As If God Existed: Religion and Liberty in the History of Italy

As If God Existed: Religion and Liberty in the History of Italy

As If God Existed: Religion and Liberty in the History of Italy

As If God Existed: Religion and Liberty in the History of Italy


Religion and liberty are often thought to be mutual enemies: if religion has a natural ally, it is authoritarianism--not republicanism or democracy. But in this book, Maurizio Viroli, a leading historian of republican political thought, challenges this conventional wisdom. He argues that political emancipation and the defense of political liberty have always required the self-sacrifice of people with religious sentiments and a religious devotion to liberty. This is particularly the case when liberty is threatened by authoritarianism: the staunchest defenders of liberty are those who feel a deeply religious commitment to it.

Viroli makes his case by reconstructing, for the first time, the history of the Italian "religion of liberty," covering its entire span but focusing on three key examples of political emancipation: the free republics of the late Middle Ages, the Risorgimento of the nineteenth century, and the antifascist Resistenza of the twentieth century. In each example, Viroli shows, a religious spirit that regarded moral and political liberty as the highest goods of human life was fundamental to establishing and preserving liberty. He also shows that when this religious sentiment has been corrupted or suffocated, Italians have lost their liberty.

This book makes a powerful and provocative contribution to today's debates about the compatibility of religion and republicanism.


This exploration of Itialian history offers English-speaking readers a general, valuable lesson on the relationship between liberty and religion. My study focuses on three experiences of social and political emancipation in Italy: the free republics of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, the Risorgimento, and the antifascist Resistenza (also called the Second Risorgimento). Grand and noble as they were, none of these experiences resulted in long-lasting liberty: early modern city republics were all (with the exception of Venice) consumed and destroyed by open or veiled forms of tyranny, and by the mid-sixteenth century Italy fell under foreign domination; the liberal state created by the Risorgimento collapsed sixty years later under the yoke of the fascist regime; and the Italian Republic that was born in 1946 and was to a considerable degree the expression of the antifascist struggle has degenerated into Silvio Berlusconi’s court system. Italy, to aptly describe its political identity, is a country marked by fragile liberty.

In each case, religious sentiments and language played a fundamental role. City-republics were sustained by a civic religion that combined in a rather innovative way classical and biblical themes. the Risorgimento was preceded and accompanied by a religious renaissance made possible by the rediscovery and reinterpretation of Christianity, as well as the elaboration of various forms of “religion of duty” or “religion of humanity.” the antifascist movement found inspiration in the “religion of liberty” framed by Benedetto Croce and other political writers.

The corruption and decline of political liberty, too, has been related to religious conceptions and practices. City-republics were first enervated by the degeneration of Christianity into a religion that fiercely opposed civic virtue, and then inundated by the religion of the Counter-Reformation with its fervor for appearances and exteriority along with its moral teaching founded on docility, submission, and simulation. Fascism triumphed over the liberal state, proclaiming a new religion of the nation. To a considerable degree, the decline of the democratic republic is a consequence of the neglect and destruction of what was left of the civil religion of the Risorgimento and Resistenza. Italian history, then, seems to teach us that . . .

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