Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

The Religious Origins of Liberalism

Virtue and individualism both predate today's political categories
John Locke

In columns for The Daily Caller and The Week, Matt K. Lewis explains why social conservatives have lost the culture wars:

…many social conservative positions are buttressed on faith. But they also believe — and this is important, politically — that a proper and primary role of government is the preservation of virtue. And part and parcel of this is the assumption that our society is merely a short-term destination on the way to our heavenly home. This, of course, is in strong contrast to Y.O.L.O. (“you only live once”) worldview.

Here’s the problem: Not only do secular liberals reject this philosophy, but so do other elements of the conservative “three-legged-stool.”…Whereas social conservatives look to the Church for guidance, “classical liberals” (the Free Market, limited government ideology that values individuals) probably trace their fundamental beliefs back to Locke.

This is an important insight about the tensions in the conservative coalition. But it requires some elaboration and qualification if it is not to be misunderstood.

First, belief “that a proper and primary role of government is the preservation of virtue” is not distinctively Christian. Rather, it is main theme of the republican political tradition, the main elements of which were articulated by Cicero in and for a pagan society.

Some features of Cicero’s republicanism were adapted for Christian use by Augustine. In modern times, however, they have often been the vehicle for a critique of Christianity as corrosive of the military courage and concern for the common good necessary to a free society. According to Machiavelli and Rousseau, for example, Christianity is politically dangerous precisely because it encourages believers to seek their true home in heaven rather than defending their city on earth. In Europe, this neo-Roman argument rather than liberal individualism was the inspiration for the secularizing politics that emerged from the French Revolution.

Second, the individualism Lewis associates with Locke is historically derived from Christian sources. In fact, the whole point of Locke’s minimal definition of the state as a voluntary association for protection of life and property is that it leaves the individual free to relate himself to God as he sees fit. “Classical liberalism”, in other words, is historically based on Protestant theological arguments about the requirements for salvation rather than concerns about the market as such.

There is no necessary connection, then, between Christian faith and the politics of virtue or between secularism and theories of limited government. Rather than projecting contemporary categories into the past, we should investigate categories and concepts that were actually used in specific settings. The American Founding and early Republic, in particular, can be understood better in light of the Christian republicanism inherited from Calvinism than either conservatism or liberalism. But that is a story for another post.



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