Liberalism and God

By Melleuish, Greg | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Liberalism and God


Melleuish, Greg, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


We ignore religion at our peril, writes Greg Melleuish.

At an early stage during the French Revolution the decision was taken to reform the French Church.

The revolutionaries introduced a number of innovations including the abolition of most religious orders, the election of priests by their parishioners, and the election of bishops by their priests. They did not handle this attempt at reform very well. The consequence was a massive split between those who supported democratic reform and those who supported the Church.

If anything, this division between Republicans and Catholics, which was to persist in France for the next two hundred years, was the most significant outcome of the French Revolution. One of the major consequences of the French Revolution appeared to be the driving of a giant wedge between Christianity and the new progressive forces of liberalism and democracy in Europe. The Catholic Church for a long time refused to be reconciled with the ideals of liberalism. Liberal reformers denounced the Church as a reactionary institution devoted to keeping the ordinary people trapped in a world dominated by obscurantism and superstition.

This has led many to conclude that Christianity and the modern world did not really go together. One could only be modern if one escaped the clutches of religion and lived a purely secular existence. Many came to the conclusion that religion is invariably conservative, even to the point of being reactionary; an enemy of progress. The writings of Edmund Burke, who provided a powerful defence of the established order in which religion played a key role, seemed to confirm that progressive democracy was the enemy of religion.

The Decline of Christianity in Europe

One of the consequences of this great divide between Christianity and democracy has been the withering of Christianity in Europe. This has been exacerbated by the excessive growth of the secular state in Europe; Europeans increasingly came to seek their salvation in the shape of state sponsored comfort. European civilisation is the only one in the world ever to have moved so far down the path of secularisation. Such religious vitality as it now possesses comes largely from Muslim immigrants.

But history need not have turned out in this way in Europe. One can see this clearly when one compares what happened in America in the wake of its revolution to the French situation. The late eighteenth century saw the unleashing of powerful popular forces in America comparable to those at work in France. There was anticlericalism directed at the various Church establishments. However, in America, these popular forces did not lead to a wedge being driven between Christianity and democracy but rather to their reconciliation. Dissatisfaction with the existing religious situation did not lead to the secular state but to an extraordinary drive to spread the gospel amongst ordinary Americans as they spread outwards into the interior of the continent. In particular, the Methodist circuit riders helped to create a new type of American Christianity, one that was democratic in nature and in which the focus was on the individual believer.

In America, Christianity and democracy became partners in the development of what would become the world's leading economic power. It helped to place the locus of authority in the local community, be it secular or religious, rather than in a hierarchical institution, be it church or state. By focusing on the individual believer American Christianity could be simultaneously liberal and conservative. Individuals were free to develop their capacities but were constrained from the sorts of excesses in which secularists indulged by religious principles and the power that their consciences exercised over them.

Recently John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their book God is Back: How the Global Revival of faith the world, have argued that this American model of religion may yet conquer the world. …

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