Last Sunday, as we approached Independence Day, I spoke about the relationship between religion and politics. I did so from a historical point of view, hoping to make the very important connection between the faith of Jesus Christ and the political system we call western liberal democracy. (Liberal as in open and generous.) We take our democracy for granted sometimes and assume that equality and justice are intuitive. We tend to think that it must have always been this way; or at least, must have emerged in that form as civilization matured.
The truth is that human equality and equal treatment of everyone are not at all intuitive. Left on our own, we tend to be self-interested, expecting to be treated better than others, presumably because we imagine that we are better than others. Even a more enlightened approach such as the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill assumes that if we all pursue that which is best for ourselves, everyone will be better off, happier.
But in fact, Jesus of Nazareth started a revolution, a “moral revolution,” so-called by Larry Siedentop in his very interesting and persuasive book, Inventing the Individual. By proclaiming that, since all humanity is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27), then all humanity is worthy of respect, freedom and equal treatment. Following in the “Way” of Christ, the Church was inclusive in a way that no other institution was in the ancient world; its rites and sacraments emphasizing the individuality and equality of everyone. Thus, Christianity conquered Rome, not with weapons of war, but with a way of life.
Siedentop traces this through the ages with stops along the way to illustrate progress, slow to be sure, but progress none the less. He includes an interesting look at the High Middle Ages and, a bit later, the work of William of Ockham. Ockham is given credit for separation of church and state, holding that the state should have no control over the free practice of religion, a constitutional right even unto today. All of this Western European history leads to the Enlightenment, the period in 15th and 16th century that celebrated the reasoning ability of humanity. This period ended the idea of religion as superstition as it ended the notion of the divine right of kings. Thomas Hobbes gave us the “Social Compact,” theorizing that government governs at the will of the people and John Locke, who is best remembered as a proponent of limited government, especially that administered by someone who inherited the position. Virtually all the Founders read Locke. His ideas are throughout the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The basic point of all this history is to say that as Americans and as Christians we must never forget where we have come from. Otherwise, we are in danger of losing sight of that which we value and why we think the way we do. It all began with the 1st century “Christian Moral Revolution,” and our faith today is fundamental to understanding our democracy as both freely embrace “liberty and justice for all.”
Two recommended books:
Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual, Allen Lane, London, 2014.
Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped our Values, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 2016.