Depending on one’s perspective, religious freedom was either born or died with the founding of the United States of America. The colonial powers of Europe of the late 18th century had dominant religious majorities and established churches. The American republic was founded with an express prohibition of an established national church in large part due to the diversity of the religious majorities of various colonies. If it was to survive, the United States of America would have to be constructed in such a way that a single national identity could emerge from a religiously plural population. This necessitated a constitutional articulation of religious freedom that was unprecedented. The resulting First Amendment has not been implemented without imperfections, but the scheme has helped to produce a global superpower.
But the innovations of the U.S. Constitution with regard to the place of religion in public life resulted in some confusion. It was easy to answer the questions “Is France a Catholic nation?” and “Is England an Anglican nation?” But regarding America—even how to frame a similar question has never been easy.
What about the question “Is America a Christian nation?” The answer depends on what you mean by “Christian” and “nation”… and “America” for that matter. The person for whom the answer is obvious fails to recognize the complexity and nuance of the concepts involved. The issues swirling around this question have just become more fraught in the past few years as a Judeo-Christian moral consensus has begun to decline as well as religious practice among all faiths. Is Christianity, then, necessary for democracy? Are the two concepts separable?
One commentator with quite a bit to say on the matter is Paul D. Miller, a faculty member at Georgetown University and a research fellow at the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Dr. Miller has published widely on the issue, including a recent essay in Christianity Today in which his conclusion is the title: “Christianity Is Not Necessary for Democracy.” Running the risk of violating Brandolini’s law, in this brief essay I’ll lay out a few of the reasons I must disagree with Miller’s conclusion, and the way he reaches it.
To consider Miller’s argument, it might be helpful to start with the question he is answering: “Is Christianity necessary for democracy?” The answer to this question is contingent on a few factors that are not clear from Miller’s essay.
What Is Democracy?
“Democracy” is a term commonly used as shorthand for “freedom” or “liberty.” In the most technical sense, for example, the United States is a republic. But only the most pedantic will object to the use of the word to describe our system of government in conversation. His casual use of “democracy,” however, makes Miller’s essay confusing. Is Miller referring to a specific form of government? Or to ideals or institutions or concepts that can be rightly described as “democratic”? Miller never explicitly defines the sense in which he is using the term, but what makes for more confusion is the fact that he shifts among several definitions to make different points: at one point he refers to “free societies”; at another to “democracies” that are nations with common forms of government; and still elsewhere to “principles of political freedom” and “principles of self-government.”
The preponderance of the evidence, however, seems to point toward a definition that encompasses a society marked by rights, civil liberties, and democratic decision-making. This seems to encapsulate the anxieties expressed in the anecdotal recounting of conversations he has had with “friends and colleagues in evangelical circles” that have given rise to the essay in the first place.
Further, Miller varies the scope of his inquiry. He references the concerns of “American Christians,” alludes to “American freedom,” but also makes reference to “the West,” to “Judeo-Christian civilization,” and to a long list of nations with a Freedom House designation as “free” or “partly free.” This list of apples and oranges reflects not only his imprecise use of the word “democracy” but also an arbitrary limit on chronological, cultural, and geographic scope. A single essay is hardly the place for a sweeping and wide-ranging analysis, but it is helpful to recognize that the U.S. represents just one instantiation of a political system reflecting a concern for democratic principles. Each instantiation prior presented unique problems. The American system has solved some of those, but in the process created some new ones.
Miller’s appeal to “free” and “partly free” nations on Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report only adds confusion. First, the list of nations he cites includes some countries that were once British or French colonies. Britain and France clearly have long and institutionalized Christian traditions, and these powers did good and bad things as colonial powers. But it is a bare historical fact in need of no interpretation that they imported Christianity into their colonies along with democracy. If anything, the presence of any democratic institutions points toward an essential link between the two. It is also worth noting that there are no countries formerly dominated by the Ottoman Empire on Miller’s list. Interestingly, Robert D. Woodberry has done significant work connecting democracy with a particular type of Christian missionary movements.
Second, each nation has a unique history and context in which democratic norms and forms of government began to emerge. And the durability of these norms and governments has been quite fluid in many of these nations. Democracy, or liberty, in any of these nations (or any nation) has a complex history that evades one-dimensional analysis. Japan, for example, is clearly an advanced nation with a justifiable “free” designation in the Freedom House report. But there are Japanese citizens alive today who were born and lived at the center of a militaristic, hostile, genocidal empire. They accepted the divinity of their emperor as a political first principle and now live in a nation that adopted a democratic form of government (literally!) at gunpoint. The gun, it is instructive to note, was pointed by nations with Christian majorities that did not exact revenge or colonize the Japanese people, the most powerful of which were the Catholic French, the Anglican British, and the majority Christian Americans.
Third, Miller observes that Christianity in many of these nations “dat[es] back one or two centuries at most.” Well, the oldest written constitution in the world only celebrates its 235th anniversary later this year. And Canada, New Zealand, and Australia—each bona fide beacons of liberty by all accounts—have all been independent nations for less than two centuries. Two centuries is short in some regards but not in terms of developing entrenched political patterns.
Given these considerations, maybe a better formulation of the question at hand could be framed thus: “Is Christianity necessary for liberty?” But the question still needs some work.
What Is Christianity?
So, if we proceed with the question “Is Christianity necessary for liberty?” it is still unclear what Miller means by “Christianity.” Once again, he shifts definitions. Those whose concerns he seems to be addressing are specifically evangelicals. It is “conservative evangelicals who believe Christianity is necessary (emphasis in original) for a free society.” It is also friends and family in his “evangelical circles” who have expressed concerns about democracy’s prospects in a world where Christianity is declining. Does “Christianity” mean “evangelicalism” or “American evangelicalism” more specifically?
Does he mean, then, a particular form of Christianity? Or the practice of Christianity by a critical mass of citizens? These are unlikely options since these possibilities make little sense.
Elsewhere Miller cites specific doctrines, like the Incarnation: “Jesus did not become incarnate to make possible the First Amendment or inspire the U.S. Constitution.” Of course He didn’t. And I am happy to assume that Miller is using hyperbole here. But he also notes that “Christianity is not the only source of” civic virtue, which he does concede is necessary for “sustaining an open society.”
Sure, there are different versions of civic virtue found in each religious tradition. The Taliban, for example, have been consistent in their application of a particular social vision informed by their interpretation of Islam in ordering Afghan society. Is Afghan society virtuous? Is civic life there shaped by morality? Modern Afghan society is certainly shaped by a particular moral vision, although one that is incompatible with religious freedom and gender equality.
What are these other sources of civic virtue that respects the dignity of the individual? There are parts of the world, no doubt, that are non-Christian or newly Christian with laws and burgeoning norms that are consistent with human freedom. I would posit that those parts of the world, however, have absorbed Christian ideas into their religious and political systems naturally, by proximity, or by force merely by adopting democratic principles. These societies are not often adopting a fully developed orthodox Christian belief and practice, but have adopted principles with clear roots only traceable to the Christian tradition.
Miller also points to the practice of democracy among the pagan Greeks as an example of non-Christians “discover[ing] and practice[ing] the principles of political freedom long before we did.” I assume he is making reference to Athenian democracy. The oligarchic practice of political decision-making by a select few for the sake of expedience hardly equates to a respect for human rights and civil liberties even if it is an embryonic expression of a democratic form of government and not reflective of a respect for human rights. It would be interesting to see what score Freedom House would assign to ancient Athens.
One concrete claim that Miller makes is that his fellow Southern Baptist Al Mohler is one who ascribes to a quasi-establishment model wherein the government actively promotes Christianity because “it is essential (emphasis in original) to sustaining our democratic society.” Miller cherry-picks Mohler’s statements to create a strawman. Further, these quotes even out of context cannot be tortured to support the position Miller ascribes to Mohler. But Mohler has said more elsewhere—like here to the New York Times, or here on his own blog, or here to Iowa Baptists.
What Miller specifically attempts to refute, however, is Mohler’s claims that a “stable notion of human dignity” and a “notion and defense of human rights in any substantial form” are unique to Christian belief. Miller seems to be siding with the late atheist Christopher Hitchens, who argued that “human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” And that the claim that what we now know as humane or western values are self-evident and intuitive and cannot properly be ascribed to Christianity as its source.
Miller and Hitchens are both wrong, despite one of them believing that there is something uniquely true about Christian claims and the other believing that there is something uniquely nefarious about them.
So maybe the best way to frame the central question of this discussion would be “Is the Christian intellectual traditionnecessary for liberty?” The unavoidable answer is yes.
Christianity and Liberty
Miller is correct that merely demonstrating that Christianity is “probably good for democracy” is insufficient evidence for the affirmative answer. And it is also not enough to demonstrate that Christians as individuals and through institutions have consistently worked to advance liberty to make such a bold claim.
But there is a demonstrable historic and philosophical link between the tradition and liberty. Even in the nations of the West whose churches are empty, the “aroma of an empty bottle” is unavoidable. Even Miller, a devout practicing Christian himself, can’t escape the Christian normativity instinctively assigned to the ideas of civic virtue and morality in the West in his own essay.
How else is this heritage of the Christian tradition necessary for liberty? French philosopher Pierre Manent describes it best—the nations of the West are not “Christian” in the sense that their populations actively practice some form of the faith or that their constituting documents mandate or establish the faith. They are not “Christian nations” per se but “nations with a Christian mark.”
The single most significant trait of such a nation, which is present across the West, is the dominance of the concept of individual rights in public discourse. There are sharp disagreements as to what constitutes a right and whether it is the government’s responsibility to protect it, cultivate it, or advance it. But there is no serious disagreement on the question of whether people have rights that others are obligated to respect.
Rights belong to individuals, and it is through the Christian tradition that the West came to appreciate the inherent dignity of each individual and respect the fact that that dignity affords inalienable rights. The dignity of the individual person is an idea that is only 2,000 years old. This is exactly the claim that Oxford historian Larry Siedentop is making when he writes that the Christian apostles “invented” the individual.
It is important to note, too, that while the Christian intellectual tradition is necessary for liberty, it is not alone sufficient for liberty. As stated above, the rise of liberty and democratic institutions in any society is complex. And the decline of liberty and these same institutions is also complex. The concerns of his interlocutors that Miller dismisses, however, may be too embedded in the language of the culture wars or too fixed upon one expression of the Christian faith or vision of Christian piety. But their instincts are correct—the West would not be free had it not been Christian. That’s not the end of the story, but it certainly is the beginning.