Natural Law, Liberalism, and Christianity, by Frank Van Dun (FVD)
Please note: I will only cover the introduction and conclusion of this piece, before adding some closing thoughts. FVD’s work is rather detailed and thorough, and try as I might I cannot find a reasonable way to summarize it and do it justice at the same time.
Classical liberalism arose at a time when Christian orthodoxy was still vibrant.
It will be good to understand specifically what FVD means when he uses these terms:
By “classical liberalism,” I mean the liberalism of those who postulate a necessary link between liberty and objective law and justice, i.e., respect for natural persons, their property, and contractual obligations.
By “Christian orthodoxy,” I mean the interpretation of the Bible that became authoritative within the main churches as a result of the efforts of Saint Augustine and other early church fathers. However, I shall consider only its moral ontology. Moreover, I shall discount Augustine’s doctrine of hereditary sin.
So, returning to the opening line: FVD is making clear his view that classical liberalism and Christian orthodoxy were connected – the former was born while the latter still held sway. You might say it is coincidence; you might say that classical liberalism could have sprung forth (or still could spring forth) anywhere – in the environment of any other religion or no religion or multiple religions.
You might say this, but there is no evidence for this. So…after several thousand years of recorded history, perhaps we might take the evidence of this as reasonably meaningful; perhaps we can consider the connection as mandatory and even the order as relevant.
How does FVD make the connection?
Liberalism and Christian orthodoxy, sharing a number of fundamental ideas about the nature of man and of interpersonal relations, presuppose the same moral ontology of natural law. The high tide of Christian orthodoxy and classical liberalism belongs to the era when natural law was the fundamental concept of all serious thought about the human world.
Unless someone in the audience has evidence that such “fundamental ideas about the nature of man and of interpersonal relations” are also shared with other religious philosophies – and given the thousands of years of evidence from which you have to find such examples – perhaps we can dispense with the idea that classical liberalism (or its offspring, libertarianism) can be had by all, is equally valid for all, etc.
As an aside (and as I recently commented at the blog), I explored once the Japanese medieval tradition, to see if something approaching the relatively libertarian law of medieval Europe could be found. On the surface, the two societies have much in common. Yet, there was nothing in Japan that one might describe as being the roots of the NAP or natural law. Guess what was missing?
There is no sense of the worth of the individual, no sense of decentralized law – just decentralized power ([and only] toward the latter part of the period in question). There is no concept of natural law, of man made in God’s image, of oath, of law following the oldest custom and tradition, of religion as a check on political power.
China? India? Haven’t checked, but I am willing to make a bet.
In any case, returning to FVD. So much for the rise of classical liberalism; what about the fall?
Both classical liberalism and Christianity went into sharp decline from the later nineteenth century onward, and, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept of natural law was rapidly losing its hold on the intellectual imagination. Today, it is no longer part of the standard intellectual framework.
It was lost so rapidly that the West committed suicide in 1914. From the West, new political philosophies – not born of this marriage of classical liberalism and Christianity, although perhaps built on the offspring with recognition of both parents (i.e. the “Christianity” part) – were offered that resulted in the deaths of perhaps 200 million people. All of this just a few short decades after classical liberal thinking reached its peak political expression.
So, what happened?
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, liberalism was on the defensive, and, indeed, on its way to defeat in the ideological arena. Complacency and intellectual laziness on the part of liberal thinkers certainly played a role in this process, as did an unfortunate conformist disposition to try to latch on to any intellectual fad that caught the public’s eye.
Liberals tended to identify with the status quo even as the status quo evolved into one that accepted “democratic sovereignty, republicanism, and ‘political rights’ of the citizen in the nation-state.” While this conforms more toward the understanding of the term “liberal” today, it still doesn’t explain why.
What happened to the promise of classical liberalism?
While FVD might address this in other of his works, the answer is not clear from this piece. One can be inferred, perhaps. He begins the piece by connecting classical liberalism and Christian orthodoxy. But the damage to this Christian orthodoxy did not begin with the Progressive Era or even the founders of the Enlightenment (and it seems to me that it is with the Progressive Era that FVD finds the roots of the destruction, although I could be wrong on this).
One could say that the damage began with the Renaissance and Reformation, but it would seem fair to suggest that the damage began even before this – before Martin Luther found a hammer and nail. After all, he wasn’t the first to raise legitimate concerns about the role and activities of the Church.
In any case, it seems to me that Robert Nisbet has captured the “why” of the fall as well as anyone I have read, in his examination of the gradual elimination of intermediating institutions – at the same time freeing the individual from the likes of family, church, guild, and freeing the State from competing governance institutions. This process began at the latest with the Reformation and Renaissance, certainly with causes that pre-date this.
Which really points to it: while it sounds ideal to many, freedom cannot be had absent some governance institutions. Our choices come down to two: various, decentralizing institutions to which we voluntarily conform (let’s call this acceptance of a common tradition and culture), or the State. We don’t get to make up a third or choose “none-of-the-above.”
The traditional right would point to the former; the traditional left, the latter. These same conditions and choices apply to libertarian thinking, try as many libertarians might to say that the NAP is freely available to all. And it seems to me that the differences between this traditional view of the right and this traditional view of the left play a larger role in determining our “freedom” than does any difference born by the level of purity in applying the non-aggression principle.