15 Nov 2010

Liberty: Accident or Divine Gift?

Religious 12 Comments

I’ve just gotten back to Nashville, and have about 12 hours before I need to get on the road for my upcoming talk at MTSU. (Not sure if there is a link for it, but the event is Monday at 6:30pm and is in the State Farm Room, in the BAS [Business and Aerospace] building. I’m talking about the difference between free-market capitalism and corporatism.)

Let me give a quick post that may very well start a war in the comments. I recently was in a discussion with a small group of liberty activists, and we were wondering whether there were any hope for freedom if the US continued on its present course. One of the people was very knowledgeable in this arena, both in terms of history and personal travels in foreign countries.

This guy’s viewpoint was that yes, America really was the only hope, and further that this shouldn’t surprise us. He viewed it as almost a fluke of history (my term, not his words) that our notion of liberty ever developed. He said that it was quite implausible, if you think about it. The Romans, for example, developed a notion of law that everyone was subject to–even Roman officials–but this was purely out of necessity for ruling over a diverse empire. (In other words, the only way to keep the subject nations from constantly revolting was to make them think that even the Romans were following the same basic rules that were imposed on them.)

This guy then focused on the interaction of the Roman tradition with the Judeo-Christian heritage. (As far as I know, this guy himself isn’t religious; he was speaking purely in terms of secular, historical impact.) The Hebrews of course bequeathed the idea that there was an orderly universe, with a just Lawgiver and that mere mortals had no business trying to overturn the divine law. If the king overstepped his authority, then a lowly prophet could dress him down to his face.

The culmination of the unique Western European heritage of course was Christianity. In the doctrines of Jesus, everyone was a child of God, and so possessed immense worth as an individual. More important, people were given freedom of conscience–they could choose whether to accept Jesus’ offer of salvation. And if they did so, then they were no longer threatened with legalistic punishments, and they could “backslide” and still be forgiven. Furthermore–according to this guy–for the first time in history there was an intellectual basis for repudiating the institution of slavery, something that had plagued humanity in all earlier times.

I am not doing this guy’s narrative justice; it really was beautiful. In fact, if you had read it in a novel, you would have thought, “Oh c’mon, nobody in a small group of people would have such a long statement; somebody would have gone to the bathroom and interrupted him.” But really, we were mesmerized by his crash course in Western civ.

It occurred to me, though, that if one is a believing Christian, then this “lucky break” is nothing of the kind. It is no surprise that the very concept of liberty could not fully develop–even in the works of agnostic geniuses–before God Himself walked among us, teaching.

12 Responses to “Liberty: Accident or Divine Gift?”

  1. Martin says:

    The problem with sweeping generalizations like these that it is nothing more than a connecting of the dots throughout history. It’s a good and very strong narrative, but that’s just what it is at the end of the day a narrative to remember a bunch of seemingly unrelated historical facts. It’s a story with which to make sense of the past and perhaps it helps to explain future developments when certain variables that are relevant according to that story change, but it might just as well be the case that a different story should take its place if we are to make sense of it all.

    The point I am trying to get at is that this story is just verbal econometrics and the same or similar criticisms apply. This notwithstanding, it is a beautiful narrative, one with which I, to quote he who must not be named, find myself in agreement with: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement. 😉

  2. xbura says:

    To my knowledge, there are(or were) several religions(or idiologies) with focus on liberty. Most of them we would call primitive, or tribal…as was christianity once. My favorite is the the Tao of ancient China. They developed as alternatives to authoritarian ideologies were the king also usualy held a very high clergic position(if he wasnt the incarnation of god). Naturaly, they were not very succesfull. We should keep in mind, that christianity, in its beginning had many forms and versions. But the form that become the dominant and monopilistic(catholic) was used as a political tool to control the people. Obedience and total acceptence of the higher authorities(landlords and popes) was required. I can hardly see crusades and inquisition as a gift.Devine nor accidental.
    Libery emerged as a necessity of..i’d say the free markets. It really has to do with the developement in Europe from the emergence of the first truly capitalist bastions in Italy in the 14th century to the Reformation made by Martin Luther. Overlords around Europe, saw that liberating people had tremendous effects on the productivity and thats why Renaissance and Humanism was spreading…as a pure competitive tool. The reformed christians called puritans then started investing on greenfield America(rather then brownfield Europe, which is allways more expensive) and took libery and free markets to a next level. Europe seeing the positive effects of such governance, had to take precautions, aka liberalize people, just to stay competitve.(..and also not to loose them to Amerika because by that time, most people in Europe could already quasi freely migrate)

    • Slim934 says:

      I do not believe that your characterization of the crusades and inquisitions are correct.

      If you read the most recent scholarship on the Crusades you will find that the narrative of the wars as nothing but attempts at landgrabs with the garb of religion are highly exaggerated and overstated. This is atleast the view drawn by John Riley-Smith who is largely considered THE living expert on this subject. Which is not to say that that NEVER was a motivation, but that they had ideological reasons for it also.

      Given that one of the first victims of the Inquisitions was one of the most powerful christian military orders of the period (the knights Templar) and that they were FIRST instigated at the highest levels by French nobility who used their local religious officials to carry it out, it is also not necessarily correct to call the Inquisitions a simple “assertion of control” by the church. At the start it is more accurate to call it a power play by one political power against another.

      Then there is the whole narrative concerning how it was the Catholic church which acted as an agent against normal political rules which prevented many of them from claiming dominion over large land masses over a long period of time. I would argue that this destabilising force of the church is what allowed free markets to develop in the first place.

  3. knoxharrington says:

    That guy wasn’t Ralph Raico was it? If anyone hasn’t checked out his lectures from 20? years ago or so – I first heard them when I bought them from the Laissez-Faire catalog – you should see if they are around. Maybe Mises.org has them. Great stuff in a similar vain to what Bob mentions here.

  4. fundamentalist says:

    Bernard Lewis has an interesting paragraph in his book on the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Visitors from Asia and the Ottoman Empire were shocked, disgusted, amused, perplexed and many other emotions by the freedom the people of Europe enjoyed in the 17th and 18 centuries. They would try to explain it to people back home, but no culture had a term for liberty. Most of the time they translated “liberty” as “licentiousness.”

    Even with Christian teaching, liberty as political freedom didn’t begin until the Dutch Republic rebelled against Spain. Kings murdered many Protestants during the Reformation and that forced Protestant scholars and some Catholic ones to look into the limits of the state. Catholic scholars at Salamanca and Protestant scholars all wrote against tyranny at the time and those writings formed the basis for political liberty. The Dutch were the first to implement those ideas and the freedom the Dutch enjoyed was a shock to other Europeans. The first freedom was religious. The Dutch decided that the state should not be allowed to force people to accept any religion. That was the first time in the history of mankind (except for ancient Israel) that church and state were separated. Other freedoms quickly followed.

    Yes, Christian thought on liberty preceded the Reformation, but without the crisis of the Reformation it’s unlikely that Christian thought would have become more than a nice idea.

    • knoxharrington says:

      Magna Carta

  5. fundamentalist says:

    PS, after Darwin every science hurried to reorganize itself along evolutionary lines. In order to be considered scientific, everything that happened had to happen incrementally but appear inevitable. That philosophy has done enormous damage to history, in which very little happened that way. But the nonsense still reigns in economic history. Freedom is thought of as the inevitable, incremental advancement of society. But as in biology, so in history we find that it really fits the punctuated equilibrium model better.

  6. Bleicke says:


    Really, I find it fascinating that an anarcho-capitalist not only is religious but CONVERTED to religion after being an atheist. Are you just doing this for your girl? Don’t be like Heinlein (at least not in that respect).

  7. Art says:

    @ Bleicke –

    I am also an anarcho-capitalist who converted after being an atheist. And no, I didn’t do it for my girl. I find that radical libertarianism and Christianity go hand in hand quite well.

  8. Andrew Mackenzie says:

    Anarcho-capitalism and Christianity go perfectly well together.

    Catholicism teaches that God is the only ruler of man.
    Statism teaches that the state is the ruler of man.

    I’ve tried to explain this to my parents (we’re Catholic), in many more words, that as Christians they should completely oppose the state because it proposes to take the place of God and individuals by legislating moral behavior, “giving” to the poor, etc. However it always falls on deaf ears. Frankly I believe it is idolatry (violation of the second commandment) for any Christian to believe in the preeminence of the state…

    • Slim934 says:

      I always thought they went well together also.

      Christianity fundamentally has taught that no one person has any claim to ownership over another (atleast for most of the history of christianity). Yet this is precisely what one does by holding pre-eminence to the state. Christianity speaks of a common bond of all men as children of God. Yet by advancing a state structure one is obviously creating a legal and moral distinction between certain men and others (ruler and ruled).

      I mean where does Jesus actually say anything about espousing any given political order? He does not as far as my readings go.

      I think there is a very good reason for this.

      I mean clearly there are large numbers of counter-examples, such as the whole divine right of kings idea that was espoused for so long. But all that proves is that people often hold very contradictory views sometimes without knowing it and sometimes not even caring that they do.

    • knoxharrington says:

      I want to interpret Christianity in the same light but is that just my selection bias? How do Christians square the circle of Paul’s injunction to obey and pray for leaders because they are put in their positions by God, Jesus’ injunction to “render to Ceasar” v my favorite scriptural passages in 1 Samuel where God imparts to Samuel the most libertarian critique of government found almost anywhere? I’m aware of the Old v New Testament dichotomy here but the point is still relevant.

      I interpret Jesus’ teaching as commands for personal involvement to aid the poor – after all, Jesus didn’t say “set up a department staffed with bureaucrats that is financed through force.” As to idolatry and the state the religious right says all you need to know in that regard.