Christianity: Mother of Political Liberty

“Liberty has not subsisted outside of Christianity”

Lord Acton

The most liberating political force in the history of mankind has been Christianity (Jn. 8:36). Christianity branched from the trunk of godly Old Testament Hebrew religion, and the ancient Hebrew commonwealth (before the era of the kings [1 Sam. 8]) was arguably the most libertarian society in the history of mankind. Christianity inherited from Old Testament faith the bedrock belief in the sovereign, transcendent God Who stands above and judges all humanity, including its systems of civil government. The political order is never ultimate.

The Ancient World

Christianity shattered the unity of the ancient, pagan world. The source of that unity was the state, usually identified with society itself, at the head of which was a great political ruler, a king or emperor, thought to be a god or god-like. The unity of the ancient, pagan world consisted of the divinization of the temporal order in the form of the state.

Christianity recognized “another king” (Ac. 17:7). While by no means anarchists, the early Christians recognized that no earthly authority, especially political authority, could be ultimate. God’s authority is ultimate.

In clarifying orthodox Christology (the doctrine of Jesus Christ), the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) laid the foundation of Western liberty. Jesus Christ alone is both divine and human, fully God and fully Man, the unique link between heaven and earth. He is the only divine-human Mediator. This decision dramatically repudiated every divinization of the temporal order. No state, no church, no family, no man could be God or God-like.

This recognition set patristic Christianity on a collision course with classical politics. Early Christians were savagely persecuted not because they worshipped Jesus Christ, but because they refused to worship the Roman emperor. Polytheistic societies encourage the worship of deities. What they resist is the exclusion of all deities, particularly the state, except the true Deity, the God of the Bible.

The Medieval World

In the medieval world, the Latin Church became a countervailing force in society, checking and limiting the authority of the state. In fact, much of the time, the church’s size and strength far exceeded that of any particular state. Lord Acton was correct to suggest that the practice of political liberty in the West arose largely from this medieval church-state conflict. In addition, the medieval world, despite its many defects, supported a large measure of political liberty in fostering several human institutions besides the church which claimed the allegiance of man: the family, the guild, the feudal lord, and so forth. This meant that the state had to share its authority with other equally legitimate human institutions. No human institution may exercise ultimate authority.

The Modern World

Constitutional limitations on political power, out of which arose the practice of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century constitutional democracies, started in Christian England with the Magna Carta. England also delivered the first successful assault against the evil doctrine of the divine right of kings during the Puritan Revolution in the first half of the seventeenth century, and in 1688-89 during the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary it nailed the coffin shut on this long-lived threat to political liberty. The founding of the United States was the greatest experiment in political liberty to that time, and it operated self-consciously on certain distinctly Christian premises, even if they were not articulated in a Christian way. The Founders, for example, recognized the Biblical doctrine of original sin and human depravity, and therefore fashioned a system of civil government that divided decision making among several branches and did not vest any single branch of civil government with too much power.

Second, they argued that the role of civil government is to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and happiness,” with which God as Creator endowed all men.

Third, recognizing the Biblical doctrine that civil government should protect minorities (Ex. 23:9), they drafted a constitution to which they attached a Bill of Rights, thus inhibiting tyranny arising from quick political change at the whim of democratic opinion.

Political liberty as reflected in the separation of powers, as well as checks and balances; the role of the state in protecting life, liberty, and property; and the constitutional protection of the rights of minorities — all these were bequeathed to the modern world by Christianity.

Whither the West?

Today the West languishes under the violence of abortion and euthanasia, the scourge of homosexual “marriage,” the poverty of humanist materialism, the coercion of socialism, the stranglehold of “public” education, the chaos of judicial activism, and the injustice of a forced racism and sexism. These tyrannies are all the direct result of the abandonment of Biblical Christianity. The Western world has increasingly accepted the proposal of that first modern political liberal, Jean Jacque Rousseau: the state will emancipate you from responsibility to all non-coercive human institutions like the family, church, and business, if only you submit yourself to the coercion of the state. Modern man has been willing to trade away responsibility to the family and church and business for subjugation to an increasingly coercive and violent political order.

We are returning to the classical, pagan world in which the coercive state is the unifying principle for all of life.

The most vicious, violent, and murderous political regimes in the history of mankind have been non- or anti-Christian: the primitive pagan humanism of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, and the sophisticated secular humanism of revolutionary France, the Soviet Union, Red China, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and other modern secular states. Humanism is and always has been a recipe for political terror and tyranny.

The only hope for the return of political liberty and the free society it fosters is a return to orthodox, Biblical Christianity. Christianity is not merely a matrix in which political freedom flourishes; it is the only foundation on which to build a free society.


On the Great Invisible Ideology of Our Time

Excerpted from a lecture scheduled to be delivered at Trinity Evangelical Church, Pratt, Kansas, Sunday, September 30

Today we live in a radically secular culture.  Secularization does not mean that people no longer believe in God.  It means that people no longer believe that God has any interest in culture. “[T]he process of secularization,” states Christopher Dawson, “arises not from the loss of faith but from the loss of social interest in the world of faith. It begins the moment men feel that religion is irrelevant to the common way of life and that society as such has nothing to do with the truths of faith.”[1]

It’s possible for many people in a society to believe in God and Christianity and still live in a secular society.  This is precisely the case in the West, and even in the United States.  Secularization isn’t the conviction that God doesn’t exist (it isn’t the same as theoretical atheism). It’s the idea that God doesn’t exist in any influential way in a society. Secularization is the abolition of the Triune God from everywhere except between anybody’s two ears or, at best, the family, and the church between 10:00 a.m. and noon on Sunday. Secularization means that God and Christianity simply have no official or formal bearing (and in fact practically no bearing at all) on politics, education, art, science, architecture, music, technology, media and so on.

Ironically, this is virtually the same secularization that prevailed in the Marxist regimes like the old Soviet Union.  All them constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion, and, from their own standpoint, this freedom was not a mirage. They meant secularized freedom of religion, the freedom to believe in Jesus privately, perhaps in the family, if timidly, and to attend a state-sanctioned church — just as long as you don’t evangelize or proselytize, just as long as you don’t train your children in the Faith at home or in schools, just as long as you don’t bring Jesus into public discourse, just as long as you don’t, well, act like a Christian where anybody can see you. This is not that much different from secularization in the West. Secularization here is an “invisibility strategy”: “Your Christianity is fine, just as long as nobody sees it.”

In Marxist (and Islamic) regimes, Christians are persecuted. In Western regimes, they are not persecuted, at least not in any active, political way. Rather, their faith is marginalized. Christianity is pressed to the margins of life by secularism’s “invisibility strategy,” but invisibility plays another and related role: secularism itself is an “invisible ideology.”  That is, a belief so widespread that it no longer needs to be defended or even held tenaciously. Almost everybody holds it, and to believe differently is not so much to be opposed as to be ignored. Racial equality (for example) is an invisible ideology (it also happens to be Biblically correct). People today in the West who claim that Whites or Asians are superior to Blacks or Hispanics aren’t persecuted; they are ignored as kooks and cranks.  Yet 250 years ago, this was an idea that was hotly disputed in the populace, including by educated elites.  By contract, if you say today that marijuana should be legalized, you’ll get a real fight on your hands.  That’s because pot legalization is not an invisible ideology like racial equality is.

Secularization is one of the great invisible ideologies of our time, and perhaps the chief one. If you contend that Christianity in the West should govern science and music and politics and education and sports and architecture and music (say, like it did 400 years ago), people will say, in effect, “This is the kind of arrangement they have in Islamic societies; nobody here believes that. Please get a life and leave the rest of us alone.  You’re delusional.” The fact that it’s secularists who would have been deemed delusional 400 years ago shows how invisible ideologies can change dramatically over time.  In 1612 Christian culture was the rule. In 2012 it is not an exception; it is unthinkable.

[1]Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (London, 1960), 19.


Our Political Battles Choose Us — We Don’t Get to Choose Them

I promised Uri Brito, a friend, pastor and zealot for Jesus Christ that I’d respond to his irenic post on political strategy. I told Uri’s fine congregation last May that if I lived in Pensacola, I’d attend his church just to hear (and watch) him sing.  What a rare and gifted man of God.

Uri and I agree on most issues: (1) that conservative Christians shouldn’t be wedded inextricably to the Republican Party; (2) that conservative Christians aren’t required to abandon the Republican Party; (3) that bomb-lobbers on all sides of political disputes should cool their jets; (4) that cultural dominion by cataclysm is a dead end — and un-Biblical to boot; (5) that Abraham Kuyper is a suitably paradigmatic figure in the formation of a Christian social theory; (6) that God is on our side and that Jesus’ kingdom will triumph before the Second Advent (postmillennialism); and (7) that “[w]e need more virtuous Christian dialogue.” Uri himself models that dialogue.

I believe there are only a couple of areas in which we’d disagree:

(1).  That “the economic and moral journey of the Republican Party in the last 30 years [is judged] to be abysmal.” Economically, Republicans have spent at times nearly as eagerly as Democrats (George W. Bush was especially reckless in this regard), but in my view the Republicans have become vastly more Biblical in their moral positions (and I must mention that economics, too, is a moral issue) than 40 years ago. It’s imperative to recall that the Republican Party in the late 60’s and early 70’s was dominated by The Eastern Establishment (Nelson Rockefeller), mild Midwesterners (Gerald Ford and Eisenhower types) and anti-Communist foreign policy realists (Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger). Barry Goldwater had been crushed by Lyndon Johnson in 1964.  He was basically a libertarian — including on social issues, supporting abortion, in fact (later in life he lamented that the Party has fallen in to the hands of “religious kooks” and defended gay marriage). The point is that no serious Republican presidential contender from 1950 to 1980 (Reagan in 1976 excepted) could be a contender in the Republican Party today.  Since Reagan, the party has become vastly more Biblical and outspoken on most social issues, largely the result of the burgeoning Southern influence on the Party. Reagan himself evolved into a more Biblically shaped conservative during his presidency. So, I find it hard to see how “the . . .  moral journey of the Republican Party in the last 30 years [has been] abysmal.” If anything, they are headed in the “right” direction, though I do hope that Paul Ryan’s principles of severely limited spending will prevail.

I should mention too that almost all of these Republicans have been hawks. Pre-World War II Republicans were often doves (“non-interventionists”), but the threat of European fascism and global communism pressed the party into a more aggressive foreign policy, just as the Vietnam War moved a previously hawkish Democratic Party into dovish dithers. Reagan’s aggressively hawkish policy toward communism helped spell its demise, so at least that policy seems to have been pragmatically justified on the greatest existential threat to the United States (and the world) in the 20th century. It is also, in my view, Biblically justified, holding as I do the validity of the crusade and preventive war (see Harold O. J. Brown’s contribution), not to traditional Just War Theory, which tends to be shaped by natural law, not the Bible. That thorny discussion I must leave for another time!

(2) I don’t believe we have the luxury of sitting out a vote just because we’re annoyed by the deep failings of the candidate most manifesting Christian-influenced policies.  God calls us to be faithful in the situation in which he places us. And that means working within the system in which he places us — as long as we don’t sin in doing it. This is why it was impermissible for Moses’ parents to collude in infanticide but permissible for the son for whom they risked their lives to be reared as a pagan emperor’s son.  This is why it was impermissible for the three Hebrew boys to worship an idol but permissible for them to serve a pagan king. This is why it was impermissible for Daniel to avoid public prayer but permissible of him to rule a pagan kingdom. It seems this is one of the main points Jim Jordan was trying to make recently.

My view on what godly voting looks like in a traditional two-party constitutional democracy explains more specifically why I don’t believe we can just sit out significant elections, but I respect devout Christians like Uri who might disagree.