Religion & Liberty Online

New book explores compatibility of Christianity and freedom

A new collection of essays titled Christianity and Freedom: Historical Perspectives edited by Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke explores the ways that Christian beliefs and institutions have made contributions to the freedoms that are cherished by both Christians and non-Christians today.

Acton Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, recently gave his analysis of this new collection of essays in a book review published at Public Discourse.  Gregg begins his review by recognizing that while Christians have played a huge role in bringing about religious freedom there have also been many occasions when Christians have been persecutors.  He says:

Any discussion of freedom and Christianity quickly surfaces the numerous instances in which Christians have undermined human liberty. Reference is invariably made to the various Inquisitions, the witch trials conducted by Puritans, forced conversions, and other instances of intolerance.

A particular strength of this collection of essays is that none of the authors denies that Christians and Christian institutions have on many occasions violated the rightful freedoms of others. This frank acknowledgment, however, is accompanied by an argument that permeates many of the papers: that it was, for the most part, Christianity that provided the moral, theological, and cultural principles upon which Christians and others have drawn to condemn unjust coercion. In other words, people have relied, consciously or otherwise, on Christian resources to identify and correct violations of freedom, including those committed in the name of the Christian faith. This suggests that liberalism by itself did not—and perhaps never could—generate the conceptual tools needed for this type of critique.

Gregg later goes on to explain the role that Medievals and Early Moderns played in bringing about freedom:

If there is a significant lacuna in this book, it is that only one chapter addresses the contribution of medieval theologians and canonists to the development of freedom. Fortunately, the chapter concerned contains a thorough treatment of this subject. Without trying to excuse medieval Christendom’s failings, Ian Christopher Levy points out that this is a world in which everyone believed that the state’s responsibility for the common good meant that people had to be protected from heretical ideas. People’s souls were, after all, considered to be at stake.

Levy also shows that the medieval world was far more tolerant than most people realize, provided that one tries, as Levy does, “to understand that society on its own terms.” The point being made here—one that should be noted by those who would reduce religion to a purely private phenomenon—is that projecting highly secularist twenty-first century conceptions of tolerance upon the medieval period is a deeply anachronistic exercise.

In the end of the review, Gregg makes an attempt to get all religions to recognize the role that Christians have played in creating societies that cherish freedom saying this:

Regardless of one’s religious and philosophical convictions, the powerful Christian impact on the emergence of societies that take liberty seriously should be recognized by anyone interested in truth rather than pressing particular ideological claims. The unanswered question, which falls beyond the scope of these essays, is how many liberals are willing to reconsider some of their urban legends about the relationship between Christianity and liberty.

On that subject, alas, I am not optimistic.

You can read Gregg’s full review on the Public Discourse website here.