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Liberal Individualism Has Deep Roots in Protestantism
Illiberalism cannot be reconciled with the core tenets of the faith
At a time when various illiberal religious nationalisms are emerging in countries around the world, it is urgent to reassess the relationship between religion and liberalism. These nationalisms assume that liberalism is their enemy because a liberal polity does not allow the state to privilege their faith.
Two weeks ago, The UnPopulist debuted a series on religion and liberalism to challenge this assumption. Religions are complex and contradictory systems whose beliefs don’t neatly fit together. But every major faith has a liberal core that is getting drowned out by more strident, illiberal interpretations. The purpose of this series is to rescue this core. To that end, we invited an adherent, scholar, or theologian of each of the major world religions to tease out the liberal tenets underpinning their faith and remind followers that they ignore these beliefs at the risk of losing a proper understanding of their own faith.
Our first entry on Judaism explored how liberalism’s commitment to reason and open inquiry channel—and strengthen—key aspects of the faith. Today we present to you our second installment on Protestantism by Rachel Ferguson, a devout practitioner of the faith and a philosophy professor who directs the Free Enterprise Center at Concordia University Chicago. Ferguson’s deeply historical and passionate essay not only articulates the inherent liberalism of her faith but also shows how it contributed to the rise of liberalism in the West.
Don’t miss it.
Berny Belvedere, Senior Editor
Tom Holland’s Dominion is an atheist historian’s reflections on how starkly the moral values of a typical, modern citizen of a liberal polity such as our own contrasts with the brutal hierarchy of ancient pagan society. Holland concludes that the liberal value that each individual has equal worth arises from the Christian tradition. In fact, Holland’s observation is nothing new: other non-religious and even religiously hostile scholars (like the 19th Century’s W. E. H. Lecky) have argued that the Christian tradition is responsible for laying the underpinnings of philosophy and practice for concepts such as equality before the law and charity to the poor.
It may be a stretch to say that Protestantism is solely responsible for the rise of liberalism. The prolific author and diplomat Michael Novak argued that some Catholic societies were developing the building blocks both before and at the same time as Protestant ones were. But there’s no denying that, historically speaking, Protestantism is an important contributor to liberalism’s emergence. Many of the great thinkers in the classical liberal tradition have been Protestant—from John Locke to Adam Smith; from Frederick Douglass to Rose Wilder Lane. Even Immanuel Kant, whose Enlightenment project is rightly understood as a movement away from religion rather than toward it, championed a robustly liberal political philosophy that is at points discernibly Protestant-inflected. But Protestant thinkers intellectually depended on Protestant ideas, which means there were theological reasons behind Protestantism’s ability to contribute to liberalism’s rise. The Protestant principle of “soul freedom” (believers are individually responsible for their choices before God) leads to tolerance of pluralism in religious matters. That itself leads to freedoms of conscience, speech, press. Meanwhile, the Protestant doctrines of sin—such as John Calvin’s notion of “total depravity”—teach that sin affects each person’s desires and thinking so comprehensively that concentrating all political power into a unitary office is a bad idea, underwriting a liberal-democratic framework of diffuse powers.
As we will discuss, the Protestant emphasis on the Bible has also justified authoritarianism, as the illiberalism of Calvin’s rule in Geneva unfortunately showed. Despite the presence of this tension, which we by no means want to gloss over, it is undeniable that Protestant ideas and thinkers greatly contributed to liberalism’s rise.
Freedom of Conscience: A Protestant Origin Story
Historically, the term “Protestant” referred to Lutherans and Presbyterians, the first groups to break away from the Roman Catholic Church under Luther and Calvin. But we can include under the same term Anglicans, Methodists, and those separatists who eventually came to be called Baptists (Pentecostalism arose in 1906 as an offshoot of these groups). Anglicanism, under Edward VI and then Elizabeth I, absorbed core Reformation commitments, as the Church of England’s confessional documents show. This meant that, as separatist groups broke off from the Church of England, they were already functionally Protestant, even if they couldn’t draw a direct line to Luther or Calvin and only sought to create a church even more purified from Catholic influence.
Any decent account of the basics of Protestant thought has to start with Luther, whose protest against the Catholic Church was sparked by a visit to Rome. The pomp and circumstance, the incredible wealth of the bishops compared to the squalor of the peasants, felt deeply wrong to him, an Augustinian monk. Luther knew that the funding for all of that wealth did not come from voluntary tithes (strictly speaking, there weren’t any truly voluntary tithes, since tithes worked more like taxes in those days), but also the sale of “indulgences.” The Church claimed that a payment into its coffers could reduce the amount of punishment one would receive for one’s sins. Since peasants presumably sin as much as noblemen, they were sure to bankrupt themselves in an attempt to remain in good standing with God. One day, after his visit to Rome, Luther was trying to pay penance for his own sins by climbing up a set of stairs on his knees, only to hear the Bible verse “The just shall live by faith” resound in his head. If God forgives and saves us, he thought, and all we have to do is believe, why are we working so hard to earn his forgiveness and salvation? It was an epiphany that would forever change the course of Western Civilization. After sincere attempts to reform his own Church, he was put on trial for heresy, where he uttered the famous words:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.
Since Luther believed his conscience lined up with the Scriptures, God’s divine revelation, he was compelled to follow it even if it meant going against the authority of the state and the Church. Luther was convinced that laypeople should be able to read the Bible and interact with divine revelation directly, without mediation by other authorities.
Other reformers before him had made similar claims, such as John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and William Tyndale, but they did not survive the censure of the Catholic Church; Tyndale and Hus were brutally executed and Wycliffe narrowly escaped the same fate. What these reformers shared in common, Luther included, was a conviction that it was important for believers to know what the Scriptures say.
Research reveals that Protestant missions tend to drive up literacy rates, as reading the Bible is among the most precious activities for a Protestant. Unsurprisingly, Luther responded to his excommunication from the Catholic Church by translating the Bible into the German vernacular. Luther could only withstand the pressures of the Catholic Church hierarchy by appealing to a cognitive faculty—conscience—that had been instructed and informed by the Scriptures. Other believers, no better or worse than Luther in God’s sight, should be similarly empowered to make decisions for themselves that will affect their ultimate destinies—but how could they if, lacking access to God’s word, their consciences could not be attuned to what God actually said?
Here, it is important to point out how our notions of liberty have evolved. From “liberty of conscience” we do not logically proceed to the notion of “freedom to commit any act between consenting adults.” That’s because political freedom is simply the prerequisite for true freedom—that is, moral freedom. Moral freedom is the ability to do what is objectively good. This is why the Bible refers to sin as a kind of slavery; when driven by irrational desire we do what we don’t want to do, or at least, what we don’t believe to be right. In order to make morally praiseworthy choices, however, we must be free to reason through various arguments about what is right, which gives rise to freedom of religion, press, speech, assembly, and so on. Among America’s Founders, this view was taken for granted, which is why they emphasized that a free people would also need to possess a high level of virtue. After all, if you can’t govern yourselves, you’ll cause so much chaos that someone will inevitably come along to govern you. The loss of this emphasis on personal and social virtues in the transition from 18th Century classical liberalism to 21st Century libertarianism has created an anorexic and flat political philosophy that is disconnected from the realities of human nature, including our nature as social beings. I may want to end the drug war, but it’s not because I think people are right to use drugs recreationally, but because I don’t think the state is competent to manage people in this regard.
Protestantism’s Gradual Respect for Freedom of Religion
It’s fair to challenge the narrative I’ve presented by claiming that the rise of these freedoms was more a result of material circumstances than anything else. As a breakaway group, Protestants were forced to think about living together with non-coreligionists, and the Wars of Religion served as a crucible within which their liberalism on these matters formed. However, I don’t see the two accounts as incompatible. It’s true that early Protestants were just as likely to put the magistrate in charge of punishing heresy as their Catholic forebears. But it’s also true that in struggling through the material circumstances of rising pluralism, they reached back into the long Christian tradition to begin thinking seriously about rights of citizenship for those who do not conform to the state-sanctioned religion. In other words, Christianity had inner resources to offer in service of liberalism.
Even Jefferson—no orthodox Christian himself—referred to church fathers Tertullian and Lactantius, who defended the rights of Christians against the claims of a pagan Rome. In Liberty in the Things of God, Robert Wilken discovers that in Jefferson’s famous quote about liberty of conscience he was overtly borrowing from Tertullian (he scribbled the Latin of Tertullian’s quote in the marginalia and had a copy of Tertullian’s work in his library). Compare the two:
But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature, that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions. For one person’s religion neither harms nor hurts another.
Made in the Image of God
The notion of freedom of conscience arises from the Christian concept of the human person. Genesis 1 states that God made men and women in His own image, the imago Dei. And what about God is reflected in us? The things that make us different from animals: intellect and will. We can think, and we can choose based on our thinking. (Kant’s Enlightenment-era echo of the twin human glories of rationality and autonomy proceeds similarly.) It is not possible for us to hand over these abilities to anyone else; they are “unalienable.” No matter how much I insist that I have handed over my thoughts, judgments, or decisions to another, I am the only one who directly controls them and therefore I can change my mind at any time. That is also why slavery is anathema to a free society. Slavery is not simply immoral, but more fundamentally, metaphysically impossible. I control myself and therefore it is not possible for another to own me. Persons are not objects. Many of the Founders—even the slave-owners—knew this full well and openly admitted that if slavery was not eradicated the Republic would not survive.
Even Kings Need Kings
On the other hand, the things I do with my body to another person can be stopped or controlled from outside. Since the purpose of civil government is peace among neighbors, the civil government can step in and stop me if I am harming my neighbor. This limited purpose of the state is another unavoidable conclusion from the premise of freedom of conscience, and harkens all the way back to the Hebrew scriptures. A common theme of the Hebrew prophets was chastisement of the king for going against the law of God; in other words, the king himself is not a god and he is not the final arbiter of the law. This may seem like a no-brainer today, but almost all pagan systems equated the head of state with the divine itself, creating an assumption of unlimited power. In the Christian tradition, however, the church cares for the soul and religious practice, leaving only harmful external actions under the purview of the magistrate.
The commitment to the doctrine of the Imago Dei as well as the accountability of the ruler to a higher authority squares not only with Protestantism, but also with Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as Judaism, which is of course the source of all three Christian traditions.
How Protestantism Supports Liberalism
So is there anything special about Protestantism’s capacity to usher in the liberal order?
Since Protestants do not admit of a magisterium—an ecclesial source of authority that can decisively settle matters of religious belief and practice—it furnishes them with a model of the Christian life that places the full authoritative weight on the Bible (the Reformation doctrine of “Sola Scriptura”). Now, Protestant leaders can—and, quite infamously, have—allowed their interpretation of the Bible to become heavy-handed and authoritarian. But the key point is that the Protestant stress on believers forming their convictions through their own grappling with the Scriptures—as opposed to fully outsourcing that activity to a spiritually elite clergy—has had a liberalizing and democratizing effect on how churches themselves should be structured, which then impacted how we think societies should be structured.
Similarly, Protestants can secede from one another. The Roman Catholic Church sees itself as the only legitimate vessel through which salvation comes, and therefore must claim to be entirely unified. Protestants emphasize the notion that there is no mediator between God and man, and can therefore simply separate from one another if there are differences that make continued fellowship too difficult. This “laboratories of Christianity” model of ecclesiology, to borrow a phrase from the political world, is consonant with the freedoms of association and assembly and movement. Although Protestants are often derided for this “spirit of secession,” it certainly promotes peaceful coexistence in a way that a monolithic, magisterial church cannot.
In summary, the biblical insistence on the equal worth of all individuals (because they are made in the image of God), combined with Protestantism’s insights about the connection between sin and power, and the road to salvation lying in the free exercise of each individual conscience—not through uncritical obedience to any ecclesiastical powers—makes Protestantism an inherently liberal faith.
None of this precludes free societies developing in other traditions. I am interested to hear in the companion essays in this series how non-Judeo-Christian traditions ground the inherent dignity and value of the human individual.