The failure of the American legal system to protect freedom of religion and conscience where it conflicts with liberal/left agendas has led some traditional Christians to question whether the ideals of freedom and democracy might not be faulty at their core. The Cato Institute assembled a panel of three scholars to consider the problem on April 24. Joseph Laconte, Associate Professor of History at The King’s College, Daniel Philpott, Professor of Religion and Global Politics of Notre Dame University, and Mustafa Akyol, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, ably defended classical liberalism as compatible with traditional, pre-modern religions in a searching session of discussion and questioning.
Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute began the panel by noting that when liberalism appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was “in many ways … seen as contrary to Christendom at the time.” It was understood as especially in conflict with the Catholic Church. The recent past several generations have seen orthodox Christians strongly aligned with classical liberalism, both political and economic. But today some, such as Catholic political scientist Patrick Deneen, argue that liberalism is incompatible with Christianity, and Christians should step back from supporting it.
Laconte observed that there are “a lot of people on the political left who think that liberalism is and ought to be the enemy of traditional religion.” Others on the right “also believe that liberalism erodes traditional religious belief, and they think that this is what liberalism was designed to do.” For this reason, he said, Deneen “argues that the liberal project was essentially steeped in sin from its birth.” The argument runs that “when liberalism dissolves our moral commitments to one another, when it stigmatizes our faith communities … it is being true to itself.” But Laconte claimed that this understanding of classical liberalism is “thoroughly false,” and is really a “militantly secular view of the rise of the liberal project.” To the contrary, he said, the liberal project has revitalized religion in the West. It was liberalism that “enshrined” liberty of conscience as a high value in Western culture. The historical impetus for liberalism was “a response to the sins of Christendom.” These were “the denigration of individual conscience, the criminalization of dissent, the corrosive entanglement of church and state, the hedonism of clerical leadership, and the deeply rooted antisemitism.” He said the Christendom of Locke’s day had become a “persecuting society.”
According to Laconte, Locke was not fundamentally opposed to Christianity, but saw it as corrupted, and in need of revitalization, which liberalism would accomplish. This Lockean objective Alexis de Tocqueville found vindicated in early nineteenth century America. He noted first of all “the religious aspect of the country.” Unlike Europe, freedom and religion went together in America. Locke’s concepts of faith and freedom had become ideals for Christian Americans during the eighteenth century. Only in this generation has the alliance of Christianity and classical liberalism been questioned. Liberalism today is held to be incompatible with Christianity because it makes individual choice the ultimate good. Laconte thinks that Christian critics of liberalism are “steeped in nostalgia for a pre-modern, medieval world,” and they blame contemporary problems on liberalism. He said that to the contrary, classical liberalism revitalized western Christianity.
Akyol began by pointing to the persecutions pre-modern Christianity was responsible for. But freedom can be compatible with religion, he said. “It has happened in Christianity, it can happen in Islam.” While conceding pre-modern persecutions in Islam, Akyol pointed to its times of tolerance. He noted that Jews fled from Europe for greater safety in the Ottoman Empire. While liberal modernity has in varying degrees been implemented in the Muslim world, there is also now resistance. Akyol observed that while Christendom was affected by ecclesiastical law, there was no Christian legal code, such as Sharia is for the Muslim world. Reconciling Sharia with liberalism is a problem, he said. Some argue that Sharia can be modernized, others disagree. Many fear freedom will destroy religious morality (a not unreasonable fear if the sexual revolution is understood to be part of freedom). Akyol claimed, however, that one can be “a pious conservative Muslim” in a liberal society. But if a religion requires coercion to survive, it is a poor reflection on one’s religion, he maintained. He also believes that recent Islamic terrorism will result in a backlash that will redound to the benefit of liberal modernity in the Muslim world.
Philpott said that with respect to the relation of liberalism to religion, Locke was “the best of the lot.” Eighteenth century secular liberal thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume, were hostile to religion. Rousseau, for instance, proposed replacing existing Christianity with a new religion. The Enlightenment questioned religion altogether. The French Revolution persecuted religious believers. This, Philpott thought, was the reason for nineteenth century popes’ vocal opposition to liberalism. Philpott said that to accept religious freedom, the Catholic Church went to sources from early Christianity, not strictly the Enlightenment. Debates at Vatican II concerning religious freedom reflected this, with conservative skeptics holding that it would lead to a “disintegration of society,” and the collapse of morality. Some of this has happened, Philpott conceded. Advocates of religious liberty held that they were advocating only “the dignity of the person.” The church did not abandon its claim to have the truth, or the moral duty of man, but that the truth is to be obtained by a free search for truth. The Church adopted “political liberalism,” not “theological liberalism.” Finally, Philpott proposed that advocates of religious freedom in the Muslim world seek grounding for their arguments, at least to some degree, from authoritative texts within Islam itself.
Bandow asked if liberalism is the “best political grounding for religious faith.” Akyol said that the classical liberalism of freedom of religion, speech, free market, limited government, etc. is compatible with religion. The political correctness of the left is not. Communism and fascism were disposed of in the twentieth century, and no one wants to return to them. No one has proposed a clear theocratic alternative, he said. We need a society in which “there is full freedom to be religious or to be nonreligious.” This involves the right to give offense to people who disagree with one’s actions or expression. Akyol said that “typically” Muslims “like liberalism when they are in the minority.” He asked what alternatives “the critics of liberalism” are offering.
Laconte replied that alternatives seem “pretty fuzzy.” In contrast, he noted that Pope John Paul II on his visit to communist Poland called for “classical liberal values that will restore the spiritual life, the deeply Christian Catholic life of the nation.” Poland “led the way” to the democratic revolution of 1989, with the Pope’s visit “crucial.”
A questioner observed that Catholic tradition requires “basic moral framework” but is open to the investigations of natural reason. He asked if it is possible for a religion to live with “a wholly value neutral system,” or will it necessarily tend to a religiously based system? Philpott said that natural law is “critical” for a free society. Society must proceed on that basis, and it is known independently of religious revelation. But “natural law without God is likely to go astray.” Theology “can serve as a kind of anchor to keep the social system stable.” God gives natural law a basis, or justification. Akyol claimed that “traces” of natural law remain in Islam, but need “revitalization.” Laconte asserted that a measure of religious faith is important in sustaining a free society. The view of the American founders was that freedom is not possible without virtue, but virtue, they were confident, required religion for long-term survival. But religious faith has to be “uncoerced.” This tree legged stool of faith, virtue, and freedom has endured for two hundred years, but is “under crisis right now.”
Another questioner asked if science has rendered religion obsolete. Akyol said that science answers the question of how things exist, but not why they exist. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century thought not uncommonly said that science would replace religion, but it did not happen, and Akyol believes that it will not, since science does not give any meaning for existence. Laconte noted that early modern scientists were Christians, and Philpott observed that the Big Bang was discovered by a Belgian priest.
Also questioned was whether Christian sexual morality is compatible with liberalism. Philpott said that what the Catholic Church faces is not beliefs in society contrary to Christian sexual morality, but the attempt of the state to impose the belief that Christian sexual morality is oppressive. Catholic institutions can only govern themselves by the Catholic Church’s teaching, and “were facing closing their doors” had the HHS mandate prevailed. The problem with maintaining Christian sexual morality is not that there are people in society who disagree with it, but that it is being actively suppressed by the state. This is a denial of freedom. Akyol observed that this is not classical liberalism, which is about “limited government.” Laconte also observed that people of religious belief have been at the forefront of great reform movements of the past, from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement. There must be “civic space to offer a prophetic voice,” he said.
A related question was framed with the claim that liberalism is strongly aligned with secularism – defined as freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion. Religious ideas influencing law are incompatible with this. From this viewpoint the real problem is conservative religious leaders trying to influence law to support their beliefs.
Philpott responded that Pope Benedict XVI distinguished between positive and negative secularism. Positive secularism separates the roles of church and state. The church does not “exercise direct political authority.” Negative secularism (or laicité) attempts to marginalize religion and keep it out of society as much as possible. The “French model,” starting with the French Revolution, is an example of this. Ataturk’s Turkey was also given as an example. But an effort “to persuade and shape society” is entirely compatible with positive secularism.
Laconte said that he “absolutely” agrees with Deneen’s critique of the radical individualism being advanced today. He disagrees with Deneen’s claim that Lockean liberalism “at its root gave us” radical individualism. Early modern advocates of liberalism saw religion as the “foundation for a more just and pluralistic society.” Conscience was to be “anchored in something transcendent – the Scriptures itself.” Political liberalism, said Laconte “must be anchored in Biblical morality and Biblical constraint.” This, he said, is Lockean liberalism. Moral collapse does not flow from Lockean liberalism, he maintained.
As was emphasized by the participants, Lockean liberalism has not been historically associated with attacks on religion. Indeed, a common denominator of society was supposed to be belief in God and commitment to Judeo-Christian morality. Religious and social conservatives have repeatedly quoted John Adams, who held that the constitutional order depended on “a moral and religious people.” The Constitution certainly does not provide a moral order, it assumes one. At times, such as much of the nineteenth century, America was more specifically Christian than at other times. Lockean liberalism is not in and of itself a problem. What has caused the problem is what Philpott referred to as “negative secularism,” the attempt to find a new, radically non-Christian secular moral order.
As a moral order, rather than just a political one, negative secularism speaks to life’s meaning, and addresses the beliefs and values that individuals should have. And it holds that people should have self-determination, the right to say what is proper in one’s personal life, have that affirmed by others, and material well-being. It is therefore penalizing the conscience of private parties who disagree, as was seen in the Hobby Lobby case and the HHS mandate controversy concerning religious non-profits.
Without the attempt by the American Left to add the sexual revolution to the ideal of freedom, with the LGBT revolution as its cutting edge, there would be no problem between traditional religion and American liberalism. It worked well for generations, and was beneficial to Christians and other believers. It would continue to work without the Left’s non-negotiable demands. Any disagreements between believers and unbelievers in grounding order and liberty would remain academic, and liberalism would work to relieve conflict, rather than cause it, as it did in the past.
Because there have always been religious voices that never accepted liberalism, the difficulties resulting from the revised version of liberalism pressed by the Left has provided an opportunity to attack liberalism itself as being antireligious. But classical Lockean liberalism is now the best protection traditional believers have against secular attempts to pressure believers into abandoning their faith and morals. The contemporary Left will be only too happy to speak of the “common good,” and the common good it proposes will certainly not include toleration for traditional sexual morality and a particularistic doctrine of salvation in which many persons in contemporary society will face the wrath of God in another world.
Participants in the panel were quite right to urge not throwing out the baby with the bath water. It is sad for anyone to who lived through much of the Cold War, saw the conservative resurgence involving John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Evangelicalism to contemplate that the great issue of the Cold War, namely religious freedom, may now be lost to the descendants of the New Left and the 1960s cultural revolution. But the growth of the nonreligious component of society, the enchantment of the young with socialism, and the constant vehement attacks on Christian doctrine and morality suggest that a much more pervasive loss of freedom of religion and conscience may happen. Orthodox Christians know that God is finally in control of history, and works all things to his glory, but should liberalism fail, the end of religious freedom and underclass status for orthodox Christians will almost certainly be the result.