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Christianity to Liberalism: An Interview with Daniel Klein

Av Peter J Olsson | 28 August 2020

Does liberalism owe its existence to Christianity? Yes, says Larry Siedentop in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism: “Liberalism rests on the moral assumptions provided by Christianity.”

This summer, Siedentops book was discussed in five sessions at the Classical Liberal Reading Group jointly hosted by Svensk Tidskrift and Timbro. The reading group was led by Daniel Klein, professor of economics at George Mason University. We participated in the reading group, and can assure the reader that Klein presented the work quite thoroughly.

As a follow up, we sat down to talk with Klein about the book, the reading group and his further thoughts on the subject.

Clearly you thought it was important to get people to read Siedentop’s book. Why this one?

People today often do not realize that some of the important assumptions of their worldview—ontological assumptions, you might say—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.

At the same time, 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.

We now take these moral assumptions for granted. They are the water we swim in. But they had to be developed, and they had to find a footing in social practices and institutions.

It took a long, long time! People today just don’t understand how remarkable the development was. Understanding all this, and the scope of the story, is important for understanding what Western civilization is all about.

But was it Christianity in particular, or monotheism more generally, that opened up the road to liberalism? Don’t other religious traditions and civilizations also have ideas on individuals, moral agency, and the conscience?

Monotheism is necessary but not sufficient. 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. That individual was a votary of the Christ with responsibility to figure out how to advance the well-being of the widest whole of humankind.

Siedentop speaks a lot about moral equality, and I think that one aspect of what he means is that everyone, no matter how depraved or religiously misguided, even an enemy, has the potential for upward vitality, and everyone, no matter how saintly and accomplished up to the present moment, has the potential for downward moral movement. Each of us faces a same sort of moral challenge all the time. Siedentop would associate this image of the individual with Augustine. The implication is that everyone is with or potentially with God, and as an individual. It isn’t about abiding by a set of ritualistic practices. It is a very individual affair.

Siedentop argues that liberalism emerged from, and best prevails today, in what was once thought of as Christendom. If you look at a map of economic freedom today, 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. In a sense his book is a theory of that correlation, an explanation. Christianity made liberalism possible—which is not say that, within a country, Christianity is sufficient for, or will necessarily produce, liberalism.

The idea that Christianity was necessary prerequisite for liberalism is a provocative one. But for arguments sake, let us assume it’s correct . Then why don’t people today see the historical significance? Why is the claim so provocative?

That’s a good question, and a big one. Let me address it by dividing the story into three parts: (1) Before Christianity, (2) During the Christian groundwork, (3) After the Christian groundwork.

Before Christianity: Siedentop boldly says that ever since the Renaissance our thinking about the ancient world has been deeply mistaken. When we think about the religiosity of the ancient world, we think of the Greek pagan polytheism of Zeus et al or the Roman pagan polytheism of Jupiter et al.

“The trouble with this account,” says Siedentop, “is that it looks [in the ancient world] in the wrong place for religion”. Rather, it is the family, the clan, the tribe, the city, and other morally enclosed social groupings that were each person’s religious mainstays. The family was a cult. The paterfamilias was the high priest of that cult. The HBO series Rome, my favorite 21st century TV series, is very good on this matter.

The political system was an an amalgam of these bodies. The family or clan or tribe were the units of subjection at each layer. Each layer had a god and religion to represent it. Adam Smith tells us (here, search on “all the ancient moralists” and “none of the ancient moralists”) that the ancient moralists had not marked out commutative justice and individual liberty.

What Christian moral intuitions eventually brought forward was a new political order in which, instead, it was the individual that was the unit of subjection. But it took many centuries!

During the Christian groundwork: This is a long and complicated story, to which most of the book is dedicated. Paul and Augustine loom large in the formation of Christian moral intuitions, and then the story goes another 1000+ years to the development of those intuitions into legal principles of the rights of the individual.

A very important development comes in high and late middle ages. Siedentop draws on Brian Tierney’s work on Gratian and the Decretists, thinkers of the 12th and 13th centuries who developed ideas of permissive individual rights: rights marking out and ensuring a sphere of free action by the individual will. Tierney connected the dots from Gratian in the 12th century to Grotius in the 17th (watch 1, 2).

The Decretist ideas interact with the push for jural integration under sovereignty. Remarkably, that development is in the institutional realm of the Church—in canon law. The development of papal sovereignty, or supremacy, and the integration of church law underneath that supremacy provided a model or example.

That model inspired temporal rulers to follow suit, and thus we get a move toward the rise of the nation-state, a relatively stable and functional polity with sovereignty over an extensive territory and, with it, jural integration. Only then did a definitized expression like “the government” really begin to make sense.

It sounds paradoxical, but the subjection of the individual helps to define the individual, legally or jurally, and thinkers are then in a position to demand respect for Christian moral intuitions about the individual. Siedentop writes, “the deep individualism of Christianity was simply the reverse side of its universalism.”

Likewise with the nation-state: The universalism made the unit of subjection the individual, and that made possible the staking out of individual rights to be respected by the government. 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.

After we got a stable nation-state—overcoming the fog of jural pluralism—we got the arc of thinkers, such as Grotius, Pieter de la Court, Locke, Hume, Smith, Turgot, and Anders Chydenius, who said in effect: Let’s make it a liberal nation-state!

Siedentop also devotes about two chapters to the development of towns or boroughs (“bourgeois”) that broke free of feudal lords, and the commercial norms and attitudes they fostered. He suggests that such developments were underpinned by Christian moral assumptions about moral equality and the likeness of all people, including traders and merchants from other lands.

After the Christian groundwork: From about the 15th century, the moral intuitions of Christianity had been so successful that people subsequently lost sight of the novelty of those moral intuitions. They lost sight of a change having been achieved, and hence of Christianity’s remarkable contribution. Some, like Machiavelli, may have understood it, but were suspicious of the goals and influence of the church in their own day. For others, especially after the wars of religion, the church itself was often hand-in-glove with oppressive government. In France the intellectual trend was to see the church as corrupt. Christianity was condemned for censorship and the Inquisition, which Siedentop represents as somewhat aberrational, and condemned more recently for the Crusades. Siedentop writes:

For centuries a privileged, monolithic church which was almost inseparable from an aristocratic society, confronted Europeans. So the church became associated in the popular mind with social hierarchy and deference, even at times with coercion, rather than with the moral equality and role of conscience.

Think about the terms we use for the centuries that Siedentop is covering: “medieval”, “middle ages,” “dark ages.” Our very language betrays an ignorance of the great gift of that period, the translation of Christian moral intuitions into jural and political principles that gave those intuitions a firmer practical standing in social life.

To me it’s like people turning their back on a longstanding benefactor who has faltered a bit in recent year. In turning against the religious institutions of their day, people threw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Renaissance humanists and the French philosophes were in large measure proceeding on moral assumptions that had been provided by Christianity, including the idea of freedom of religion, freedom of conscience.

By the way, many of the British thinkers of the eighteenth century were not anticlerical, such as Francis Hutcheson, Joseph Butler, Josiah Tucker, William Robertson, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke. And even David Hume, though clearly critical of theological premises in metaphysics, really wasn’t waging war on clerics or religion as such. Indeed, he indicated that he supported the church establishment in England. The figures just named are, in my opinion, the best of the so-called Enlightenment era. Some people say a lot of junk about “the Enlightenment”.

Siedentop speaks of secularism as an achievement of Christianity, in the sense that the state is not a confessional state. That there is freedom of religion, without legal privileges or subsidies for certain religions. Secularism by that definition is different from not being religious. By his definition, one could be a theistic secularist, even devoutly theistic, and a secularist.

Yes, that’s right.

So, is there a paradox here? Isn’t it odd that a religion should spawn secularism?

It’s miraculous, but I don’t think paradoxical. We got lucky, I think.

In a part of the world, the religious realm was not so submerged within the political structure and apparatus. Two worlds—this world and the next, as well as two dimensions of existence, corporeal and spiritual—had parallel standing in two different authorities, political rulers and churches.

Siedentop indicates that what happened in the West is rather different from elsewhere, where the religious institutions were more submerged within the political apparatus, for example in Eastern Christianity or the Islamic world. The simple fact is that liberalism emerged where religious institutions were not submerged, namely, in Western Europe, and not elsewhere.

The question of the submergence of spiritual institutions into politics, and the development of an oppressive monoculture and groupthink, provides an important perspective in comparative sociology. When the clerisy turns into a privileged, monopolistic institutional blob, that blob will turn against liberalism.

Siedentop develops his thesis without reference to Max Weber or Deirdre McCloskey. Is that a shortcoming, in your opinion?

Siedentop certainly could have alluded to Weber and McCloskey, notably in the Epilogue, which brings the whole story back to our concerns today. But Siedentop’s story consists really of the description “Before Christianity” and then the groundwork done by Christianity. It basically ends at the Renaissance. So the narratives of Weber and McCloskey are largely subsequent to his narrative.

As for Weber, we might think of that as, in some respects, a concentrated tale within Christendom. That is, for Weber the story is about Protestantism in contrast to the rest of Christendom, whereas for Siedentop it is about Christendom in contrast to the rest of the world.

Is there anything in Siedentop’s book that you disagree with?

For most of it, I am in no position to judge. I wouldn’t know whether he gets William of Ockham right. But broadly I am very much persuaded by the book, so mostly agree with it.

My idea of liberalism is probably a little different than his, mine is more informed by Adam Smith, more along the lines of Adam Smith.

Also, Siedentop anchors the story in the ancient world. That’s the setting of Jesus and the start of Christianity and so, as narrative, is very proper. And I love his take on the ancient world. But I would have noted that even more fundamental to understanding the marvel of Christian-cum-liberal civilization is the primeval band, the crucible of our instinct toward immanentizing higher good in naive social experience (here pp. 76-79).

Finally, I think Siedentop might have said more about the persona and story of Jesus. Jesus is not a soldier, he does not carry a sword, and he does not aspire in any way to become a temporal ruler or an advisor to one. He’s a carpenter!

Jesus is killed by the top political power of his day. Having the messiah crucified by government conduces to a government-skeptical perspective.

Parallel to our sessions Klein recorded another set of sessions online here; Klein’s complete notes on Siedentops book are here.

Peter J Olsson is a liberal-conservative writer and senior advisor for the Moderaterna i Region Skåne

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