December 8, 2021

The God of Liberalism

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Apostle Paul, 1957 / National Gallery of Ary


In its thousands of pages, Obamacare contains the heart of the progressive vision for how society should work. A central premise of Obamacare is that everybody should have access to healthcare regardless of income or personal circumstances. Individuals do not have to rely on others to gain access to a basic life necessity; the government supplies what they need. Individuals have both the autonomy that comes from being independent from other people and the security of the government-provided benefit.

Progressives see this model of society as the inevitable result of the march of history. Society is gradually casting off the shackles of our unequal, un-free, poor, benighted, and generally terrible past, and is marching toward our equal and free and rational and prosperous future. Progressives see the Enlightenment and the Renaissance that preceded it as a particularly auspicious time in History, when society began to break down the tyranny of monarchs and unshackle the peasants. The kings came down, the middle class rose up, and History began moving much more quickly. America was at the vanguard of History when it was founded, and its founding documents, especially the Declaration, still contain the seeds of progress (even while the structures set in place by the founders are perhaps a bit anachronistic today).

Where progressives do not look for inspiration, typically, is to Christianity. They see Christianity—and religion in general—as a constricting, repressive tool of the powerful meant to entrench certain norms (heterosexuality, the nuclear family, monogamy, etc.) at the expense of people’s expression of their individuality. Religion constrains the autonomy of individuals, and thus stands in the way of progress.

According to Larry Siedentop’s new book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (London: Allen Lane, 2014), the standard progressive understanding of Christianity is wrong. Progressives, Siedentop says, should look not to the Renaissance and Enlightenment for their roots but to the social revolution wrought by Christianity. It was Christians, and especially the Apostle Paul, who started the push for equality and individual liberty by undermining the hierarchies that characterized the ancient world and liberating the individual from the constraints imposed on him by society.

Siedentop begins his account of the rise of the liberal order, with its emphasis on liberty and equality, by examining the social structure of the ancient world. This world was characterized by a rigid hierarchy and the subjection of the individual to the community. At first, the family was central to the ancient world. The ancient city, or polis, evolved out of this family structure, Siedentop says. The polis displaced the family as the primary focus of individuals, but it retained the family’s rigid hierarchy. The individual was nothing apart from the city. This was a rigid society that suppressed individual desires for the good of the community.

As the Roman Empire grew, however, people’s loyalties shifted from the city to Rome, and the polis was displaced as the primary loyalty of the people. Sophists popped up using reason to prove anything. People turned inward and to more obscure sources of inspiration. A more cosmopolitan order displaced the polis’ rigid hierarchy.

Out of this changing landscape arose Christianity. Jesus preached a message that appealed not to the highest ranks of society but to the lowest. He offered a personal connection to God, and his resurrection showed that eternal life depended not on the family or city but could be attained by individuals apart from their social circumstances.

The Apostle Paul converted to Christianity in a sudden confrontation with Jesus in a vision. It was Paul who started to mold the egalitarian impulse in the fledgling Christian faith. Paul wrote that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” undermining the traditional social categories of the time. Instead of the demands of law, Paul focused on internal motivation. The condition of the heart mattered more than external conformity.

“Paul creates a new basis for human association,” Siedentop writes, “a voluntary basis—joining humans through loving wills guided by an equal belief. In his eyes, the motivating power of love is the touch of divinity within each of us.” All people have access to the shared capacity “to think and choose, to will. That reality is our potential for understanding ourselves as autonomous agents, as truly the children of God.” As a result, people of all classes are equal before God. They have access to “the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group.”

Siedentop focuses the majority of his book on the period between Paul and the Renaissance, tracing how Christianity’s egalitarian impulse manifested itself in various ways in Christian society. He examines how the ascetics and monks expressed their individual commitment to God by isolating themselves and then voluntarily joining communities. Augustine refined the notion of an individual will. The early church broke down social hierarchies by preaching the same message to all and allowing everyone to participate in its rites. The Pope created a kind of constitutional order. William of Ockham emphasized the individual’s freedom. A movement for representative government sprung up within the church, but the church squashed it, leading to the Protestant Reformation.

“Was Paul the greatest revolutionary in human history?” Siedentop asks toward the end of his book. The answer, based on Siedentop’s argument, is obvious: With his writing, Paul launched a social revolution that is still shaping our society. After Paul, individuals were gradually freed from the constraints on their actions and consciences and allowed to live as they saw fit. The modern liberal order, with its emphasis on individual rights and personal freedoms, is the ultimate result of Paul’s egalitarian thinking.

In other words, modern progressivism, with its emphasis on individual autonomy and freedom, is the heir not to Enlightenment rationalists like Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson, but to the Apostle Paul. History has been marching to free the individual, and Paul’s writings were a catalyst for much of this progress. Or so Siedentop argues.

But was Paul really such a great champion of equality, liberty, and individual autonomy? Was Paul really interested in freeing individuals totally from the strictures of society so they could live fully autonomous lives?

If Paul is read in full, the answer has to be no. To see this, let’s compare a passage from Siedentop’s book to a couple from Paul.

Siedentop sees the early Christian ascetics and monks as fully expressing the egalitarian and individualist impulse in Paul’s writing. He contrasts the ascetics and monks, who lived hyper-spiritual lives in isolation or in voluntary communities, with the early church, which was under constant attack from a hostile government and as a result grew into a tight-knit community. “Such besieged communities constrained, so to speak, the moral impulses released by Christian belief,” Siedentop writes. “But the monks gave those impulses a dramatic release.”

But Paul knows nothing of this kind of autonomy. He writes to the church in Philippi, “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Paul wants the early Christians to set aside their own desires and to serve others. His vision for the Christian life reflects both the strong communitarianism of the ancient polis and the new egalitarianism of the fledgling faith. Individuals are bound by duties.

Paul writes about the family in a similar way. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, he commands Christians to love and serve and submit to each other according to their roles in the family—roles that are based explicitly on age and gender. Paul tells children to “obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” The members of the family, just as in the church, are bound together through bonds of both duty and obligation.

Far from constraining the “moral impulses released by Christian belief,” as Siedentop puts it, the community is what makes Christian morality possible. Individuals are certainly constrained by the community around them, Paul says. They have to be. They are not autonomous individuals.

Siedentop makes no effort to wrestle with the fullness of Paul’s description of human relations. The resulting picture is not Paul, but merely a progressive riff on parts of Paul’s writing.

Why does Siedentop so badly misread Paul? In his description of the ancient world we see the first signs that something is going wrong. Siedentop reads the works of the two greatest philosophers of the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle, to be mere artifacts of a rigidly stratified society, not serious works that contain true insights into reality. Plato’s description of the best soul, with reason ruling the other passions, is merely a reflection of the stratified society of his time. Aristotle saw the political life as the best because he could not envision a city where individuals had meaning apart from the larger social order. “Ancient philosophers,” Siedentop writes late in the book, “living in societies founded on the belief in human inequality, had projected hierarchy onto the ‘natural’ order of things. It infected their ideas of nature and social order.”

Siedentop’s view of Plato and Aristotle is not completely wrong; it’s just woefully incomplete. They certainly were not egalitarians, but they were not devoid of any ability to apprehend truth, either. The same can be said about Siedentop’s reading of Paul: The apostle’s writings do contain elements of a sort of equality, but they do not support the kind of egalitarianism found in today’s progressive policies.

By simply reading Paul as a precursor to modern liberalism, as a revolutionary in the march of History, Siedentop strips Paul of his prophetic voice, and of his ability to critique modern liberalism and progressivism. The same critique that Siedentop makes of Plato and Aristotle could thus be turned on Siedentop himself: His work is a product of his own time, a time of equality and liberty defined as equal autonomy, of the welfare state and abortion and gay rights, of the National Health Service and Obamacare.

The fundamental difference between Paul’s writing and our contemporary culture is the belief in a God—or, put more indefinitely, in an absolute standard that stands above people, makes moral claims on them, and constrains their autonomy. Paul saw equality as generated and tempered by a higher authority. But modern progressive liberalism has no such higher ordering force. Equal liberty—equal autonomy—has displaced God as the ultimate authority and standard for the progressives.

Here is the fundamental question that Siedentop fails to address: What is the basis of equality now that society is not based explicitly on a God that people can be equal under? For Paul, everybody stands equal under God. Equality for him is just a result of a prior belief in a sovereign being. But for modern liberalism, there is no such first object that creates this order of equality. Equality has become the first object that is meant to order society. On what is this equality based?

Siedentop wants it to be based on the “moral intuitions” generated by Christianity. By appealing to the Christian tradition, however, Siedentop inadvertently exposes the shaky foundation of our liberal order. Siedentop shows how the egalitarian impulse gradually developed over the past two millennia in Western society. But he would be hard pressed to show the relevance of Christianity to modern liberal society. Put more bluntly, how can people be expected to respect the Christian origins of our liberal order when they themselves are not Christian?

Siedentop is trying to demonstrate the rich moral tradition underlying our modern order, but by showing how Christianity supplied much of what underlies modern western liberalism, he shows our great need for an ordering force that can provide a foundation for equality while ordering and tempering its excesses.

Siedentop concedes at the end of his book that modern liberalism has a tendency to drift into a couple of “liberal heresies.” It can devolve into either narrow individualism, where people are only concerned with themselves and their immediate family and friends, or into a kind of materialist consumerism, where people are only interested in acquisition of material goods. But stopping these “heresies” requires a prior ordering idea that tempers and gives context to equality.

A return to widespread Christian belief could provide that ordering idea, Siedentop’s work implies, but that prospect seems exceedingly unlikely today. Christianity constrains autonomy and does not fully liberate individuals. It ties individuals down to their communities and to an external law. It threatens our liberal sensibilities.

Inventing the Individual, by trying to show the roots of our liberalism’s moral intuitions, ultimately exposes liberalism’s rootlessness. We lack the ordering principle—a just and sovereign God—that drove the progress toward equality over much of the last two millennia. Instead, the consequence of this belief in God—a belief in the free and equal individual—has itself become the god for liberals.

Liberals are ripping out the foundation of the house in which they live. What they lack, though, is an adequate replacement for the foundation, something to give them the same stability and order. How stable is their house?