Christianity Did Not Cause Liberalism: A Comment on Klein Out of Siedentop

Professor Daniel Klein and Peter J Olsson say – depending in good part on a book by a philosopher specialized on modern political thought, Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014) – that Christianity led to liberalism. I say, on the contrary, that liberalism was an invention of 18th century radicals like Voltaire and Adam Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft, themselves barely Christian, Deirdre Nansen McCloskey writes in a comment to the interview.

On 28 August Peter J. Olsson interviewed Professor Daniel Klein about an alleged causal connection, which all seemed to credit, between Christianity and liberalism.  I have corresponded in amiable disagreement about it with my friend Professor Klein and with another friend, Professor P. J. Hill (the latter is in fact a believing Christian, like me,—in my case Anglican, if you call that “Christian”).  They say, depending in good part on a book by a philosopher specialized on modern political thought, Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014), that Christianity led to liberalism. 

I say, on the contrary, that liberalism was an invention of 18th century radicals like Voltaire and Adam Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft, themselves barely Christian.  Liberalism came late and luckily in the 17th century to the Netherlands, as in John Locke, spreading among advanced intellectuals in the 18th century to England and especially Scotland, and then in the 19th century to places like Sweden, and now to the world.  It had nothing to do with any European virtue or vice deep in history, as may be seen in its international success, now admittedly under fierce attack by authoritarians.  (Have you ever noticed, by the way, that the recourse by authoritarians such as Lukashenko, Xi Jinping, Putin, and Trump to thugs and lying and poison actually signals that they have lost the argument about the end of history, not that they have won it?)  We had better get the history right if we are to defend liberalism effectively in places with no Christian traditions.

I am defining the liberalism that matters as the claim by the conflicted slave owner Thomas Jefferson that all men (and women, dear) are created equal.  Adam Smith, for example, a fierce egalitarian by the standards of 1776, declared for “the liberal plan of [social] equality, [economic] liberty, and [legal] justice.”  In 1936 the African American poet Langston Hughes sang, “O, let America be America again—/ The land that never has been yet—/ And yet must be—the land where every man is free.”  No slaves.  No adults treated as silly children.  No wives subordinated to husbands.  No subjects ruled by bureaucrats.  (In Sweden, not Folkhemmet, with Gunnar and Alva supervising compulsory sterilization.)

Consider Siedentop’s very title, Inventing the Individual, an invention which he regards as Christian, leading on to liberalism:“Liberalism,” he declares, “rests on the moral assumptions provided by Christianity,” a claim quoted with approval by Klein.  No.  The Individual has never had to be invented.  Yes, some people I admire, such as another philosopher, Charles Taylor, have said as much, and have said it happened in Europe.  But the evidence is very weak if one stops looking fixedly at Europe without comparing it to other places, or even if you “don’t know much about the Middle Ages / Look at the pictures and turn the pages.” One finds plenty of “individualistic” talk and action in, say, the Hebrew Bible, or Buddhism, or the literature of the classical Mediterranean, or Chinese poetry, or Japanese businessmen’s tales, or whatever.  That is, one finds it everywhere one looks.  Of course people also express “collective” constraints and tastes.  But they do so nowadays as much as in The Iliad. Trump voter, anyone?  Swedish public opinion?

Another reason to doubt the connection is that the “moral assumptions provided by Christianity,” by which Siedentop here means especially the premise of an individual soul, is common to all Abrahamic religions—and to Buddhism, or indeed to Hinduism if incarnation is to be meaningful.  In the sense of “God is love,” it’s another matter, and does distinguish Christianity from others, such as from the cruel gods of most paganisms.  But then it is shared by Islam and, in a somewhat on-again-off-again character down to the Book of Job, by Judaism.  Why therefore wasn’t Islamic and Jewish society liberal in Smithian terms? 

Christianity understood as Western Christianity (as against Eastern Orthodox) is, from St. Paul to Augustine to Calvin and beyond, extremely anti-liberal theologically speaking.  Strict predestination and eternal damnation are hardly a basis for a society of non-slaves. The debate on free will in 1524 between Erasmus (for the time a liberal) and Luther reflects the very point.

Christianity existed for 1500 years before it gave the slightest hint (in, say, Anabaptists and Quakers) of the social egalitarianism deeply characteristic of modern liberalism.  Christianity grew up in a slave society, and continued to flourish in a highly anti-liberal society until in northwestern Europe by the 18th century, and no earlier, the accidents of revolts and reformations made ordinary people bold in the face of their betters—liberalism.

Klein says that” the important assumptions of [a] worldview. . . were brought forward by Christianity. At the center is that you are a soul. You are an interpretive creature with moral agency, a will, and a conscience.” But not “by Christianity.”  If one instead admits “also by Judaism and Islam and all the rest,” then what is the case for liberalism coming from Western Christianity—that illiberal and imperial structure inherited from Rome?  Klein, following Siedentop, claims strangely that tyranny leads to liberty. If true of the Pope’s Christianity, why not Eastern Orthodoxy, which at any rate in Russia leads (if this one-variable talk is to be continued) to a comprehensive tyranny. May we look to Putin for a new dawn of liberty?

Klein goes on: “Christianity teaches us that we humans are to be a species for itself, the whole species, so there is a universalism that was rather new to Christianity.”  If he means by “universalism” a monotheism as against the god of this or that group seen as idiosyncratic, it is a feature of Judaism and Zoroastrianism, or a thousand years earlier the pharaoh Akhenaten, and we are back to wondering why such universalism did not result in liberal regimes in ancient Persia and Egypt.  The category “human” is of course shared by every human on the planet.  Even animists who trace their ancestry to bears and the like would say that humans are “a species by itself.”  A human is not a bear, they affirm, just a relative (a fact that Darwin later confirmed).  Klein says, “We now take these moral assumptions for granted. . . . .  But they had to be developed, and they had to find a footing in social practices and institutions.”  But they did not “develop.”  Individualism, didn’t, either.  There is no case historically that in the old regime a specifically liberal attitude had standing, not until the 18th century.  Shakespeare’s England was certainly not liberal.  Charles I said on the scaffold, “A sovereign and a subject are clean different things,” and for long after 1649 most English people believed it.

The interviewers asked, “Don’t other religious traditions and civilizations also have individuals, moral agency, and the conscience?” Good question. To which Klein replied, “Other monotheistic religions didn’t have moral agency, moral equality, and the conscience in quite the same way. Siedentop says that Christianity was quite exceptional in the dignity it accorded the individual.” Oy vey ist mir.  Judaism doesn’t have moral agency or equality?  Islam in particular?  No dignity?  Buddhism?  (Admittedly in Hinduism the moral agency is about ascending in caste.)

 “If you look at a map of economic freedom today,” Klein writes,  “you will see that the ‘most free’ countries generally correlate to Christendom circa 1300, plus areas (North America, Australia and New Zealand, arguably Japan) that have since been developed by or influenced by the Christian West.” Japan was indeed, interestingly, somewhat influenced, especially in the 1920s, by Christianity, in a liberal direction. But to include it in Christendom is a stretch, as Japanese militarism immediately demonstrated.  Klein means precisely the Christian West, because Orthodoxy does not do the work that he claims.  If the West there are plenty of other and much better, and better timed and better evidenced, reasons having nothing to do with the Christianity of the deists and atheists, with some conventional Christians and a few slave-abolishing Quakers, who in the 18th century invented liberalism. It was not John Knox’s followers who made Scotland liberal.  It was their enemies. 

“Christianity,” Klein boldly claims, “made liberalism possible,” but then takes it back: “which is not say that, within a country, Christianity is sufficient for, or will necessarily produce, liberalism.” Such a statement at least has the merit of being falsifiable.  It is falsified.  Russia.  Henry VIII.  The Pope.  The devotional revolution in Ireland.  And a score of other shockingly illiberal results of Christianity. “As a political persuasion, liberalism is a program that presupposes a nation-state, and in that sense the nation-state is a precondition for liberalism.” No, it does not.  The obvious and simple system of natural liberty does not require an imperial state. 

The Christianity argument, after all, takes too long to work.  Klein and Siedentop delight in its length.  But it is a scientific fault, not a merit.  We need to know why liberalism arose in northwestern Europe, only.  Not in Christendom broadly, or in Western Christianity narrowly, or in Protestant Europe most narrowly—but in Holland and in England and then in Scotland and the northern and especially Pennsylvania.  Events a thousand years before do not cut it as scientific evidence, when there is massive evidence for alternative explanations confined to the very places where it actually occurred, in the 18th century, only.

Klein swallows Siedentop’s tale about “the  development of papal sovereignty, or supremacy, and the integration of church law underneath that supremacy provided a model or example.”  Of liberalism?   If it really resulted in liberalism it would be the Kingdom of Naples, say, or Bourbon Spain, where our liberties were born.  Klein and Siedentop attach liberalism to the rise of the nation state.  ”The subjection of the individual helps to define the individual, legally or jurally,” Klein writes, exhibiting a nice taste for paradox, “and thinkers are then in a position to demand respect for Christian moral intuitions about the individual.”  Siedentop had said it: “the deep individualism of Christianity was simply the reverse side of its universalism” embodied in authoritarian states.  Wow.

Really, on its face, and I fear deeper, it is nonsense. It sounds cute, but has little sense as church history crossed with political history.  The universalism of the Roman Empire, for example, which is exactly that of the Pope’s church, was nothing like an encouragement to individualism, except perhaps in the form that Tocqueville or Popper or George Orwell would recognize, as the utter subjection of the individual. By contrast, individual autonomy (Greek, “self rule”) came out of the Radical Reformation, among other happy accidents of the history of northwestern Europe (alone) 1517, 1568, 1640, 1689, 1776, 1789.

In short, I stand amazed.  The modern world is claimed by Siedentop, with Klein cheering from the sideline, to come from church courts—which England in particular did not have much interest in, so powerful was its common law entirely independent of the Church, and a merchant law arising out of trade, not the other way around.   Siedentop’s is an extremely implausible hypothesis, located in the wrong place (not England) and the wrong time (hundreds of years before liberalism), and ignoring all other religious traditions.  In Islam at the same time the “jural” entanglement of Islam with the state, as for a late example 1744 in Arabia proper, was an illiberal disaster, early. There is no evidence of separation of church and state until liberalism, which itself is caused by accidents in northwestern Europe after 1517.

We need to know that liberalism is a natural human condition, as natural as the lack of hierarchy in the hunter-gatherer bands from which we descend. It is not, the delights of hasty paradox aside, a result of tyrannical hierarchies, religious or secular.  This we must learn from history for its present, and urgent, use.

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Economics and of History, and Professor Emerita of English and of Communication, adjunct in classics and philosophy, at the University of Illinois at Chicago