The Bright Line: Liberalism & Religion

By Elshtain, Jean Bethke | New Criterion, March 1999 | Go to article overview

The Bright Line: Liberalism & Religion


Elshtain, Jean Bethke, New Criterion


It is not at all clear whether contemporary liberalism, in its many modes of expression, has betrayed its own tradition in relation to religion or, rather, if what we are witnessing is a gradual and more complete display of liberalism's constitutive principles in its dealings with religion. The standard treatment of liberalism and religion tells us that liberalism saved religion from itself--that is, liberalism saved religion from its bloodcurdling excesses and absolutist demands. It is said that by forcing a regime of "toleration" on religion, liberalism in its constitutional forms demanded that religion act more humanely. And so it came to pass that both sides--"sectarian" groups (meaning religious groups, of course) and non-sectarian groups (all the others organized along the lines of the liberal mandate)--have learned to live happily or at least safely with one another. But this truce is insistently represented as fragile. If religion threatens to get "out of hand"--that is, if believers threaten to take their religion seriously--it must be beaten back. No sooner does someone mention school prayer, for example, than religious wars and even the Spanish Inquisition get trotted out as warnings. Never mind that such horrors are scarcely serious historic possibilities in late twentieth-century American democracy: the specter of the return of the Spanish Inquisition--perhaps under the auspices of the notorious "Christian Right"--is regularly held up as the greatest danger we face from a resurgent and, by definition, intolerant and absolutist commitment to religion. I do not think school prayer is a good idea, but not because I believe inquisitors are just around the corner.

Still, this is the usual story one hears when the subject of liberalism and religion comes up. But there are other ways to tell the story of the relation between liberalism and religion. Alternative explanations do not possess the "self-evident" status that the accepted liberal narrative enjoys in our culture. And the very complexity of the topic makes any attempt to examine the relationship between religion and liberalism a daunting task in which much that is important will be left out. Still, a closer look cannot help but complicate the tidy story of liberalism's triumph over religious intolerence.

A bit of historical background is necessary. Let's rummage in the pre-liberal past for a moment or two. Before the emergence of those social-contract theories associated with liberalism (though not with liberalism exclusively), all assumptions about governance and rule held that government's legitimacy turned on a divine mandate. This didn't necessarily mean that a ruler governed absolutely or tyrannically; indeed, a ruler could violate the office which was his sacred trust, go from being king to being tyrant, and be openly punished by tyrannicide. The major point is that rulers were beholden to a greater power outside themselves: they held their office in trust. In theory, this accountability to a higher power was meant to stay the hand of those driven to excess. The record is uneven, of course, as to just how much restraint was afforded by the assumption that a rulers legitimacy was accorded by God. At the same time, societies were dotted with networks of communal and corporate bodies functioning autonomously. The university, an invention of the Middle Ages, is a good example of an autonomous communal institution into which the king's writ did not run. Families were intergenerational and extended, and this afforded a good measure of social power and protection. Most importantly, religion and civic standing were tethered together. You could not be a subject in good standing unless you were a communicant is good standing.

All of this was to change. With the coming of greater commerce, the breakup of medieval Christendom, the centralization and solidification of monarchies and principalities, and, in 1555, the religious Peace of Augsburg, the enshrining of cuius regio (namely, that the faith of the ruler was the faith of his kingdom), Western Europe moved decisively into a new era. …

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