Blogs > Liberty and Power > Christianity and Freedom

Feb 23, 2007 5:07 pm

Christianity and Freedom

As part of my ongoing research into the roots of classical liberal thought on race, I came across William Wilberforce. Correction: David Theroux, the well-read head of the Independent Institute, taught me about Wilberforce and I've since learned more on my own. If you aren't awake, the media is writing quite a bit about Wilbeforce and the film "Amazing Grace."

Here is an op-ed that I wrote on the topic:

On the more general issue of classical liberalism and Christianity, see Leonard Liggio's piece, "Christianity, Classical Liberalism are Liberty's Foundations." Liggio states: "I would not be a classical liberal if I had not been a very active Christian."

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Paul Noonan - 2/27/2007

The denomination of Christians that opposed slavery earliest and most consistently were the Quakers- who not so coincidentially are the mainstream Christian group that gives the lowest value to the Bible (seeing it basically as a starting point rather than the answer to all questions) and the higest to individual conscience -the "inward light."

In the debate on slavery the moral arguments were strongest on the abolitionist side and the purely Biblical arguments on the slaveowners side ("Slaves obey your masters with fear and trembling.." etc.)

Sudha Shenoy - 2/26/2007

Who or what is this 'Christian West'? Where does it begin/stop? What time period are we looking at? From c.400AD onwards? 1000 AD? Some other? Is this 'Christian West' completely homogenous? Does it include the various territories of (eg) the Austro-Hungarian Empire? All were as 'developed' as (say) Britain, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, etc?
And what about Japan??

What about the legal systems involved? Why is it that the most highly developed DCs are also the common law countries? and also those with Roman law? And even here, England developed individual freedom where the Continent had absolute monarchs.

Common Sense - 2/26/2007

I would like to restrict myself to Liggio's views, which I think sre for the most part correct. His main point is as follows:

"R&L: What role did Christianity play in the emergence of the components of a free society: free markets, limited government, and the like?

Liggio: I think we have to look at comparative history. Of all the civilizations around the world, why did only the Christian West become both free and prosperous? We are talking about distinctions between civilizations. Asian civilization, for example, did not become free and prosperous, even though it had a lot of cultural creativity. But we must also look at other Christian civilizations, such as the Byzantine, Abyssinian, Georgian, and Armenian Christian empires, all of which lasted for many centuries but did not create the kind of free and prosperous society the Christian West did.

Many scholars have studied this and have come to the conclusion that this is due to the fact that the religious institutions were totally separate from, and often in conflict with, political institutions only in the Christian West. This created the space in which free institutions could emerge. The idea of independent religious institutions is absent even in Eastern Christianity; their religious institutions are part of the bureaucracy of the state. In Western Europe, though, the religious institutions were autonomous among themselves, and totally independent from and often in opposition to state power. The result was the creation of a polycentric system. And whenever this system was threatened by claims of total empire by the political rulers, Christian philosophy was utilized as part of its defense.

So within that space, the economic institutions–often modeled on the religious institutions as autonomous entities–could flourish and survive."

I think there are other factors involved, but LPL's insight is an important an often neglected factor. Three cheers for the Cistercians!

Gary McGath - 2/26/2007

The Bible explicitly sanctions slavery, not just in the Old Testament, but in the writings of St. Paul. It's true that the people who fought slavery were, to an overwhelming extent, Christians, but so were many of the slavers they fought against.

Gus diZerega - 2/26/2007

In this day and age broad generalizations about any single cause of freedom are naive. When that label is applied to Christianity given the current influence of Christofascism and advocates of theocracy among many so-called Christians, it is also bizarrely blind.

How much freedom existed in those very old Christian cultures of the Byzantine Empire and its successors such as Tsarist Russia? What about that very old Christian nation - perhaps the oldest - Ethiopia? Spain never cut much of a figure for liberty when it was most closely identified with the Church. Protestant and Catholic missionaries treated Indian families on reservations in ways foreshadowing totalitarian efforts at cultural and even physical destruction. Why did it take over 1000 years of Christian supremacy, enforced by state, stake, pogrom and noose, to bring about liberty if it was such a powerful single factor? And on and on.

Others have pointed out that when taken as a whole the Church was hardly a significant opponent of slavery. And once significant numbers of people began questioning it, including many Christians, Southern Baptists became the abomination they are - largely due to theological attitudes developed to buttress their support of slavery.

Nor is opposition to slavery in nay sense dependent on ANY reading of scripture. Anti-slavery arguments are also (critically) alluded to in Aristotle long before Christ and the Pagan Stoics emphasized the importance of human equality without the need of scripture to teach them. Classical civilization never outgrew slavery - and as the American South amply demonstrates, when the vast majority of Southern Christians had to choose between treating their fellow human beings decently and having slavery and fatter wallets, their choice was unequivocal. That this same region now claims the mantle of being somehow more "Christian" than the rest of the country is a powerful argument against the claim that freedom rests in ANY vital sense at all on Christianity.

Christianity does seem in some cases able to empower certain exceptional people to take up a moral cause of great importance, even though at the time most Christians denounce them. This is an important and laudable characteristic found in probably every religion. The tiny number of Christians who so act are heroes and heroines. But let's keep it in perspective - there have been such people throughout history, and never enough of them.

Liberalism has multiple roots including, for some, Christian ones. The same is true for anti-liberals.

Liberty in the West arose due to the convergence of multiple factors, almost certaibnly including reaction to the Thirty Years War which had strong Christian causes. Certain historically unusual interpretations of the Bible were also factors in the rise of Western liberty. But to try and say liberty depended on any one factor is simply wrong.

James Alan Jenkins - 2/25/2007

Sorry but Wilberforce was a Johnny come lately to the anti slave cause and Christianity was in firm favour of Slavery....see here

Mark Brady - 2/24/2007

Christianity is around for the best part of eighteen hundred years before the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. The European Enlightenment is around for no more than two or three generations before the abolition of the slave trade and four or five generations before the abolition of slavery. Is it not more plausible to see the campaign to abolish the slave trade and, later, slavery as the result of Enlightenment ideas than as the specific outcome of Christian belief?

Sudha Shenoy - 2/24/2007

1. ?? Are we saying that only devout Christians can be proper liberals? Non-Christians are thereby lesser liberals? Not as strongly committed? Weaker intellectual foundations to their stand? Or what?

2. What about committed Christian socialists or interventionists? Plenty of those. Are they un-Christian? Or what?

Mark Brady - 2/23/2007

A few thoughts on William Wilberforce.

William Wilberforce may be "one of the great forgotten men of history" in the United States but his life and work have always been taught in British schools.

Any account of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery should acknowledge the contribution of Thomas Clarkson as much as that of William Wilberforce.

William Wilberforce was no classical liberal in other matters. He supported Tory measures to suppress dissent and voted for the Corn Laws in 1815.

William Wilberforce owed his success to his personal charm and his regular moderate use of opium as much as to his Christian convictions. "At one point [in 1788] he was thought to be dying, but he slowly recovered, spending his convalescence at Bath and Cambridge. At this time he began the regular moderate use of opium, which continued for the remainder of his life, and proved an effective treatment for his recurrent nervous and intestinal disorders." (See John Wolffe's account of his life in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [2004].)

Yes, William Wilberforce was a great man, but his life story is rather more complex and interesting than readers might assume.