Politics & Policy

Christian Liberty

Christianity gave us the modern world.

In the most instantly notorious performance any president ever has or likely ever will give at a National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama reached back to the Crusades and the Inquisition last week to argue that Christianity, too, has its sins.

This point has been ably dissected on NRO here, here, here, and here. I want to come at it from a different angle, which is that at the moment the most salient points about Christianity and Islam are the differences, not the similarities, and perhaps none is as important as the fact that Christianity undergirded the development of Western liberalism (in the old, good sense of the word).

The Middle East is still struggling to create the sort of society that Christianity — to be sure, slowly, with many detours, and sometimes inadvertently — fostered in the West.

The indispensable role of Christianity in the creation of individual rights and ultimately of secularism itself is the subject of the revelatory new intellectual history Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop. Here’s hoping that President Obama gives it a quick skim before he next takes the podium at a prayer breakfast.

Siedentop begins his story with the ancients. The Greeks and Romans of pre-history weren’t secular; the family was, as Siedentop calls it, a religious cult run by the paterfamilias and suffused with ritual and assumptions of social inequality. We are all pro-family, but we can agree that ancestor worship takes it a little far.

At this time, Siedentop points out, the key distinction wasn’t between the public and private spheres, but between the public and domestic spheres, the latter characterized by the family with its rigidly defined hierarchical roles. There was no space for the individual with his or her own rights.

With the rise of the polis, the point of view widened, but the city itself became a kind of church. Siedentop writes that “the most distinctive thing about Greek and Roman antiquity is what might be called ‘moral enclosure’, in which the limits of personal identity were established by the limits of physical association and inherited, unequal social roles.”

Christianity set in motion something completely different. It emphasized the moral equality of all people, and it made individual conscience a central concern. Siedentop asks if Saint Paul wasn’t the greatest revolutionary the world has ever known. “For Paul,” Siedentop writes, “the love of God revealed in the Christ imposes opportunities and obligations on the individual as such, that is, on conscience.”

The source of authority had been reversed: “Increasingly it was to be found ‘below’, in human agency and conscience, rather than ‘above’ in coercive eternal ideas.” This was a radical development that contained the seeds of the liberties we enjoy today.

The story of the West is, in part, the often-serpentine working out over centuries of these new intellectual currents. The story runs through, among other things, monasticism, the Augustinian conception of the will, the legal system of the Catholic Church, the split between temporal and spiritual power, and the canon lawyers who began to set out a system of law that honored the rights of the individual. Rather than the Middle Ages being the time of darkness and stagnation of popular imagination, they were a period of ferment that created the basis of the modern world.

(Francis Fukuyama covers some of the same ground in the first volume of his The Origins of Political Order. He notes that “two of the basic institutions that became crucial to economic modernization — individual freedom of choice with regard to social and property relationships, and political rule limited by transparent and predictable law — were created by a premodern institution, the medieval church.”)

It was Christianity’s “test of ‘internal acceptance’ that had gradually made ‘enforced belief’ a contradiction in terms,” according to Siedentop. Eventually, the intuitions of Christianity were turned against the institutional church itself. Siedentop concludes that “secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world,” and, more broadly, liberalism “preserves Christian ontology without the metaphysics of salvation.”

This is so often obscured because Renaissance humanism looked back favorably to antiquity and took on an anticlerical cast. And the secular authorities asserted themselves to suppress the violence of the wars of religion. Both trends, according to Siedentop, “suggested that the emergent secularism or proto-liberalism had little to do with the moral intuitions generated by Christianity, but rather that their inspiration should be located in antiquity and paganism.”

It didn’t help that Europe long had a church that was associated with aristocracy and hierarchy, obscuring the egalitarian foundations of Christianity.

But those foundations are essential to who we are. Some Muslim writers, Siedentop points out, refer to “Christian secularism,” which isn’t quite the outlandish oxymoron it sounds. “Enforced belief was, for Paul and many early Christians, a contradiction in terms,” he writes. “Strikingly, in its first centuries Christianity spread by persuasion, not by force of arms — in contrast to the early spread of Islam.”

Therein lies a tale, one that the president surely would prefer not to know or acknowledge.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.

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