The Influence of Christianity on Western Culture, Part Three: What Does Liberal Democracy Owe to Christianity?

In part one of this extended essay, I addressed arguments about the influence of Christianity on contemporary secular liberalism. Some Christian conservatives, such as Ross Douthat, have argued that contemporary liberal notions of human rights, equality, and historical progress are derived from Christian beliefs, and that liberal beliefs lose their foundation when Christianity is rejected. Secular liberals, such as Julian Sanchez, respond that we don’t need Christianity or belief in God to provide a foundation for human rights, only to agree that such rights are good. In part two of the essay, I briefly examined the world’s major religions and made the case that Christianity’s influence on liberalism is real, in the sense that it shaped Western culture in ways that promoted individualism, equality, and progress — but that proving this causal influence was problematic, given the history of the Christian churches in opposing liberalism and often supporting intolerance and authoritarianism.

In part three of this essay, I’d like to examine the historical development of liberalism in Christian civilization and see to what extent Christianity supported liberal democracy and to what extent it impeded it. I will argue that the political and social power of the Christian churches was often an impediment to the progress of liberal democracy, but that Christian beliefs shaped the concepts and assumptions of our culture in a way that was beneficial to the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy.

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The argument against Christianity as a positive influence on liberal democracy goes something like this: If one looks at the history of the development of liberal democracy, one sees a strong influence of secular ideas on the founding of the first liberal democracies and a fear of the detrimental impact that Christian leaders and institutions could have on the rights and freedoms of individuals. The idea that the purpose of government was to secure individual rights was rooted not in the Bible or the doctrines of the Catholic Church, but in social contract theory. This theory, in various forms, goes back thousands of years, but the version we in the West are most familiar with is the one by John Locke, which inspired the American Revolution. Indeed, several phrases from Locke’s writings appear in slightly modified form in the American Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States make no mention of Christianity at all; the first amendment of the Constitution simply states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .”

On the other hand, it must also be noted that the American founders were also favorable to religion and had severe doubts about whether an atheistic republic, such as that which emerged temporarily in the French Revolution, would ever be viable. John Adams, although a Unitarian Christian, denounced Thomas Paine’s harsh criticism of Christianity in The Age of Reason. Adams firmly believed that a republic could not endure under atheism, remarking in a letter:

We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by . . . morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

George Washington, while tolerant and undogmatic in his Christianity, also insisted on the importance of religion in maintaining republican institutions:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most skeptical of all the founders about the dogmas of Christianity, doubting all of the stories of miracles in the Bible and denying the status of Jesus as the son of God. Jefferson also criticized the priesthood, writing: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government” and “[i]n every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” Nevertheless, Jefferson was so impressed by the teachings of Jesus that he compiled a self-chosen collection of Jesus’ teachings, minus the stories of Jesus’ miracles, into an unpublished volume known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, in a letter, Jefferson remarked that while the ancient philosophers, such as Socrates, were great moral teachers, the morality of Jesus was superior to all the morals of the philosophers:

I concur with the author in considering the moral precepts of Jesus, as more pure, correct, & sublime than those of the antient philosophers. . . I give them their just due, & yet maintain that the morality of Jesus, as taught by himself & freed from the corruptions of later times, is far superior.

The preference of the American founders for a secular government was genuine, but it extended no further than a suspicion of the political influence and power of the priesthood and a commitment to separation of church and state. The founders believed religion in general, and Christianity in particular, played a vital role in preventing moral and political disorder, but only if religious leaders and institutions were not deeply involved in politics.

Is it contradictory to argue that Christianity provided the basis for liberal democracy, but only after the power of the churches, and their allies in the aristocracy and the monarchies were checked or overthrown? Only if one believes that the Christian religion by itself is capable of making people good. In fact, no religion is capable of making people good without a stable government, without laws, without a separation of powers, and without limits on extremities of wealth and poverty. Christianity provides guidance in morals, but it can’t force people to be good. Rather, Christianity created a culture that, with other factors that came later, facilitated modern liberal democracy.

What of social contract theory as an alternative secular basis for modern liberal-democracy? There is no denying that social contract theory, especially as developed by John Locke, has had an enormous influence on the development of liberal-democracies, with Locke’s thoughts and even words appearing in the American Declaration of Independence. But social contract theory has always suffered from a serious flaw: if one takes it literally, it is based on a myth no more plausible than the myths of religion. There is no historical evidence that governments have ever emerged from a group of people gathering together to sign a contract agreeing to give up certain rights in return for protection from a governing body. There is not a single person in the United States today who, upon reaching a certain age, has actually signed a contract specifically agreeing to follow the Constitution and laws of the United States. Our original “contract,” or Constitution, was signed over 200 years ago by a small number of men who have long since passed away.

In fact, people around the world have no choice over where and when they are born, and no choice in the government they live under; at best, they may have the right, every several years, to submit one ballot out of thousands and thousands of ballots to choose one of a set of pre-selected candidates for an office. There is no provision for opting out of the government we are born under, unless we move to another country with another government. At best, social contract theory refers to some ideal end based on a set of hypotheticals (i.e., if we were to construct a government from the start, this is how best to do it).

But note that even social contract theory rests upon certain premises and assumptions that are taken for granted: that everyone in society has rights; that all should have an equal say in how they should be governed; and that government is the outcome of an agreement between equal individuals and government serves those individuals by providing order and safety. So again, we come to the issue of Christian influence on our culture of individuality, and how it may shape our perceptions of what is good even when we are not consciously aware of it.

This is not to say that social contract theory can’t arise in non-Christian cultures; it certainly can, and many people in those non-Christian cultures have pressed for their rights and for a say in how they are governed. It’s just that social contract theorizing is less likely to emerge and succeed in cultures based on religions with a more communal and hierarchical conception of society.

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Let us return to the debate between Ross Douthat and Julian Sanchez that inspired this extended essay.

Is Douthat correct that “it’s completely obvious that absent the Christian faith, there would be no liberalism at all“?

Well, it’s not “completely obvious,” and I’m not sure it’s incompletely obvious either. The emergence of modern liberal democracy took over 1700 hundred years after the birth of Christianity, and there are multiple political, intellectual, and economic factors that led to this outcome. The record of Christian churches in supporting liberal-democracy is, at best, mixed. More often in history, Christian churches lagged behind the growth of liberal-democracy, granting grudging support after the establishment of such democracies. Furthermore, the notion that one must either accept or reject the entirety of Christian dogma — the trinity, the virgin birth, the miracles — in order to support and sustain liberal-democracy presents a false choice.

Is Sanchez correct that we don’t need to accept Christianity or belief in God in order to sustain liberal-democracy, only to agree that liberal-democracy is good, and that “it’s a brute fact that normative properties are part of the furniture of reality.”?

I am tempted to say “yes,” but the question of what is good does not lend itself to straightforward, uncontested answers in the same way that scientific studies of mechanistic patterns in nature provide straightforward answers. There are not only a variety of goods that one can pursue, but there are often unbridgeable gaps between what is good for the self and what is good for others. Even in long-established liberal-democracies, there often exist substantial numbers of people who don’t mind authoritarianism, as long as they are in charge, or if someone they like is in charge. The various religions of the world have much in common on fundamental ethical questions, but the question of which goods are the highest remains contested and may never be resolved.

Are normative properties part of reality? Certainly, they must be rooted in reality. You can’t discuss what is good and what is not good without referring to reality. But there is also a transcendent aspect to the good that refers to something higher than reality, whether it is a potential good, an unrealized good, or an imaginatively created good. Transcendent goods do not always correspond to reality, or they would not be transcendent. In particular, when faced with a conflict between seeking the good for one’s self and seeking the good on behalf of others, one often encounters a gap that cannot be overcome unless one is completely oriented toward transcendent values. (Note Matthew 19, 16-24, in which Jesus advises a wealthy young man to sell all his possessions and give his wealth to the poor. The young man declines the offer — as nearly all people in a similar situation would.)

Friedrich Nietzsche certainly did not think that modern liberal-democracy was the highest political good. He thought that democracy tended to promote a herd mentality and undermined what he regarded as the natural and healthy urges of great men to create, to conquer, and to dominate. Nietzsche admired Caesar and Napoleon, though both men destroyed the republican governments from which they emerged, because both men imposed their will on the masses in order to achieve great deeds. Nietzsche’s philosophy inspired twentieth century fascism, which resulted in totalitarianism and war, and despite the defeat of fascism, there are those today who are still attracted to the ideas of conquest and domination. Will we always agree that liberal-democracy is good and that this goodness is “part of the furniture of reality”? I have strong doubts.

To the extent that we accept certain transcendent values as real, it’s because we absorbed these values from our culture, and our culture is shaped by the dominant religion of our society. Christianity’s claims about history and nature may be superseded by more recent empirical research, but the values of Christianity — universal love, the equality of all before God, the enduring reality of evil, and the hope of a meaningful history that ends in the triumph of good — continue to influence Western societies to this day.

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