Christianity and liberalism were made to fit each other, like hand and glove. According to some interpretations, anyway. Liberal constitutionalism, with its commitments to freedom and equal human dignity, is the political system that reflects and embodies Christian commitments; and the constitutional legal order that accompanies liberalism, centrally including legally enforced rights of religious freedom, is the mode of government that best permits Christians to live in accordance with their faith in a fallen and deviant world. Thus, a couple of decades ago, Robert Kraynak reported that “[a]lmost all churches and theologians now believe that the form of government most compatible with the Christian religion is democracy,” and Kraynak used the terms “democracy” and “liberal democracy” almost interchangeably.
Kraynak explained, however, that this is a modern view, contrary to the overall authority of Christian Scripture, thought, and practice through the centuries. And in other interpretations, congenial to some who are Christians and some who emphatically are not, liberalism and Christianity are intrinsically incompatible, even antagonistic. From the non-Christian side, a tradition going back at least to Voltaire and Hume (and to figures in the ancient world like the emperor Julian “the Apostate”) portrays Christianity as the embodiment of illiberal qualities—intellectual narrowmindedness, superstition, intolerance, moral repressiveness. From the Christian side, liberalism, with its perceived inclinations to secularism, moral relativism, and rampant individualism unconstrained by truth or natural law, may seem the antithesis of Christianity’s sober beliefs and commitments.
So, which family of interpretations is more credible and commendable? Answers to that question must necessarily be tentative, for at least two reasons that should be noted at the outset. First, “liberalism” and “Christianity” are both contested and protean terms: both come in a variety of forms, and both have evolved, or degenerated, or evolved and degenerated, over time. Second, if St. Augustine was right, then we know a priori that the City of Man and the City of God will never be in complete harmony; at least latent tensions and conflicts will always exist. Consequently, it will not be dispositive for critics to point out discrepancies between a prevailing political order and Christian commitments. Of course such discrepancies exist; that much can be taken for granted. Indeed, the presentation of any this-worldly political arrangement as unqualifiedly in harmony with Christianity should for that very reason arouse suspicions.
From what I am calling the Augustinian perspective, the aspiration would be for some kind of practical peace—probably a modus vivendi at best—and even that ideal will never be fully and securely realized. Every political arrangement will be flawed and unsatisfactory, and the practical question will always be one of more or less: is some particular form of government and society more or less compatible with the Christian life compared with the available alternatives? And it would hardly be surprising if the answers to that question vary, not just from person to person but from time to time and place to place. One kind of political regime may be compatible with Christianity in some ways but incompatible in others. And a relatively Christian-friendly regime that is possible in some historical circumstances may not be a realistic option under other historical conditions.
In this Article, I will pursue these elusive questions in three stages. Part I will offer an interpretation of what “liberalism” is, at least for purposes of this Article. Part II will consider broadly the various ways in which liberalism so understood is in harmony or, conversely, in conflict with the received core of Christianity. Part III will address the question: If not liberalism, then what? Reflecting on various alternatives, the section will suggest, cautiously, tentatively, that all things considered and despite its shortcomings, liberalism may be, for now, for us, in our historical circumstances, the alternative that prudent Christians should prefer. The conclusion, however, will indulge in some second thoughts about that prescription. (And I hope this preview conveys the ambivalence that is intended.)
Steven D. Smith,
Christians and/as Liberals?,
Notre Dame L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/ndlr/vol98/iss4/3