Christianity and Liberalism (the Old-Fashioned Kind)

Each semester in Western Cultural Heritage III, I take students on a brief tour of 19th-century political ideologies: conservatism, liberalism, socialism, nationalism. Of these four, only conservatism has almost completely dropped off the radar, whatever its merits. That leaves us today with a mainstream conversation between liberalism (more often known as “libertarianism”), various forms of socialism (referred to as “conservatism,” “liberalism,” and “centrism”), and nationalism, incorporated into the other ideologies to various degrees by their adherents.

When we examine the roots of these ideologies, we find a great deal of explicitly anti-Christian rhetoric in socialism and nationalism. Conservatism, by contrast, was marked by strong support for Christianity and the established church.

The position of liberalism is more ambiguous. There were many liberals, such as the nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, who wanted to secularize society aggressively. On the other hand, some liberals prominently championed orthodox Christianity and viewed its teachings not only as compatible with the ideas of individual liberty, but as foundational to those ideas.

Recently the Ludwig von Mises Institute has produced a new edition of an important examination of the Christianity of early liberal thinkers. The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton is Prof. Ralph Raico’s (Buffalo State College) doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of F.A. Hayek at the University of Chicago. Raico shows that a number of important liberals focused their criticisms purely on the coercive actions of the State, and not against “social power” of the kind exerted by Christian doctrine.

The preface to this new edition of Raico’s book is by Jörg Guido Hülsmann, author of the definitive biography of Ludwig von Mises and an equally important work on the ethics of money production, and is available online. If you are interested in the connection between religion and politics, you should check it out.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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2 Responses to Christianity and Liberalism (the Old-Fashioned Kind)

  1. Jimmy Brooks says:

    Do you have a hard time getting students to understand true liberalism and that it isn’t the same as its colloquial/popular (as in “of the [uneducated] masses”) namesake today?

    • Dr. J says:

      Prior to discussing conservatism and liberalism, I tell them that they need to forget almost everything they know about contemporary politics and start over. I think most of them get it when I say that 21st-century “conservatives” aren’t too likely to call for a revival of monarchy or a state church.

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