Larry Siedentop’s new book, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism is the subject of a provocative review by Samuel Moyn, a Professor of Law and History at Harvard University in the current issue of Boston Review. If much discussion of Anglo American liberalism has focused on some version of the social contract to provide a normative justification and to motivate allegiance to liberalism, Siedentop has been interested in French liberalism which has tried to provide an account of how liberalism came to the fore. So, as Moyn puts it, Siedentop treats “modern individualism as a historical product rather than a natural fact.” And here comes the heart of Siedentop’s claim: He argues that Christianity played a decisive role in making liberalism possible and that historians have wrongly downplayed the roots of liberalism in the Christianity that flourished in the Middle Ages.
Moyn’s reaction to this claim is quite skeptical and no one would describe his review as generous. But the question of how Christianity relates to liberalism is still quite fascinating. At the outset, it would strike many as counterintuitive that the liberalism which grew out of an animosity to Church corruption and to Church doctrines that flew in the face of rational science was in fact inspired, rather than repulsed by Christianity. In addition, Moyn argues that Christianity was not motivated by worldly concerns, let alone a political philosophy. As Moyn reads scripture, Jesus and Paul expected the world to end soon. On this account, Christianity is concerned with the next world, not with this one: “If the founders of Christianity made individuals matter, and matter equally, it was not for the sake of a new set of beliefs about the social order, let alone a new liberal politics.”
Of course, the world did not end, and Moyn accepts Siedentop’s view that Christianity influenced by Augustine had to give up hopes for “imminent redemption . . . in exchange for indefinite redemption.” More to the point, Christians had to determine what the Gospel message told them about how to live in the world, and it is hard to read the Gospel as supportive of the status quo. It is not just that all are made in the image of God and loved by God; the Gospel is resolutely anti-hierarchical, exalting the poor and making the “least of these” (not just equal as Moyn states), favored over the rich and powerful.
Of course, the Gospel, so interpreted, has not been lived by most Christians, and the message has been twisted by many. But the message is fundamental to Christianity (not to say it is unique to Christianity), and it is even more radical than the liberal tradition. This is not to say that Christianity created liberalism. I have no idea how much truth resides in Siedentop’s claims. But I would say this. The Enlightenment philosophers in Europe (but not in the United States) were motivated by animosity to religion, but Europe at the time was filled with Christians who embraced liberalism while retaining their religion. In the U.S. liberalism was adopted in a society that was saturated with Protestant Christianity. Religion, no doubt, played a complicated role in the rise of liberalism. To my mind, it is counterintuitive to suppose that liberalism was simply repulsed by Christianity; concern about corrupt institutions and fundamentalist rejection of science is not the same as rejecting Christian values. Indeed, Europeans who by and large have rejected religion or at least religious institutions maintain a strong belief in supporting the poor that I believe is a carryover from the Church teachings upon which they were raised and which Pope Francis emphasizes today.
Still the role Christianity played in the formation of liberalism has yet to be fully explored, and I expect that Siedentop’s book is well worth the read despite Moyn’s agitated criticisms, many of which seem quite plausible.