing to roll back some feminist advances”. Fellow Fairfax reporter Nick O’Malley’s article on the ADF quoted the Southern Poverty Law Center in the US as saying that the group were “fanning the flames of anti-gay hatred”. According to a news.com.au report, the ADF “plans to take society back to before the Dark Ages”. It’s all scary stuff, clearly meant to discredit Abbott and his decision to speak to the group. The Guardian’s Jason Wilson wrote that such decisions deserve our scrutiny, as they may indicate Abbott’s public policy positions on certain issues. Some of the views espoused by the ADF go “far beyond what Australians would view as mainstream conservatism”, according to Wilson. For Abbott to have attended and spoken at an event held by a group espousing socially conservative views on marriage, the family and abortion, seems to be not only astonishing but also sinister.
Similar responses to people holding their religious and ideological ground on these issues are expressed with some regularity by prominent media and political figures. These expressions of opinion, generally hostile to core Christian social views, are not necessarily representative of the whole of society. However, they are becoming more and more the norm. It seems that liberalism has a Christianity problem. This Christianity problem might ultimately bring about liberalism’s demise.
One part of the problem is historical. The liberalism of the past did not have a problem with Christianity. Larry Siedentop has recently argued, in his book Inventing the Individual, that the foundations of liberalism were largely laid by the early Christians during the misnamed “Dark Ages”. In response to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul wrote about people, not as members of a household cult or an earthly polis as the ancient Greeks did, but as moral agents who stand before God. People, in themselves, were important because they were made in God’s image and had to answer to Him. Paul, writes Siedentop, laid the “ontological foundation for the individual”. For Paul, the “human will is pre-social”, laying the social foundations for a voluntaristic view of social relations and hierarchies. Augustine’s conception of the human will, the rise of monasticism, the social changes wrought in a Christianised Roman empire, and the medieval distinctions between temporal and spiritual authority, are all important early factors in the story of the emergence of the Western idea of the individual.
During the period of the Carolingian empire, Christian magistrates developed a consciousness of their people as a “Christian people”. This was important because they were not merely people, but “souls” for whom rulers had a responsibility before God to rule with integrity. These more philosophical changes were accompanied by changes in jurisprudence, which in turn impacted on law codes themselves. Canon lawyers began to reason along the lines of the importance of the individual in legal matters. On the level of intellectual culture, the aristocratic shape to “reason” itself was gradually democratised. Not only did individual people have moral agency, but the elites no longer had a monopoly on reason; the common people could access it also. These, among other important historical events, shaped the establishment of the nation-state, democratic governance in both church and state, and the importance of the individual as a social unit.
Siedentop’s story of liberalism’s Christian roots is compelling. Yet, the political and social arrangements within which the intellectual, legal and political leg-work was done to formulate liberal tenets are hardly reflected in twenty-first-century Belgium or Canada. And maybe this is part of liberalism’s problem with Christianity. Pre-liberal Europe was, well, not very liberal at all. Depending on who you ask, medieval Europe was a giant pile of theocratic states, a mash-up of benevolent and malevolent autocratic monarchies, or a thinly veiled papal superstate. The Pope not only had spiritual authority, but also wielded an unhealthy amount of temporal power. Some monarchs, notably Charlemagne, might have understood their subjects to be actual people, but only if they were converted and baptised Christians. Otherwise they were ripe for the slaughter. Women were definitely not seen as equal with men, let alone as intelligent as them. As I already noted: not especially liberal.
However, if Siedentop is right in his thesis, liberalism was not a creation of the Enlightenment period but was formed within a confessionally Christian European society. Its parts were assembled on the fertile soil of Christian soteriology, social ontology and political theology. This idea is likely jarring to many liberal thinkers and doers today. The Christian society described above does not fit the contemporary liberal vision of equal individuals, with differences between cultures, sexes and classes flattened by an overpowering egalitarian philosophy. Even ontological differences are being done away with, with men and women regarded, for all intents and purposes, as the same. The inbuilt aristocracy and monarchy of much of medieval Europe is anathema to today’s liberal democrats. So Christianity’s social history is considered problematic by many liberals, even if it is linked to the history of liberalism itself.
And yet the historical problem is not the biggest one. The tendency in contemporary liberalism to problematise Christianity points to some fundamental shifts within liberalism itself. Why would an idea that was an outgrowth of Christian ideals proceed to turn on Christianity? Liberalism requires adherents and non-adherents alike to live in such a way that will allow liberal ideals to flourish. Liberalism requires something of people living in liberal societies. Liberalism makes demands upon the individuals it upholds.
Perhaps liberalism is turning on Christianity because liberalism has changed its form. Perhaps liberalism has begun reacting against some of the totalising claims of Christianity because it has claims of hegemony for itself. It has begun asserting its independence from its Christian parent, and in doing so is becoming illiberal.
Liberalism, unhinged from the Christian framework it was formed in, has become a totalising political philosophy. And because it has become unhinged from Christianity, it has become hostile to it. Contrary to its own propaganda, liberalism is beginning to act in an illiberal fashion. It is beginning to claim total allegiance. The claims of Christianity are, ultimately, total upon the person. Christ demands complete allegiance to his kingdom. That allegiance is not contrary to being under earthly authority but, in the end, Christ trumps Trump, Obama and Merkel. Christianity asks a lot of people. If Jesus Christ is Lord (the most basic Christian confession) then Caesar isn’t. There is always a higher allegiance for Christians, beyond that of the liberal political order.
That is why Christians won’t necessarily bow to demands for them to arrange flowers for homosexual wedding ceremonies. This kind of response to Christian sexual ethics is a point of resistance to the liberal order, and one which is causing much tension. Christianity cannot be a private, Sunday-only faith, and as liberalism has changed and moved away from its Christian roots, it has begun clashing with Christianity. Jesus Christ does not just ask Christians to attend church on Sundays; he requires his followers to make much of him on every day of the week. As the Australian children’s singer Colin Buchanan sings, for Christians, “Jesus is the boss”. No matter how many evangelicals might vote for a particular presidential candidate, that candidate will never be the boss of those evangelicals because they have a higher authority to bow to.
Education could become a key flashpoint for liberalism and Christians. If, hypothetically, public schools in Victoria are required to teach the goodness and rightness of gay sex and gay marriage, there are a significant number of Christians who will find it a genuine challenge to keep their children in the Victorian public school system while retaining a clear conscience. But this article is not about Christianity’s problem with homosexuality. It is about liberalism’s problem with Christianity. And yet, Christianity’s problem with gay marriage and associated sexual choices illustrates the point very nicely. Here, Christianity could cause a serious problem for the liberal political order because Christians may not feel free to educate their children as they wish. This hypothetical shows that liberalism cannot simply create a value-neutral order where everyone is actually and equally free. Someone’s freedom will always be compromised, and liberalism increasingly chooses to compromise the freedom of the Christian.
Why do liberals now care when Christians disagree with them? Why, for example, would anti-abortion activist Troy Newman, whose pro-life views are similar to those of many Christians, not be allowed into Australia for a speaking engagement? Part of the answer is that liberalism is now acting in a hegemonic fashion. It protects individual rights, to be sure. In doing so it silences particular opinions and prevents particular actions, all in the name of liberalism. A woman’s “right to choose” is protected to the extent that Newman wasn’t even allowed in the country to speak about abortion. In the Newman case freedom from offence trumped freedom of speech. This was masked by claims about Newman’s supposed potential to incite violence, which was a dubious, implausible outcome of allowing him to speak at a conference.
Newman might have some unusual views about capital punishment for murderers, but that is hardly the reason why he wasn’t allowed in the country. Contemporary liberal ideals were threatened by his presence. Silencing Newman was the only option. The politicians and immigration officials who barred Newman’s entry, along with the High Court, acted in a liberal fashion in the sense that they saw Newman’s ideas to be contrary to the liberal order. Newman’s pro-life stance, a stance held by a free individual, clashed with the stance of other free individuals who disagreed with him. The state and courts favoured the wishes of one set of free individuals over another. This trade-off between individuals is inevitable, and Christians are increasingly finding themselves on the losing end of the trade.
And here is where liberalism is becoming illiberal. It is protecting certain rights over and against certain others, admittedly an unavoidable aspect of governance. However, the rights which are being protected are not coherent with one another. In its original form, liberalism protected freedom of speech, which is a fundamental freedom. Freedom from offence is a relatively new invention of the human rights industry, and is now, in certain cases, a trump card over more fundamental rights like freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. This is a sign of creeping illiberalism. Without the larger framework of Christian theology and morality, liberalism simply means that whoever is in power selects the rights it will protect, and labels them liberal. At one time, freedom of speech might be protected vigorously, and yet a couple of years later it might be against statute law to offend people. The ground shifts because morality is now without the bounds of Christianity. At a public level the preferences of the ruling elites and their allies form the new boundaries.
Liberalism has begun to impose itself upon the individuals it claims to help thrive. It now upholds certain liberal tenets at the expense of more fundamental, traditional liberal tenets. These more fundamental tenets were formed and grown in the soil of Christianity, and in the intellectual milieu of a Christian society. Subsequently, contemporary liberal ideals are beginning to clash regularly with the demands and claims Christianity makes on its followers. Liberalism is not as liberal as it thinks it is. As it has moved away from its Christian roots it has begun to find Christianity’s claims an inconvenience. Christianity gets in the way of the formation of the perfect liberal order because it makes claims which contradict the claims of liberalism. Even though liberalism allows for different religions to share the public square, and worship as they wish side-by-side, in the end that worship has to fit into liberalism’s rules. As liberalism changes, Christianity’s tenets are gradually becoming uncomfortable for the liberal order. The two no longer fit together as they once did.
The solution to this problem is not straightforward. Some offer a return to Christendom as a possibility. The most notable exponents of this idea are the Radical Orthodox thinkers, such as John Milbank. However, the Radical Orthodox solution seems untenable as it would seem to require society to be re-evangelised and re-Christianised. In the absence of an unforeseen Christian revival, the Radical Orthodox solution is a long-term one only. Another group, the Christian Reconstructionists, recently offered a religiously-driven solution to the tensions within liberalism. This movement died some decades ago and was always quite small. The leaders of this movement, people like Rousas Rushdoony, Gary North and David Chilton, proposed a return to the founding liberal ideals of the American polity combined with the enforcement of the biblical Mosaic law code. This solution is hardly conceivable or even plausible.
One solution which is both plausible and has potential to succeed in the short term is that liberalism give up its claims to hegemony and reharmonise itself with its own first principles and ideas about freedom, which are in essence an outgrowth of the Christian view of the good life. A Christian political liberalism is the solution. Christianity’s claims do not contradict the basic tenets of liberalism as they stood in their original form. This is historically the case, as liberalism was partly formed under the tutelage of the Christian faith and developed by the Protestant Reformers, and jurists of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Returning liberalism to its Christian roots would reinvigorate the liberal project and pre-emptively end the impending stand-off between Christians and the liberal order. Liberal ideas were never designed to be total and hegemonic; they originally existed within the clear bounds of Christian morality and theology.
A Christian liberalism would be stronger than the current arrangement because it would recognise that every individual, that very important liberal social unit, is created imago Dei. This Christian anthropology is the foundation of all good liberal thought. Each individual is God’s creation and is, in some ways, a reflection of Him. Flowing out from this theological foundation is the belief that each individual is valuable and has inherent dignity. Therefore, within the bounds of Christian moral theology, individuals have sets of privileges and rights. These rights and privileges include freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of association. These classical liberal concepts are, at bottom, Christian concepts and require a Christian society to sustain them. This is in stark contrast to the current liberal framework, which is, in reality, merely a reflection of the preferences of those who hold the keys to the corridors of power. Christian political liberalism would be based on something higher, and more foundational, than the preferences of Canberra political staffers and their MP bosses.
In one sense I am suggesting that we re-imagine our society as a part of “Christendom”. This solution on the surface seems similar to the Christendom of the Radical Orthodox. But it is a different Christendom, in that it doesn’t prescribe what is effectively a “clericocratic” political order. That is not the Christendom that can save our hard-won liberal political freedoms. Nor will the Christendom of the Reconstructionists be of much use. A Christian liberal order need not entail a re-enforcement of the Mosaic polity. Indeed, it should not. The Decalogue would likely be a feature of a Christian liberal order, but this is unsurprising as it is pivotal to our current legal arrangements already. Indeed, the Christendom that will save liberalism wouldn’t even require uniformity of belief. Both Christian and non-Christian can find protection within the walls of this Christendom. Both can participate in governance. Faith is not a prerequisite for political wisdom. One doesn’t need to believe, for example, what the Reformers taught about Christian theology in order to understand the principles of early Protestant political ideas on liberty, the role of the civil magistrate, and civil society. Agreeing with and applying Christian political principles does not entail agreeing on Christology or soteriology. The principles of Christian political liberalism are accessible to believer and non-believer alike because both believer and non-believer are capable of political prudence.
Politics is the art of human beings living well together. Without Christianity, liberalism does not seem up to the task of being a good political framework because it lacks a large part of the foundation which made it functional in the first place. Christian principles, such as the imago Dei, form the basis for human dignity and respect for the individual. These principles are not optional for liberalism. Without the Christian faith as a foundation, liberalism will not help us live well together. However, the political order of Christendom can be both liberal and Christian. In fact, the true liberal order is a Christian one and will only function adequately within a Christian philosophical and political framework. That is the Christendom that could save liberalism. Without it, liberalism’s problem with Christianity might become the primary cause of liberalism’s demise.
To retain our liberal political order, it must return to being a fundamentally Christian political order; only then will it be truly liberal. Ironically, it seems that only Christianity can save liberalism.
Simon P. Kennedy lives in Geelong and is a PhD candidate in the history of political thought at the University of Queensland. He writes regularly for the online journal the Calvinist International. He contributed the article “The Destruction of the Family” to the October 2015 issue.