The Author of Liberty
Readers of this magazine certainly value liberty. Libertarians tend to likewise value science, progress, individualism and reason. This essay is intended to present a case to those who love these values that they, among many other aspects of western civilization, are actually fruits of the historic Judeo-Christian tradition. This implies that the best (and ultimately the only) way to sustain these values is to recognize their dependence on this faith tradition. Of course, there are many other more personal reasons libertarians (and others) should acknowledge and love God, but discussion of those will be left to other venues.
Many thinkers and writers have defended this basic thesis over the ages, three of the most notable being Burke, Tocqueville and Acton. Lord Acton, the Roman Catholic historian and scholar, devoted his life to the study of liberty, believing its development to be “the soul of history” (1). He found the first example of political liberty among the ancient Israelites in the days before its demand for a king (ca. 1050 B.C., see I Samuel 8) and proceeded to trace its development through its revival in ancient Greece and further development in Rome and later in Europe during the Middle Ages up to his own late 19th century England (2). An excellent modern defense which draws on the contribution of these and others has been given by M. Stanton Evans in his book The Theme Is Freedom (Regnery, 1994).
There are a number of reasons why many libertarians have resisted acknowledging the dependence of these western values on the tradition of faith in God. The influential libertarian thinker and novelist Ayn Rand, an atheist, saw the church along with the state as being the two primary enemies of individualism. Here Rand partakes of the Enlightenment belief that the church is on the side of anti-reason (e.g. Voltaire’s belief that the Roman Catholic Church was the “bastion of irrationality”). This view also includes the modern perception that the “Religious Right” wants to coerce morality (and more generally that religion leads to authoritarianism). The fact that the church has been a source (though by no means the only source) of evil, suppression and denial of liberties during its history is used as evidence that religion, in principle, must be antithetical to liberty. Also influential is the postmodern view that Christianity is merely a means of coercion and social control. In summary, many libertarians perceive religion in general, and Christianity in particular, to be an enemy of liberty, reason, science, progress and individualism.
This mistaken dichotomy is explored in detail by Evans. He discusses “The Liberal History Lesson,” to which many libertarians unfortunately subscribe, and which reinforces their distaste for all things religious. This “lesson” goes something like this:
Our religion and our liberty have always been in conflict. Freedom, democracy and intellectual inquiry flourished in the pagan era, only to be crushed in the Christian Middle Ages. This regime of clerical oppression ended when humanist scholars of the Renaissance and Enlightenment threw off the shackles of religion, rediscovered the learning of the ancients and set modernity on the path to freedom. A regime of liberty therefore requires a secularist, anticlerical view of religious questions. American history is a subset of this larger teaching. Our founding fathers were devotees of the Enlightenment, hostile or skeptical toward ideas of religion, and were radicals who overthrew established institutions, broke with the past and gave expression to Enlightenment notions in declaring independence from Great Britain. Thereafter, in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, they carefully guarded the workings of political society from the influence of religion. Our break with England and constitutional founding are therefore cognates to the French Revolution; a venture in radical innovation, rejecting the authority of religious faith, basing the new republic on secular assumptions (3).
The rest of Evans’ book is a carefully researched and well-written refutation of this myth.
One bit of evidence that something strange is going on is related by Evans as follows. "That biblical teaching was the formative influence in the creation of Europe, and that Europe was the nursery of freedom as we know it, are both established facts of record" (4). Taken separately, these two assertions are prosaic and widely accepted, but taken together, they become oddly controversial, since the implication that Christianity = Europe = liberty challenges the central tenet of "The Liberal History Lesson," which is that liberty and religion are opposing forces.
Evans addresses a question I’ve had for some time. How did classical liberalism, which favored liberty, morph itself into modern liberalism, a perversion of the term which favors centralized planning and power along with all manner of massive intervention into the lives of citizens? His answer is moral relativism. He summarizes the central thesis of the Enlightenment as follows: If belief in religious absolutes implies repression, it follows that denial of such absolutes will lead to freedom. This relativism, he believes, is the beginning of tyranny. Hume's empiricism stated that anything that can't be verified by experimental science must be discarded. This would include any idea of moral absolutes, which are unprovable. This is the origin of scientific relativism. Hume's intellectual descendants are logical positivists, pragmatists and behaviorists (5). The equation of relativism with tolerance, and thus with liberty, is a commonplace of modern wisdom (6). The key to understanding this linkage is that relativism inevitably leads to the rejection of the significance, dignity and freedom of the individual and idealizes force (i.e. the state) as the arbiter of "right" (might makes right). By giving up the essential, but unprovable, idea of moral absolutes, society must eventually revert to the pre-Christian, pagan (and Nietzschean) glorification of might over weakness, domination over cooperation and the omnipotent state over the mere individual.
The author uses the historical record to illustrate how, contrary to liberal claims, relativist assumptions lead to authoritarian outcomes. He states that the denial of this linkage "has been a chief objective of the modern intellect since the latter part of the 17th century, issuing in ingenious theories that try to develop a case for human freedom or limited government on a strictly rational basis. This has been, in fact, the distinctive feature of liberalism in all its guises, from the Whigs and utilitarians of a bygone era to the welfare staters of our own" (7). These may all be understood as attempts to preserve some aspects of the cultural heritage of the West from "the corrosive effects of relativism and irreligion. In the case of the classical liberal theorists, from Locke to Herbert Spencer, the freedom sought was comprehensive, including property rights and economic liberties. In the case of their modern successors, the idea of economic freedom has long since been discarded, but an attempt has been made to rescue 'civil liberties' from the ruin of all value" (8). Although Locke was himself a Christian, he claimed that man's basic nature can be shown to lead logically to a regime of freedom (i.e. that an appeal to religion is not necessary to make this case). What Locke, Spencer, Mill, Holmes and other classical liberals did was to take "for granted the beliefs and values they inherited from Western culture, imagining that they were not dependent on religious belief for their support" (9). Far from being limited to the political realm, "the extent to which this kind of thinking has occurred in Western intellectual history is remarkable. It applies to philosophy, ethics, human nature, techniques of government, science, economics, and a good deal more. In all these cases, liberal theorists have taken ideas or practices resulting from the distinctive religious culture of the West and tried to set them up as self-validating propositions, assuming they could be established solely on an intellectual basis" (10).
The author shows that purely rationalist approaches (e.g. utilitarianism) lead to inevitable slippage, beginning as essentially libertarian and free market oriented and ending by supporting increasing levels of state compulsion. John Stuart Mill, the most famous 19th century liberal of them all, began as an ardent promoter of free markets and the limited state, but later morphed with astonishing ease into a socialist. Even Mill seemed to sense that if everything is relative (which he came to believe was the case), then the principle that "might makes right" will ultimately prevail and freedom, along with all other traditional Western values (or any values, for that matter), could no longer be protected. He optimistically believed that Christian values were so deeply rooted in the human consciousness that they could no longer ever really be lost. Another eminent classical liberal, Oliver Wendell Holmes, also became convinced of relativism, writing to William James, "I can't help preferring champagne to ditch water; I doubt if the universe does" (11). Like Mill, Holmes relied optimistically on the "educated sympathy" of the people to dampen the brutality of the inevitable "might makes right" regime.
I take this to be a credible explanation as to what happened to classical liberalism, causing it to morph slowly but inexorably into the virtual opposite of its original ideal. Sadly, this explanation also predicts further erosion of support for human liberty in the future from those in the tradition of the Enlightenment (i.e. in the sense of denying the need for religion and tradition in support of liberty) (12). If modern libertarians are understood as being in the Enlightenment-based classical liberal tradition thus defined, their role is clarified as merely being fighters of a rear-guard action to return to the ideals of an earlier age, to get back to the fundamental principles of a Locke or Holmes. However, the key point here is that this will do no good in the long term unless the cause of the slippage they are battling is understood and corrected. That is to say that libertarians must not be moral relativists, but must affirm the absolute truth of certain moral postulates, such as the significance, dignity and freedom of the individual and the existence of a source of law higher than any human embodiment. While these moral absolutes are not provable in a scientific sense (although their relationship to liberty is certainly demonstrable in a historical sense, which Evans and others have shown), their affirmation is essential for the rehabilitation and continued existence of liberty.
Evans is sympathetic to the libertarian view, believing the traditionalist vs. libertarian debate is a false one, with both camps being important parts of true conservatism and not contradictory. However, he feels that conservatives should be the ones to press this case today, since "skepticism about moral absolutes, a rationalist approach to social problems and an optimistic view of human nature are considered essential features of a libertarian outlook" (the author's positive use of the term 'libertarian' indicates he doesn't share this view).
One result of this confusion has been the idea that one cannot promote both liberty and virtue. Doug Bandow of the CATO Institute has noted that “many people who consider freedom the preeminent political objective perceive support for virtue to be an implicit call for restrictive new laws. More than a few advocates of virtue treat a vigorous defense of liberty like the promotion of vice” (13). The mistaken view that these two goods are mutually exclusive or at least antagonistic is represented by the growing strains between libertarians and social conservatives. He views this as a false dichotomy, since neither liberty nor virtue is likely to survive alone. “Liberty is a necessary precondition of virtue,” and “virtue is ultimately necessary for the survival of liberty.” Acknowledging that both freedom and virtue are under serious assault in America today, Bandow lays primary blame on the changing mores of the people. As more and more people reject moral absolutes and adopt the relativistic view that moral issues are a matter of mere personal taste, the moral underpinnings of many laws promoting virtue and punishing vice are collapsing, followed by the laws themselves. The solution, according to both Bandow and Robert A. Sirico (the author of the paper for which Bandow wrote this introduction) and contrary to some conservatives, is not more government coercion. Bandow gives three reasons why government should not be used to enforce virtue (even assuming one could pass such laws without changing America’s moral ethic). To do so would:
- deprive individuals of the opportunity to exercise virtue
- shortchange other institutions (e.g. family, church), sapping their vitality
- encourage abuse by majorities or influential minorities that gain power
Instead of looking to ever-expanding government, the solution to America’s slide away from freedom and virtue must be found in a rebuilding of the social consensus regarding virtue and its relation to liberty. But this strengthening of civil society will only be possible with a drastically smaller role for government and its coercive enforcement methods. “People need to be more willing to tolerate the quirks and failings, even serious lapses of virtue among their neighbors, as long as such actions have only limited effect on others. People should criticize and even ostracize, where appropriate, but leave the punishment of most sins to God” (14). In many cases, the free market process itself can encourage virtuous behavior. As Father Sirico notes, “the free market, as any entrepreneur knows, can function from time to time as a moral tutor by fostering rule-keeping, honesty, respect for others, and courage” (15).
In his review of Evans’ book (Render Unto God, Liberty, July 1995, p. 55), Leland B. Yeager agrees with many of Evans’ points on a piecemeal basis, but finds his overall position too stark, being, “like the putative ‘liberal’ history he attacks, a product of selection and emphasis.” Yeager sees room for views rivaling both. He is convinced that modern science derives from ancient Greece and was indeed thwarted by religion in the Middle Ages (i.e. that this part of the “myth” is correct). But even supposing Evans is substantially correct in his thesis that our modern liberty is a fruit of the western Judeo-Christian tradition, Yeager asks whether the actual route to our free institutions is the only possible route? The historical links between religion and freedom do not prove the truth of religion or the uniqueness of that route to liberty. Should intellectuals, who are supposed to value truth above all else, be expected to preach merely expedient doctrines as if they were true? Referring to Evans’ support of the Judeo-Christian tradition in its support for liberty, Yeager asks “how can one attach great importance to religious doctrine and still straddle between those two religions? The divinity and redemptive mission of Jesus Christ are scarcely unessential details of Christianity.” He then criticizes the idea promoted by Evans (and others) that societies build up moral capital derived from religious sources and that, in a post-religious age, this moral capital, while being drawn down, can support continued virtuous operation of the society for a time, even after the moral bases for such operation have been eroded or destroyed. His complaint is that this argument serves to immunize the necessity-of-religion thesis against counterevidence (i.e. nonreligious libertarians and conservatives and societies where morality apparently flourishes without religious consensus), thus causing the thesis to lose its substance. He concludes by reminding us that libertarianism is a political philosophy and that, even if we don’t all agree on liberty’s foundations, we can and should still work together to promote it as our common political goal.
In another article responding to Evans’ book (Faith and Freedom, Liberty, January 1996), Jane Shaw is sympathetic to Evans’ main claim that religion (in particular the affirmation of certain moral absolutes) is essential to lasting freedom. She notes the similarity of Evans’ message to that of F. A. Hayek, who, although an agnostic personally, affirmed (in The Fatal Conceit) the "undoubted historical connection between religion and the values that have shaped and furthered our civilization.” Shaw fears, however, that faith cannot withstand the continuing assault of modern science. In particular, she says, Darwinism “undermines belief in God, because it eliminates the necessity of believing that something greater than humans exists.” Although some elements within Christianity have made peace with Darwin in the form of some form of theistic evolution, they tend to be the declining mainstream denominations, while the expanding churches tend to reject Darwinian evolution. She cites author D. F. Bratchell as summarizing the fundamental issue as “whether there is a motivating force or organizing principle behind the evolutionary process, or whether the apparently blind chance of natural selection is the only explanation.” Darwin held the latter position. Shaw summarizes the current debate between neo-Darwinism and Intelligent Design theory, hoping for the sake of liberty that the latter triumphs. She herself remains skeptical, however, largely as a result of her reading of Hayek. She understands the chief goal of Hayek’s intellectual life to have been to “persuade people to stop thinking that human beings designed the social systems they lived under, and to recognize instead that these orders developed spontaneously, without design, over time. As long as people believe these systems were designed by a human mind, they will consciously try to redesign them. The result will be socialism, in one or another variant.” Although Hayek was careful to distinguish between biological and cultural evolution, which develop via unlearned genetic vs. learned characteristics, respectively, he observed that “all evolution is a process of continuous adaptation to unforseeable events.” Shaw notes that if this process can explain social systems (which Hayek says it can), perhaps it can also explain biological phenomena. And if there is no designer of social systems, perhaps there is also no designer of life itself. Hayek suggested that people view “God” as the personification of the moral tradition, but worried that most people need to believe in a personalized diety. In an age when faith in God is seen as superstition, he feared (as does Shaw) that people will seek this source of order in “society” through some form of socialism. She concludes by quoting Hayek: “On that question may rest the survival of our civilization.”
Yeager sees Evans’ argument as a product of selection and emphasis. He sees room for views rivaling both the “liberal history lesson” and Evans’ opposition views. Where is that Hegelian synthesis when we need it? Perhaps there are other ways of framing the debate, but it is difficult to imagine a third way on Evans’ main point; affirming the existence of moral absolutes or relativist slippage. Either there are moral absolutes or there are not. Either man is worthy of liberty or he is not. Either our sense of morality is God-given or it is not. In the latter case, we could debate whether it is a construct of conscious human design or, following Hayek’s suggestion, it is the undesigned heritage of eons of evolutionary human development, but either way, lacking a basis higher than humanity, force must eventually become the final arbiter of right and good. Yeager’s line of argument here seems reminiscent of the agnostic’s desire to avoid the extremes of either outright theism or atheism. The problem with this approach is its unwillingness to recognize the crucial stakes on such questions. God has apparently designed reality in a way that makes belief or unbelief the crucial nexus determining widespread consequences for both individuals and societies. This idea sheds new light on the scriptural declaration that “where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Corinthians 3:17).
Yeager argues that the apparent historical linkage between religion and freedom does not prove the truth of religion or the uniqueness of that route to liberty, and he chafes at the suggestion that intellectuals, who are supposed to value truth above all else, should preach merely expedient doctrines as if they were true. But this line of argument ignores half of what Evans and the others are saying. The point is not only that our religious tradition led to our freedom, but also that all attempts to secure liberty and other western values on a purely secular, rationalist, intellectual basis and without the benefit of any religious foundation have failed or are in the process of failing due to slippage. This is far from being merely a theoretical point of academic interest. We are living at a time when our western values are under assault and often appear to be hanging in the balance, with open challenges being made to (and many victories being scored against) liberty, reason, science, individualism and progress. Given this history of failure to defend liberty and the other values on purely secular, rationalist, intellectual grounds, Yeager’s casual suggestion that there must be other ways to liberty seems hollow and unlikely to yield success. Furthermore, Evans is not asking intellectuals to promote an expedient theory they disbelieve. Rather, he is reminding them (and us) that beliefs lead to consequences, that western values are consequences of belief in God and illiberal values are consequences of unbelief. Any intellectual interested in the truth should indeed examine the historical record, but without the anti-religious (and more broadly, anti-western civilization) bias so prevalent in the academy today. While the truth of religion has been beyond the ability of science to verify (and will likely continue to be so), it should by now be clear to us that societal (and individual) values important to us must ultimately rest upon such unprovable axioms, and that rejection of such axioms will inevitably lead to the loss of liberty and everything else we value.
Yeager criticizes Evans’ (and others’) use of the idea of a society’s “moral capital” as a way to explain the continuing inertia of societal order and good, even long after their sources have been abandoned. His complaint is that this line of argument tends to immunize the religion-is-necessary argument against all opposition, since it can always be claimed as the past source of good. Here Yeager is invoking the scientific principle that, for a hypothesis to be useful it must be refutable. Actually, Evans and others have offered a refutable historical case for the linkage between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the values of the west. History didn’t have to turn out the way it did. One important use of history is as a sort of long-term experiment giving information on what does or does not “work” in human societies. Christian western European society might have yielded tyranny and despotism, but it didn’t. Other non-Christian societies might have led to freedom, individualism and so on, but they didn’t.
Yeager suggests we should put aside our differences of opinion about the foundations of liberty and fight together for the results we all want. I sympathize with this suggestion and support it in general. Indeed, for many aspects of the struggle for liberty, philosophical and religious differences can be set aside in the great American tradition of coalition-building. However, it is critical in my view that the libertarian movement not be explicitly tied to atheism or the type of failed past attempts to secure liberty on purely secular, rationalist or intellectual grounds. I suspect that one reason the movement hasn’t seen more growth is the perception by many religious people that these (perhaps implicit) ties exist. There is, after all, a very large audience for the (in my view, true) message that God is the author of liberty and not only wants us to be free, but designed reality in such a way that freedom works best. While atheistic libertarianism will indeed alienate most Americans (myself included), there are other, more fundamental reasons for libertarians to reject it. Rejection of God is not only false, but destructive to us as individuals and as a society. A key lesson of both scripture and history is that the penalties of ignoring God are many and severe. Godlessness always has and always will lead to lives filled with cynicism, despair and apathy and societies characterized by oppression, brutality and the rule of raw force. This stands in stark contrast to the faith, hope and love made possible for individuals by belief in God, and leading to societies characterized by freedom, justice, respect for individuals and progress.
Another cause of anti-religious sentiment is the postmodernist view of the church as merely being a means of social control. In this view, the church is seen as an unofficial and perhaps unwitting appendage of the state in enforcing the views of the majority (or at least the power elite) on the masses. Postmodernists reject any truth claim (with the notable exception of their own claim that truth is relative) as merely part of the “will to power” of those clawing for control. They all agree that “might makes right,” differing only in their reactions of either celebration or despair, depending on how they see the prospects of their own cause in the struggle for dominance. This view is, in fact, a frank reassertion of the old pagan acquiescence to raw power as the only proper principle of authority and is an unsurprising development in an age of increasing disbelief. Many libertarians have warned of the postmodernist threat to liberty and other western values such as science, reason and progress, but don’t seem to fully appreciate the intimate connection of this phenomenon to outright rejection of God and religious principles. Fortunately, this appears to be something of a fringe movement, so far mostly confined to the intellectually trendy halls of the academy.
Yeager disputes Evans’ view of science as a fruit of Christianity by expressing his agreement with the seemingly prevailing view that science was born in ancient Greece, was thwarted during the Middle Ages by the Church and is antithetical to Christianity. But this ongoing debate among historians is simply the mirror image for science of the case Evans presents for liberty. While Evans examines in detail how the “Liberal History Lesson” has distorted the true relationship between religion and liberty, he notes that this same corrosive process has been applied to nearly every area of western intellectual activity, including science. That is to say, although modern science is in fact one of the many fruits of Christian western civilization, there has been an ongoing effort to divorce it from religion and even to claim the two as enemies. The basis for this effort has been the assumption that the scientific enterprise could be founded on purely self-validating, intellectual and rationalistic grounds. The fallacy of this assumption can be seen in increasingly hostile post-modernist attacks on the validity of scientific findings, which deny any objective truth to them and assert that they are nothing more than expressions of the will to power. Indeed, in the standard materialist view, why should we think man’s thoughts, being mere random brain secretions, have any relationship to reality.
The eminent Catholic thinker and writer G. K. Chesterton has much to say on the relationship of faith to reason and science. In his book Orthodoxy, he writes:
It is idle to talk of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, “why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape.” The young sceptic says, “I have a right to think for myself.” But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”
Chesterton is making the point that the enterprises of science and, more generally, reason itself rely on certain basic unprovable yet essential axioms. These include the existence of a rational, objective reality and the human ability to understand it. The perspectives of both faith in God and radical skepticism were present in ancient Greece, as they are today, the latter being particularly evident in postmodernist and deconstructionist denials of objective truth. What is true for liberty is also true for science, both require the existence of basic postulates, which, due to their unprovable nature, must be based on religious claims and subscribed to by faith. While misguided medieval religious leaders did occasionally dispute and even attempt to suppress the findings of science, it is important to understand these actions as deriving from their own very human motivations, and it is a gross distortion to see true (as opposed to organized) religion as an enemy, since science, along with reason, liberty and other western values ultimately depends upon faith in God.
In addition to the corporate, societal need for faith in God to support science, reason and liberty, Chesterton makes an interesting observation on the result of pure rationalism (one possible consequence of unbelief) to an individual personality.
There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. I am not attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. He is the man who has lost everything except his reason. He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.
He explains that he is here discussing the relation of pure rationalism to health, not to truth. Later in the book, he takes up the case of objective verity. He poses the question asked by so many who, like Yeager, “find the evidence and arguments for religion deficient”; Why not just take the rational, "good" and practical parts of Christianity (e.g. the necessary postulates in support of liberty, science, etc.), and leave the dogma behind? Chesterton admits to being a rationalist in the sense of wanting some intellectual justification for his intuitions. He then summarizes a number of agnostic objections to the Christian faith and, realizing the impossibility of offering in response conclusive scientific proof for such offers a rhetorical, if not scientific, response, as follows (in the interest of space, I’ll brutally summarize these questions and responses):
(1) Humans, in shape, structure and sexuality, are like beasts.
(2) Primeval religion arose in ignorance and fear.
(3) Priests have blighted societies with bitterness and gloom.
(4) Jesus was an ineffectual wimp.
(5) Christianity arose, flourished in the dark ages and would like to return us there.
(6) Strongly religious (superstitious) people (e.g. Irish of his time) are weak, impractical.
(7) The Middle Ages were barbaric.
(8) Darwinism has been conclusively demonstrated.
(9) Miracles do not happen.
(10) Monks were lazy.
(11) Nuns are unhappy.
(12) Christian art was sad and pale.
(13) Modern science is moving away from supernaturalism.
His response to each of these follows:
(1) Observe the towering eccentricity of man.
(2) Notice the universal human tradition of some ancient happiness.
(3) Note the partial perpetuation of pagan joy in Catholic countries.
(4) This is a characteristic of some writings about Jesus, but not of Jesus himself.
(5) Christianity was the only path through the dark ages (our civilization should have vanished at the fall of Rome, like all other previous ones, but it was resurrected in the Renaissance and Enlightenment).
(6) Irish have gotten what they demanded, they are the only Britons not squire-ridden, they’re good at hard professions, e.g. iron, law, soldier.
(7) Largely a myth (e.g. development of English Common Law to protect individuals).
(8) Darwinism is a presuppositional belief system, not a scientific result.
(9) Normally we believe personal testimony, materialists can’t because of their dogma, so they reject the testimony of ordinary people. Due to dogma (mustn't believe an extraordinary event) or elitism (needn't listen to "ordinary" people).
(10) Typically dedicated and industrious (poverty, celibacy, obedience are difficult, not for the lazy).
(11) Happy and content is more typical (e.g. Mother Theresa).
(12) Used peculiarly bright colors and gold gilting, pointed toward eternal happiness.
(13) On the contrary, it is increasingly moving toward it (e.g. the “new physics”).
Summarizing Chesterton’s thesis, he argues that paganism results in small, limited joys, with despair in the big questions of life. In contrast, Christianity results in small, limited despairs, with joy in the big things. Christianity is unattractive (to some) on the outside, but attractive on the inside. In contrast, paganism is attractive on the outside, but unattractive (i.e. dead) on the inside. Like Evans, myself and many others, he maintains that Christian orthodoxy “is not only the only safe guardian of morality or order, but is also the only logical guardian of liberty, innovation and advance.”
Responding to Jane Shaw’s concern that faith will ultimately not be able to withstand the ongoing Darwinian assault, we must understand where science ends and belief or commitment begins. The basic assumption of materialistic naturalism is that natural forces alone must account for all observable phenomena. This commitment is, of course, not itself based on science, but is rather a basic belief or presupposition on the part of many (but not all) scientists. A basic strategy of the Intelligent Design movement (and one which it has effectively pressed) is to expose this prior commitment by materialists for what it is, dispelling the common misconception that science proves undirected, random naturalism. Interestingly, there is some practical value for practicing scientists in holding this presupposition (while fully understanding it to be such), since it disciplines the scientist to confront mysterious aspects of the universe with persistent rational analysis, resisting the urge to resignedly attribute such mysteries to God. The modern confusion has resulted from this pragmatic working principle being elevated to the status of an axiomatic “truth.” The thinker and writer George Gilder likes to call this the “materialist superstition,” a clever turn of phrase that appropriately redirects the very charge made by committed materialists toward religious believers back in their own direction.
Yeager charges that the Judeo-Christian tradition cannot be allowed to play a major role in the defense of liberty due to the substantial doctrinal differences between Judaism and Christianity, particularly on their respective views of Jesus Christ. But remember that the hope for the coming Messiah has always been central in Judaism, and this centrality exactly parallels the core Christian conviction about the “divinity and redemptive mission of Jesus Christ.” Exactly when the Messiah entered (or will enter) human history can be seen to shrink to detail status (i.e. as merely a human difference of opinion on how God is working out his purposes) when compared with the common recognition of Creation, the Fall and God’s ongoing redemptive purpose for his creation. Both halves of the tradition strongly affirm God’s higher law, the dignity and significance of individual human beings as a result of bearing God’s own image and His ongoing providential guidance of his creation using methods we understand only dimly, if at all.
As to proving the truth of religion (or, likewise, the rightness of liberty, science, individualism and progress) by purely rationalistic means, I am convinced that this will never be possible. It seems that God requires humans to choose from among various unprovable postulates, presumably since human faith is so important to him. Ayn Rand understandably tried to sidestep this problem (the unprovable and, in her view, irrational nature of religious claims) by basing the case for individual liberty on purely secular objectivist grounds. Unfortunately, like all other attempts to provide a purely rationalist or intellectual basis for agreement, it must fail due to the differing conclusions reached by people, each of whom believe they are using objective, rational arguments (and so they may be, but starting from different presuppositions). This is easy to see today in the various warring factions within the libertarian/objectivist camp (not to mention those in all other facets of human thought!). The more sinister aspect of this otherwise comical endless wrangling is that, at some point, raw power asserts itself as the only method left of adjudicating differences.
Although I admire Rand’s attempt to base these important values on what she believed to be more solid ground, I fear that once belief in God is abandoned (the only anchor for any concept of unchanging truth), any hope for the long term survival of western values will be drowned in the unending clash of various viewpoints, eventually leading to the rule of the jungle (i.e. might makes right).
The traditional answer to the question of the source of order, both for what is (i.e. what we observe in nature and human behavior e.g. markets and other apparently spontaneously self-ordering systems) and also for normative order, or what should be, is found in the Christian ideas of Creation, Fall and Redemption. Although Jane Shaw sees Hayek’s spontaneously developed “extended order” as indicating a lack of any deity, an alternative, and in my view much better, explanation is that God was at work behind the scenes guiding this development. All libertarians can agree with Hayek that it is dangerous for humans to imagine that existing societal order and norms originated in the human mind, but theists and atheists part ways as to whether the actual source was (and is) random processes involving trial and error or God’s providential guiding hand. We find the same choice in the origin debates. Atheists choose to believe that, whatever the process of biological development, it was guided by blind chance and random processes, while theists choose to believe that God has been at work providing order and direction. The “why” always involves one’s (prescientific) presuppositions. That science has not been able to address (much less definitively answer) the “why” questions has been the source of much frustration by all involved. As a Christian, I suspect that it is part of God’s will that the choice always comes down to faith vs. unbelief. If it could be proven beyond doubt that God exists and is actively involved in his creation, there would be no need for faith. But faith is exactly what God appears to value most in man.
My personal experience bears witness to this frustration with the inability of science to answer the really interesting questions and yet the satisfaction of seeing certain types of questions answered definitively. In high school and early college I concentrated on math and science, assuming I’d pursue a career in technology. In my sophomore year, however, I became disaffected with my pre-engineering studies, fatigued that science and engineering address only questions of practical or pragmatic interest, important but not ultimate. After switching majors and earning a BA degree in philosophy, however, I grew tired of contemplating questions that have no answers (at least none that are objectively provable). These philosophical questions fascinated me and were indeed more significant than any I’d faced in science and engineering, but where were the objective answers? For this reason (and because of better career prospects, I admit!), I switched back to engineering and completed my BSEE and proceeded to spend 15 years working as an engineer in the communications industry. Lately I’ve turned my attention once more back to the philosophical mode of inquiry, reading, pondering and writing about these “first things.”
A trickier issue is the indisputable fact that various religious individuals and organizations over the centuries have committed acts of stupidity and cruelty, at times even allying themselves with the cause of evil and setting themselves against the cause of the good and right (which would include the defense of liberty). Because of the longer history of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and the generally Protestant perspectives of most Americans, the failings of the RCC seem most obvious to many. Examples that quickly come to mind are the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Church’s active suppression of certain scientific results it found uncongenial. Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute recently penned an article on The Pope’s Nostra Culpa (The Wall Street Journal, 15 March 2000), discussing Pope John Paul II’s “Mass of Reconciliation,” an expression of sorrow and apology for past wrongs committed not only by individual Catholics, but by the Church itself. Father Sirico applauds the move while also reminding us of Lord Acton’s defense of the many positive contributions of the RCC.
Lord Acton, the great English historian of liberty, went to great lengths to defend contributions of the faith beyond the salvation of souls. Among the contributions of Catholicism he named the institution of the university, the flourishing of art and music, the idea of individual human rights, the separation of the ecclesiastical and civic functions of society, the rescuing of the wisdom of the ancients in the Middle Ages and even the idea of liberty itself.
Father Sirico concludes that the Pope’s action should serve to remind us that “the great contributions of the faith are the work of a perfect God, while the mistakes of the past are the responsibility of imperfect human beings.”
While there is plenty of blame to be shared by the organized church, Lord Acton illustrates how many of these ecclesiastical evils were actually encouraged and orchestrated by the state, coopting the church as a handy ally and motivator for the people in the state’s drive to consolidate its own power.
Organized church malfeasance is unfortunately not confined to the medieval Catholic Church. There is no shortage of modern examples of Protestant Christian organizations supporting questionable political goals. R. W. Bradford, in a recent issue Liberty (June 2000, Reflections, p. 14), cites as examples the recent support of dubious causes by The United Methodist Board of Church and Society, which include hiring “repulsive” Clinton associate Gregory Craig to help the father of Elian Gonzalez force the child to return to totalitarian Cuba as well as funding of the revolutionary activities of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe.
Other examples of this type are treated in the work of the Rev. Edmund A. Opitz, retired Congregational minister and writer. In the forward to The Libertarian Theology of Freedom, a collection of Opitz’ writings, publisher Charles Hallberg explains: “In the mid-1800’s a tidal wave of European collectivist philosophy and theology swept across the Atlantic which, by the late 1800’s, became known as the ‘Social Gospel’ under whose spell our individualist theology became branded as ‘selfish,’ ‘greedy’ and surely, un-Christian. Thus it was that the avariciousness of man, his desire to gain much and do little, delegated power to the State under the guise of ‘doing our Christian duty’ to help out fellow man” (16). Hallberg credits Opitz as being one of the very few Christian voices to speak out against this collectivist streak. The book explores in some detail the ways in which this insidious error has manifested itself in modern American Christianity.
It must be admitted that there have long been and continue to be today, both authoritarian and collectivist elements of modern Christianity. These, in my view, are mistaken and fail to remain faithful to the spirit of the gospel, which Jesus himself characterized primarily in terms of liberation and freedom (e.g. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free”). Scripture says we have the truth “in earthen vessels” and see “through a glass dimly” (i.e. referring to the human tendency toward error and evil and away from spiritual truth, which provides a strong argument for limiting coercive power). Indeed, Lord Acton viewed history as the gradual outworking of the God-ordained concept of liberty of all types, through a discovery process by humans involving plenty of mistakes, missteps, disasters and misinterpretations of scripture. Today, the Acton Institute and others are countering both the authoritarian and collectivist/socialist misunderstandings among the faithful and pointing to the complemetary nature of virtue and liberty.
Libertarians must understand and acknowledge that God is the only real basis for natural law (i.e. God’s giving each of his children inalienable rights). Ultimately it is only this higher authority that can effectively limit human government (or any other type of aggression).
If there is no sacred, eternal, divine, absolute law, there is no possibility of denouncing any form of law or polity or national act as unjust. If the positivistic theory of law is right, there is no possibility of waging war against the totalitarian state as a monster of injustice. Nor can we even say, ‘It is unjust’; but only, ‘It does not suit me, I do not like such things’ (17).
While Ayn Rand was brilliant in developing her philosophy of objectivism and is an important figure in the history of libertarianism, her crucial error is in rejecting God. Because of this, she was forced to fall back on pure self-interest as the only valid motivating force for any human action. She actually goes so far as to condemn the idea of voluntarily helping others through self-sacrifice. Her thinking apparently was that this would somehow bolster the case of those who wanted to use coercion to extract such help involuntarily. Her objectivist philosophy is summarized by the following quote: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute” (18). All four of these nice-sounding propositions contradict the biblical and traditional account of mankind and his predicament.
As many theorists have discovered since the Enlightenment, it is not possible to find a secure secular basis for morality (or any other value e.g. science, reason, liberty...). The self-interested basis for respecting others’ rights is to obtain the same respect in return (i.e. the Golden Rule). However, it will inevitably be true that some will discover situations where they can further their self-interest while (even by) harming others (i.e. infringing on their rights) without significant threat to their own rights (e.g. slavery, Nazism, Soviet communism). For this reason, a motivating force higher than self-interest has always been and will always be needed to safeguard individual rights.
An example of the atheistic strain within libertarianism is The Objectivist Center (TOC). This organization promotes the “Objectivist” philosophy of Ayn Rand, which assumes that the modern values of reason, individualism and capitalism arose out of the Enlightenment and are threatened today by both the postmodernist, relativist left and the premodernist, religious right. Both of these groups, it is claimed, “deny the efficacy of man’s quest for knowledge” (19). TOC doesn’t hesitate to promote its role as a substitute religion for many, providing “an integrated view of the world; help in defining life’s meaning and purposes; and inspiring moral ideals to live by.” The center sees its mission as upholding the Enlightenment legacy. The claim is that whereas past thinkers had argued primarily for the practical or pragmatic benefits of liberty, Rand added a revolutionary, indispensable moral dimension to the argument and went on to become instrumental in launching the modern libertarian movement. But how can there be a moral dimension in a godless worldview? As Acton, Evans and many others have shown, moral (and all other) values will eventually succumb to the rule of the jungle in such a world.
In summary, the Judeo-Christian tradition continues to stand against totalitarianism, collectivism and even the welfare state, since the ultimate authority is God, not man and his institutions. The question then arises, must libertarians be religious? I have hopefully shown that the historical record establishes that liberty, along with many other western values depends on certain essential postulates traditionally associated with religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition, and are indeed fruits of that tradition. The prospects of success for an atheist libertarianism are dim indeed. Certainly believers and non-believers can cooperate (and have done so in the past) in pursuit of the libertarian goals of strictly limited constitutional government and maximum individual liberty. Perhaps a good rule of thumb for those who love liberty would be to echo the guideline used by Calvin College English professor Dale Brown in selecting participants for the annual Festival of Faith and Writing held at Calvin. “We’re interested,” Brown says, “in writers that show respect for and an understanding of a faith tradition. Some of them may, in fact, have left that tradition, but they’re still reacting to it, they’re aware of it and they’re respectful of it. Its somewhere between the easy-answer Christian literature and the writing that pays no mind to the role of faith in one’s life.”
1John Figgis and Reginald Laurence, ed., The History of Freedom and Other Essays, 1907, p.596.
2Acton, The History of Freedom in Antiquity, from Selected Writings of Lord Acton, vol. 1, ed. J. Rufus Fears, 1985.
3M. Stanton Evans, The Theme Is Freedom, Regnery, 1994, pp. 15-16. 4ibid., p. 29.
5ibid., p. 41.
6ibid., p. 42.
7ibid., p. 57.
8ibid., p. 57.
9ibid., p. 58.
10ibid., p. 59.
11ibid., p. 62.
12Of course, the Enlightenment was not all bad. It promoted a healthier respect and an explicit recognition of such western values as learning, science, progress and individualism. Unfortunately, its anti-religious strain planted the seeds of destruction for these and all other human values, imagining that they could stand on their own merits.
13Doug Bandow, in his introduction to Occasional Paper #9, published by the Acton Institute, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997.
14ibid., p. viii.
15ibid., p. 6 (quoting Michael A. Novak, Free Persons and the Common Good, p. 13).
16Charles Hallberg, in his Foreword to The Libertarian Theology of Freedom, 1999, p. 10.
17Emil Brunner, as quoted in Acton Institute’s Religion and Liberty.
18from Atlas Shrugged.
19fundraising letter from TOC executive director David Kelley, 30 April 2000.