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.


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.


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.

The Influence of Christianity on Western Culture, Part One: Liberty, Equality, and Human Rights

Does religion have a deep influence on the minds of those living in a largely secular culture, shaping the subconscious beliefs and assumptions of even staunch atheists? Such is the argument of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who argues that the contemporary secular liberalism of America and Europe is rooted in the principles of Christianity, and that our civilization suffers when it borrows selectively from Christianity while rejecting the religion as a whole.

Douthat’s provocative claim was challenged by liberal commentators Will Saletan and Julian Sanchez, and if you have time, you can review the three-sided debate here, here, here, here, and here. In brief, Douthat argues the following:

When I look at your secular liberalism, I see a system of thought that looks rather like a Christian heresy, and not necessarily a particularly coherent one at that. In Bad Religion, I describe heresy as a form of belief that tends to emphasize certain elements of the Christian synthesis while downgrading or dismissing other aspects of that whole. And it isn’t surprising that liberalism, which after all developed in a Christian civilization, does exactly that, drawing implicitly on the Christian intellectual inheritance to ground its liberty-equality-fraternity ideals.

Indeed, it’s completely obvious that absent the Christian faith, there would be no liberalism at all. No ideal of universal human rights without Jesus’ radical upending of social hierarchies (including his death alongside common criminals on the cross). No separation of church and state without the gospels’ ‘render unto Caesar’ and St. Augustine’s two cities. No liberal confidence about the march of historical progress without the Judeo-Christian interpretation of history as an unfolding story rather than an endlessly repeating wheel. . . .

And the more purely secular liberalism has become, the more it has spent down its Christian inheritance—the more its ideals seem to hang from what Christopher Hitchens’ Calvinist sparring partner Douglas Wilson has called intellectual ‘skyhooks,’ suspended halfway between our earth and the heaven on which many liberals have long since given up. 

Julian Sanchez, a scholar with the Cato Institute, responds to Douthat by noting that societies don’t need to agree on God and religion to support human rights, only to agree that human rights are good. According to Sanchez, invoking God as the source of goodness doesn’t really solve any problems; at best, it provides one prudential reasons to behave well (i.e., to obtain rewards and avoid punishment in the afterlife). If we believe human rights are good and need to be preserved, the idea of God adds nothing to the belief: “The notion seems to be that someone not (yet) convinced of Christian doctrine would have strong reasons—strong humanistic reasons—to hope for a world in which human dignity and individual rights are respected. But then why aren’t these reasons enough to do the job on their own?” Furthermore, Sanchez argues that morals can be regarded as “normative properties” that are already part of reality, and that secular moralists can appeal to this reality just as easily as believers appeal to God, only normative properties don’t require beliefs about implausible deities and “Middle Eastern folklore.”

Both Douthat and Sanchez make some good arguments, but there are some weaknesses in both sides’ claims that I wish to explore in this extended essay. My view, in brief, is this: Christianity, or any other religion, does not have to be a package deal. Religious claims about various miracles that seem to violate the patterns of nature established by science or the empirical findings of history and archeology should be subject to scrutiny and skepticism like any other claim. Traditional morals that have long-standing religious justifications, from child marriage to slavery, should be subject to the same scrutiny, and rejected when necessary.

And yet, it is difficult to deny the influence of religion on our perceptions — and conceptions — of what is good. I find existing attempts to base human morality and rights solely on reason and science to be unpersuasive; morals are not like the patterns of nature, nor can they be proved by the deductive methods of reason without accepting premises that cannot be proved. While rooted in reality, morals seem to point to something higher than our current reality. And human freedom to choose defies our attempts to prove the existence of morals in the same way that we can prove the deterministic patterns of gravity, chemical reactions, and nuclear fission.


Let us consider one such attempt to establish human rights through science and reason by Michael Shermer, director of the The Skeptics Society and founder of Skeptic magazine. In an article for Theology and Science, Shermer attempts to found human rights on reason and science, relying exclusively on “nature and nature’s laws.”

Mr. Shermer begins his essay by noting the many people in Europe that were put to death for the crime of “witchcraft” in the 15th through 17th centuries, and how this witch-hunting hysteria was endorsed by the Catholic Church. Fortunately, notes Mr. Shermer, “scientific naturalism,” the “principle that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that can be understood” and “Enlightenment humanism” arose in the 18th and 19th centuries, destroying the old superstitions of religion. Shermer cites Steven Pinker to explain how the application of scientific naturalism to human affairs provided the principles on which human societies made moral progress:

When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback form the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases . . . we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics.

Shermer argues that morals follow logically from reason and observation, and proposes a Principle of Moral Good: “Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that it leads to someone else’s moral loss (through force or fraud).”

Unfortunately, this principle, allegedly founded on reason and science, appears to be simply another version of the “Golden Rule,” which has been in existence for over two thousand years, and is found in nearly all the major religions. (The West knows the Golden Rule mainly through Christianity.) None of the religions discovered this rule through science or formal logical deduction. Human rights are not subject to empirical proof like the laws of physics and they don’t follow logically from deductive arguments, unless one begins with premises that support — or even presuppose — the conclusion.

Human rights are a cultural creation. They don’t exist in nature, at least not in a way that we can observe them. To the extent human rights exist, they exist in social practices and laws — sometimes only among a handful of people, sometimes only for certain categories of persons, sometimes widely in society. People can choose to honor and respect human rights, or violate such rights, and do so with impunity.

For this reason, I regard human rights as a transcendent value, something that does not exist in nature, but that many of us regard as worth aspiring to. In a previous essay on transcendence, I noted:

The odd thing about transcendence is that because it seems to refer to a striving for an ideal or a goal that goes above and beyond an observed reality, transcendence has something of an unreal quality. It is easy to see that rocks and plants and stars and animals and humans exist. But the transcendent cannot be directly seen, and one cannot prove the transcendent exists. It is always beyond our reach. . . . We worship the transcendent not because we can prove it exists, but because the transcendent is always drawing us to a higher life, one that excels or supersedes who we already are.

The evils that have human beings have afflicted on other human beings throughout history cannot all be attributed to superstitions and mistaken beliefs, whether about witchcraft or the alleged inferiority of certain races. Far more people have been killed in wars for territory, natural resources, control of trade routes, and for the power to rule than have been killed by accusations of witchcraft. And why not? Is it not compatible with reason to desire wealth and power? The entire basis of economics is that people are going to seek to maximize their wealth. And the basis of modern liberal-democracy is the idea that checks and balances are needed to block excessive power-seeking, that reason itself is insufficient. Historians don’t ask why princes seek to be kings, and why nations seek to expand their territory — it is taken for granted that these desires are inherent to human beings and compatible with reason. As for slavery, it may have been justified by the reference to certain races as inferior, but the pursuit of wealth was the main motivation of slave owners, with the justifications tacked on for appearance’s sake. After all, the fact that states in the American south felt compelled to pass laws forbidding the teaching of blacks indicates that southerners did in fact see blacks as human beings capable of reasoning.

The problem with relying on reason as a basis for human rights is that reason in itself is unable to bridge the gap between desiring one’s own good and desiring the same good for others. It is a highly useful premise in economics and political science that human beings are going to act to maximize their own good. From this premise, many important and useful theories have been developed. Acting for the good of others, on the other hand, particularly when it involves a high degree of self-sacrifice, is extremely variable. It takes place within families, to a limited extent it results in charitable contributions to strangers, and in some cases, soldiers and emergency rescue workers give their lives to save others. But it’s not reason that’s the motivating factor here — it’s love and sympathy and a sense of duty. Reason, on the other hand, is the tool that tells you how much you can give to others without going broke.

Still, it’s one thing to criticize reason as the basis of human rights; it is quite another to provide credit to Christianity for human rights. The historical record of Christianity with regard to human rights is not one that inspires. Nearly all of the Christian churches have been guilty of instigating, endorsing, or tolerating slavery, feudalism, despotism, wars, and torture, for hundreds of years. The record is long and damning.

Still, is it possible that Christianity provided the cultural assumptions, categories, and framework for the eventual flourishing of human rights? After all, neither the American Revolution nor the French Revolution were successful at first in fully implementing human rights. America fought a civil war before slavery was ended, did not allow women to vote until 1920, and did not grant most blacks a consistently recognized right to vote until the 1960s. The French Revolution of 1789 degenerated into terror, dictatorship, and wars of conquest; it took many decades for France to attain a reasonably stable republic. The pursuit of human rights even under secular liberalism was a long, hard struggle, in which ideals only very gradually became fully realized.

This long struggle to implement liberal ideals raises the question: Is it possible that Christianity had a long-term impact on the development of the West that we don’t recognize because we had already absorbed Christian assumptions and premises in our reason and did not question them? This is the question that will be addressed in subsequent posts.