In May, Professor Nigel Biggar spoke at the McDonald Centre’s annual conference and discussed the role of the Christian Church in developing and maintaining a politically liberal society. The McDonald Centre, which he leads, is a research institute connected to Oxford University. This year’s conference was titled “Is Religious Liberty under Threat? A Trans-Atlantic Dialogue.”
In his speech, Biggar argued that Christianity, particularly the Anglican Church, is an important part of a free and fair government. In America, we view the separation of church and state as a pillar of religious freedom, but in England, where Biggar teaches, the Anglican Church has been officially linked to the government for centuries. Biggar, who’s ordained in the Church of England, set out to demonstrate that this state sponsored religious establishment is “compatible with liberal rights to religious freedom and political equality.”
When Biggar referred to liberalism, he did not mean it in the way it is used in modern American politics where it is generally associated with big-government and progressive policies. Instead, he uses it to refer to classical liberalism, the political philosophy championed by John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and Adam Smith. Under classical liberalism, the government is restricted to protecting the natural rights of citizens. Economically, these rights are guarded by a free market where consumers are able to freely choose what they buy. This concept is tied to John Stuart Mill’s “marketplace of ideas,” where men are allowed to freely discuss their opinions, and the market will eventually decide what ideology is best.
Liberalism is closely tied to individualism and humanism which promote the ideas that every man is an equal being, worthy of respect and dignity. Biggar claimed that there is a clear link between Christian theology and the values of liberalism and individualism. He stated “the most important political contribution of England’s religious establishment lies in the Christian humanist worldview that it advocates. A world view that generates the virtues necessary for the survival of a liberal ethos.”
Social institutions and families are generally thought to be responsible for cultivating humanist values. The question, then, is whether the state has a compelling interest in becoming involved in the process and, if so, what the best method is. Biggar’s talk was heavily influenced by American philosopher John Rawls, who argued in his book Political Liberalism that the state should be involved in supporting a culture of liberalism.
Rawls argued that liberal views are not universally held and that some worldviews may even oppose them. To illustrate this point Biggar pointed to growing hostility to freedom of speech on college campuses. He recounted receiving death threats for lectures he gave. Nowadays some political theorists even argue that liberalism will soon be a thing of the past. This is the argument of University of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen’s 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed.
Biggar was more concerned with philosophies that treat man as essentially a meaningless being driven by passions and desires and lacking intrinsic value. He describes this as a postmodernist or “Hobbesian” individual, recalling that philosopher Thomas Hobbes described human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Biggar traced this moral relativism to a “Rousseauian populist orthodoxy” that gives moral legitimacy to a government as long as it conforms to the will of the majority. Bigger countered these ideologies with Locke’s liberal concept that political authority is a result of adherence to objective justice rather than the popular will.
In order to guard liberalism and a political system founded on truth and justice, Biggar argued that there needs to be a culture that generates “citizens who are so formed as to vote for liberal laws, to obey them, and to exercise their legal rights with liberality.” In England, that culture can be found in the Anglican Church, which is closely tied to the English monarchy and parliament and occupies a privileged position in education. Biggar argued that the Bible is the basis of liberal ideology saying:
It is essentially humanist because it says human beings are divine creations. This leads to a support of the dignity of humans and the individual. Scriptures are a story of human beings called by God to stand out from, even against their people in the name of what is true and just.
Biggar went on to cite the examples of Abraham, Moses, the Old Testament Prophets, and Jesus as examples of individualism superseding tribalism in the Bible. He then cited political theorist Larry Siedentop who said “There is historical reason to suppose that the liberal west’s exaltation of the individual is attributable to its Christian heritage”
Other theorists, such as University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum, have argued that state sponsored religion necessarily reduces non-adherents to the status of second-class citizens. Biggar rejected this proposal by pointing not only to the dangers of a Hobbesian or post-modernist world where human dignity is relative to power, but also to the prevailing example of liberalism as the best way to ensure that all men are respected. With an eye towards the moral relativism that threatens to errode liberal political values, Biggar warned that “Barbarism is already in the gates.”
During the ensuing question and answer session, Biggar agreed that the Anglican Church is imperfect, but highlighted the importance of being willing to admit this fault and to try to improve. He was also skeptical of whether the Anglican Church should be universal and clarified. He believes it is best for it to remain in England, where it has been shown to create a culture of liberalism.