University of Notre Dame

Contingency and Contestation in Christianity and Liberalism

June 16, 2023

View PDF



Michael P. Moreland*

What is the relationship of Christianity to liberalism?  Answers include: Liberalism is a product of the moral legacy of Christianity, such as the dignity of individual human persons, equality, rights, perhaps even some forms of democratic institutionalism.  Or liberalism is a hostile reaction against Christianity by way of an autonomous individualism set against divinely ordained creatureliness and dependence, democracy against authority, egalitarianism against hierarchy.  Or liberalism is in a modus vivendi relationship with Christianity and vice versa.  Or perhaps there is something true about each of these answers.

Critiques of liberalism in law and politics come in waves.  The liberal-communitarian debate of the 1980s marked by Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart,1 Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue,2 and Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice3 has given way to the current spate of anti- or postliberalism in Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed4 and the writings of Adrian Vermeule.5  Some of these critiques of liberalism have been expressly anchored in Christian or other theological perspectives and some in a more secular vein.  Debates about liberalism have an ineliminable theological dimension, as noted by Ronald Beiner.  “It is hard to appreciate the full contours of the [liberal-communitarian] debate,” Beiner writes, “without being aware of the degree to which it involves a Jewish-Catholic challenge to the ‘Protestantism’ of contemporary Kantianism (even if some of the spearheads of this Kantian revival are themselves non-Protestant).”6  Such critiques of liberalism capture an intellectual and cultural mood.  But such debates about liberalism and Christianity have infrequently occurred within legal scholarship as such, so it is especially valuable that the Notre Dame Law Review has convened this Symposium of such prominent scholars to shed light on some legal dimensions of these debates.

The essays in this Symposium engage in recurring sets of issues, and here I wish to highlight four of them: (1) the relationship between liberalism and theological traditions; (2) the historically contingent and contested accounts of how liberalism and Christianity have developed over centuries in a relationship that has varied from conciliatory to hostile and what implications that account has for the history of ideas; (3) debates in legal scholarship that are illuminated by posing broader questions about liberalism, Christianity, and constitutionalism, and in particular the relationship of liberalism to different social forms, including religious institutions; and (4) the renewed interest in the relationship between liberalism and Christianity in light of a new generation of critics of liberalism, whether Catholic integralists or other types of anti-liberalism, and the question—posed forcefully at the end of Steven Smith’s paper—of if not liberalism, then what else?7

Several of the essays offer a welcome engagement with particular theological traditions.  Much of the discussion of religion in political theory and in law deals in abstractions, treating religion as a black box of more or less obscure and unreasonable beliefs.  Some of that abstraction about religion in law is well-founded in a reluctance by courts, for example, when adjudicating religious free exercise claims to engage in scrutiny of religious belief.  Even if that reluctance leads to a theologically dissatisfying category of “religion,” judges (at least in American constitutional law) are in a poor position to do any more.  The essays in this Symposium, however, consider theological concepts such as eschatology, sin, providence, and redemption and thereby offer a corrective to such abstract regard for religion generically.

Continue reading in the print edition . . .

©2023 Michael P. Moreland.  Individuals and nonprofit institutions may reproduce and distribute copies of this Response 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.

*University Professor of Law and Religion, Villanova University.

1Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler & Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (updated ed. 1996).

2Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (3d ed. 2007).

3Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (1983).

4Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (2018).

5E.g., Adrian Vermeule, Common Good Constitutionalism: Recovering the Classical Legal Tradition (2022).

6Ronald Beiner, What’s the Matter with Liberalism? 16 n.2 (1992).

7Steven D. Smith, Christians and/as Liberals?, 98 Notre Dame L. Rev. 1497, 1518–22 (2023).