Classical Liberalism, Consistently Christian

Because I’m a long-time friend of David Bahnsen and long-time fan of National Review, I’ll address briefly Pastor Douglas Wilson’s (mild) criticism of both. My chief impetus, however, is to reassert the Christian assumptions behind classical liberalism, the underlying (though not exclusive) political philosophy of the American Founding under withering assault by modern “progressives” (Cultural Marxists) and suffering surprising potshots from the illiberal nationalist conservatives. A striking clearinghouse for the latter is First Things, which under Rusty Reno’s editorship has turned into the opposite of what Richard John Neuhaus launched it to be: an explicitly Christian organ for classical liberalism. It’s now an explicitly (but inconsistently) Christian organ for classical illiberalism, that is, the sort of illiberalism traditionally practiced by both Catholics and Protestants attempting to weigh the state in their favor and deprive their religious competitors (Christian or not) of religious liberty. It was this classical illiberalism that classical liberalism was created to replace in the first place, after Europe’s tragic Thirty Years’ War (of Religions).

For his part, Pastor Wilson wants to distinguish Christian classical liberalism from secular classical liberalism. The latter is oxymoronic. I think what he wants to say is that what passes today in some quarters for classical liberalism is simply secularism living off the capital of classical liberalism. In fact, he does also say this. But this is not secular classical liberalism. Classical liberalism is conceptually Christian.

It developed as a unique convergence of three main ideational streams: (1) generic Protestant Christianity; (2) the British common law tradition; and (3) the conservative (British) wing of the Enlightenment (as opposed to the radical French wing). It was articulated by thinkers like Hume, Locke, and Adam Smith. It consists of eight bedrock principles (on which I don’t have space to expand): (1) individual liberty, (2) religious liberty, (3) separation of powers, (4) protection for minorities, (5) property rights, (6) Protestant openness to cautious experimental change, (7) universal morality, and (8) religio-cultural virtue. It was Christianity, in large part, which furnished the rationale for the unique combination of these exceptional characteristics. In this sense, it’s proper to refer to the Founding as Christian: not explicitly or officially, but conceptually and attitudinally. The Founders relied on ancient Greco-Roman ideas also, of course, but their unique experiment in liberty was framed within a generic Protestantism many of them took for granted, whether they professed an orthodox Christianity or not (most of them did). It was not secular. Not even close.

Pastor Wilson advocates both the original and American revisions of the mid-17th century Westminster Confession of Faith as they pertain to church-state relations. Both limit religious liberty to Christians and potentially withdraw it from non-Christians. The original confession was hammered out in England by Protestants living within the conflagrations of church-state conflict. This conflict included the presence of a national Protestant church (Anglicanism). It’s not possible simply to decontextualize this document and plant its views on church-state relations into the American political experiment without further ado.

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As an example of the attempt to do this, Pastor Wilson writes: “America must have an official faith. At our Founding, it was the Christian faith.” Well, no. The Founders emphatically avoided an official religious faith. All of the states had a Christian establishment of some sort, and some preserved established churches well into the 19th century. What they wished to avoid was an established national church whose political privileges many of them had to come to oppose and fear. Even had they attempted a national religious establishment, the states would never have ratified the Constitution. They didn’t want the Feds messing with their state religious establishments. Almost all of the Founders took for granted that Christianity was the dominant faith in the colonies at the time and would be in the foreseeable future. They shaped the Founding institutions on that assumption: transcendent, divine law; the dignity of the individual created in God’s image; human sinfulness; and so forth. They knew that it wasn’t necessary to create an officially recognized faith for a culture to be Christian; they soon lived within one. In fact, well into the 19th century the nation was largely Christian, apart from any national official religious establishment, though far from a perfect Christian culture (as slavery so painfully proves). So when Pastor Wilson writes …

David Bahnsen is exactly right that there is no neutrality. But this truth extends beyond private agents, beyond individuals. There is also no neutrality for corporate actors either—whether we are talking about corporations like Google, or nations like the United States. Each individual must give an account of himself, and each corporate entity that acts in the world must also give that same kind of account. By what standard? So of course David French fights for religious liberty in the way he does because there is no neutrality in his life. But we need to do more than that. We need to point out that there can be no neutrality in America’s life either. We make decisions with moral implications, just like individuals do, and we have to give an account for them, just like individuals do. It is therefore our responsibility as Christians to call America, in her corporate capacity, to repentance and faith…

… he need not (and should not) have in mind an officially recognized Christianity in the U.S. or, for that matter, the states. Pastor Wilson implicitly chides David Bahnsen for failing to suggest that religious non-neutrality extends beyond individuals. But David’s point was that the fact that there’s no cultural neutrality does not mean there should be a lack of procedural neutrality, a structural, as opposed to substantive, pluralism. This simply means that, as classical liberalism holds, a society can and should be grounded in religious truth while providing a framework within which all people of all religious viewpoints can equally live in peace.

A Tale of Two Pluralisms

Consistent Christianity embraces one chief definition of pluralism but not the other. We must distinguish between structural pluralism and substantive pluralism. Christianity supports structural pluralism, a cornerstone of classical liberalism. This is the view that the structure of a society, and especially the state, should not be tilted to advantage Christians or adherents or any other religion or worldview. For example, the state should not issue quotas for religious adherents in the labor force, should not require that only one religion be explicated in government or education, should not dictate that anyone become a Christian or any other religion or life-system, or punish anyone for apostasy from that religion or life-system (as, for instance, Islam does). Structural pluralism creates a level legal playing field of society.

Christianity supports structural pluralism because it relies on the power of the Holy Spirit and (subordinately) human persuasion for its success. Individuals come to Christianity by faith, a voluntary act of trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (Romans 10:9–11). Christianity is willing to have a society comprised also of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, New Agers, and atheists because it does not need the coercive power of the state to win converts. This is why Christianity has been at the forefront of constitutional democracy and the liberties it affords.  Christianity is a religion of peace (Acts 10:36), and it can afford for the structure of a society to be pluralistic; Christianity is not a statist or coercive religion.

However, Christianity does not countenance substantive pluralism. This is the idea that multiple, mutually exclusive worldviews, religions, and ethical standards can peacefully coexist only the grounds that none is entirely correct, all containing truth and contributing to the beautiful “mosaic” of a “diverse” society. No religion or other worldview should hold its views too strongly, knowing that each is only relatively valid. Belief itself, not merely the political structure within which a belief is practiced, is pluralistic. The social pests, therefore, are those who insist that their own view is right. They are troublemakers, because they lead people to believe that one specific way (their way) is right and all others are wrong. Substantive pluralism, by its very nature, is relativist.

Neutrality: No and Yes

In Christianity, because nothing substantive can be neutral, some things must be structurally neutral. God’s moral law requires just (equal) weights and balances (Leviticus 19:35–36). Neither rich nor poor may be privileged or de-privileged in court (Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15). The law applies equally to citizens and foreigners (Leviticus 19:34). In short, justice must be blind. The legal playing field must be level. Christianity, therefore, espouses procedural equality, not consequential equality. It was just this version of structural pluralism that classical liberalism adapted from Protestantism’s insistence or individual liberty and the Bible’s demand for procedural neutrality (if we want to use the term in this context).

Must National Review “Come To Jesus”?

Grasping this basic distinction will help defang Pastor Wilson’s patronizing verdict:

National Review needs to come to Jesus. Whether or not it is possible for the United States to become a Christian nation again (it is), we should all agree that it possible for NR to become a Christian magazine.

If nothing else, the verdict is strangely ill timed. Since he has been a decades-long reader (as I have), he certainly must have noticed that the magazine is more Christian in content now that at any time in its history. David Bahnsen himself as a board member of NR Institute illustrates that fact. Pastor Wilson doesn’t tell us how NR should become a Christian, or an even more Christian, magazine. By putting Christian in its name? Surely not, for a magazine the pastor himself once published (Credenda Agenda) did not have Christian in its name, yet it was certainly Christian. Must all writers be professing Christians? That would likely describe Sojourners, leading magazine of the evangelical Left, but somehow I get the impression that’s not the sort of Christian magazine the pastor is envisioning. It seems to me that what he really wants is a magazine that conforms to Christian presuppositions, but if so, in large measure that is what NR has done for decades and is increasingly doing, even if it includes a handful of non-Christian contributors. Non-Christian contributors do not necessarily produce a secular magazine any more than alleged Christian contributors necessarily create a Christian magazine. The fundamental factor in a Christian institution is its worldview. And, by and large, NR reflects such a worldview: a moral society, ordered liberty, economic freedom, negotiated politics, etc. It’s the reality, not the profession, that’s vital. Christian friends of mine own businesses (employing non-Christians) that exhibit Christian business ethics. They’re not professedly or officially Christian businesses, but they are no less Christian businesses. If, similarly, to “come to Jesus” means significant conformity to Christian truth in the realm of socio-cultural and political discourse, that’s just what NR does.

As the (non-Christian) editor Charles Cooke’s devastating comments make clear in the recent NR “The Editors” podcast “Define Your Terms,” the actual target of Christian illiberals like Sohrab Ahmari at First Things is the illiberalism of the “progressives”: “You must bake a cake for my wedding even if you believe marriage is between one man and one woman”; “You must fund my abortion with your tax dollars even if you believe life begins at conception”; “You must grant me the freedom of expression to deprive your freedom of expression if I don’t agree with your Christian (or conservative) viewpoint.” The Christian illiberals like Sohrab Ahmari (and Pastor Wilson? Is he politically illiberal? I’m honestly not sure) are right to oppose this Leftist illiberalism. But the solution isn’t a revived Christian illiberalism, which is — or should be — a contradiction of terms.

David Bahnsen and a number of other folks at NR and I hold our position not because our Christianity is weak, but because it is strong enough to invite all competitors onto a level playing field. We don’t need a coercive politics to protect us.

This is precisely what classical liberalism has always taught.


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