University of Notre Dame

Christians and/as Liberals?

June 16, 2023

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Steven D. Smith*


Christianity and liberalism were made to fit each other, like hand and glove.  According to some interpretations, anyway.  Liberal constitutionalism, with its commitments to freedom and equal human dignity, is the political system that reflects and embodies Christian commitments;1 and the constitutional legal order that accompanies liberalism,2 centrally including legally enforced rights of religious freedom, is the mode of government that best permits Christians to live in accordance with their faith in a fallen and deviant world.  Thus, a couple of decades ago, Robert Kraynak reported that “[a]lmost all churches and theologians now believe that the form of government most compatible with the Christian religion is democracy,”3 and Kraynak used the terms “democracy” and “liberal democracy” almost interchangeably.4

Kraynak explained, however, that this is a modern view, contrary to the overall authority of Christian Scripture, thought, and practice through the centuries.5  And in other interpretations, congenial to some who are Christians and some who emphatically are not, liberalism and Christianity are intrinsically incompatible, even antagonistic.  From the non-Christian side, a tradition going back at least to Voltaire and Hume (and to figures in the ancient world like the emperor Julian “the Apostate”) portrays Christianity as the embodiment of illiberal qualities—intellectual narrowmindedness, superstition, intolerance, moral repressiveness.6  From the Christian side, liberalism, with its perceived inclinations to secularism, moral relativism, and rampant individualism unconstrained by truth or natural law, may seem the antithesis of Christianity’s sober beliefs and commitments.7

So, which family of interpretations is more credible and commendable?  Answers to that question must necessarily be tentative, for at least two reasons that should be noted at the outset.  First, “liberalism” and “Christianity” are both contested and protean terms: both come in a variety of forms,8 and both have evolved, or degenerated, or evolved and degenerated, over time.  Second, if St. Augustine was right, then we know a priori that the City of Man and the City of God will never be in complete harmony; at least latent tensions and conflicts will always exist.9  Consequently, it will not be dispositive for critics to point out discrepancies between a prevailing political order and Christian commitments.  Of course such discrepancies exist; that much can be taken for granted.  Indeed, the presentation of any this-worldly political arrangement as unqualifiedly in harmony with Christianity should for that very reason arouse suspicions.

From what I am calling the Augustinian perspective, the aspiration would be for some kind of practical peace10—probably a modus vivendi at best—and even that ideal will never be fully and securely realized.  Every political arrangement will be flawed and unsatisfactory, and the practical question will always be one of more or less: is some particular form of government and society more or less compatible with the Christian life compared with the available alternatives?11  And it would hardly be surprising if the answers to that question vary, not just from person to person but from time to time and place to place.  One kind of political regime may be compatible with Christianity in some ways but incompatible in others.  And a relatively Christian-friendly regime that is possible in some historical circumstances may not be a realistic option under other historical conditions.

In this Article, I will pursue these elusive questions in three stages.  Part I will offer an interpretation of what “liberalism” is, at least for purposes of this Article.  Part II will consider broadly the various ways in which liberalism so understood is in harmony or, conversely, in conflict with the received core of Christianity.  Part III will address the question: If not liberalism, then what?  Reflecting on various alternatives, the section will suggest, cautiously, tentatively, that all things considered and despite its shortcomings, liberalism may be, for now, for us, in our historical circumstances, the alternative that prudent Christians should prefer.  The conclusion, however, will indulge in some second thoughts about that prescription.  (And I hope this preview conveys the ambivalence that is intended.)

Continue reading in the print edition . . .

©2023 Steven D. Smith.  Individuals and nonprofit institutions may reproduce and distribute copies of this Article in any format at or below cost, for educational purposes, so long as each copy identifies the author, provides a citation to the Notre Dame Law Review, and includes this provision in the copyright notice.

*Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, University of San Diego.  Thanks to Larry Alexander, Nathan Chapman, Maimon Schwarzschild, Horacio Spector, George Wright, and the participants in the “half-baked lunch” workshop at the University of San Diego for helpful comments on earlier drafts.

1See Graeme Smith, A Short History of Secularism 15 (2008) (asserting that “[i]deas of individual human worth and dignity, shared public reason, the progress of human society through history, and the ability of humanity to investigate its world, can all be traced to Christian theological sources.”).  For careful development of this proposition, see generally Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014).

2Cf. Francis Fukuyama, Liberalism and Its Discontents 3 (2022) (“Liberalism in the sense I am using it refers to the rule of law, a system of formal rules . . . .”).

3Robert P. Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World 1 (2001).

4Id. at 9–44.

5The common Christian assumption today, Kraynak argued,

is that Christianity introduced a revolutionary idea into world history—the equal dignity and infinite worth of every human being in the eyes of God—and that the full social and political implications of this idea were hidden by prejudice and intolerance for many centuries until they emerged in the modern age as the democratic idea of equality and the liberal idea of respect for individual human rights.

Id. at 6.  Kraynak’s book strongly criticizes this assumption.

6See Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac 205–10 (2018).

7Various forms of what the authors call religious (mostly Christian) “antiliberalism” are discussed and criticized in Richard Schragger & Micah Schwartzman, Religious Antiliberalism and the First Amendment, 104 Minn. L. Rev. 1341, 1343 (2020).

8See James R. Rogers, Counting Liberalisms, Law & Liberty (Aug. 17, 2022), https://‌‌/counting-liberalisms‌/ [https://‌‌/4D4K-4X5S] (arguing that depending on how one defines the elements of liberalism, there can be as many as fifty-seven different plausible versions of liberalism).

9Of course, Augustine wrote voluminously, and his writings have elicited numerous interpretations.  My basic reference here is to Augustine’s idea that the City of God and the City of Man are defined and driven by two different loves, and that they are thus fundamentally in tension even though peace between them is sometimes possible.  SeeAugustine, The City of God Against the Pagans bk. XIX, ch. 17, at 193–99 (William McAllen Green trans., Harvard Univ. Press 1960) (426).  For a summary of this understanding, see Kraynaksupra note 3, at 90–94.

10Cf. Kraynaksupra note 3, at 91 (explaining that “Augustine lowers the goal of the earthly city from charity and justice to the ‘tranquility of order’ . . . . Augustine usually refers to the tranquility of order as a type of ‘peace’ rather than as a type of ‘justice’ in order to lower expectations about politics”).

11That “more or less” question will of course also be the relevant one for many others who are not Christians but whose (unrealizable) ideal is something like “wise and just government.”