17 January 2011

Christian and liberal?

In a recent comment on this blog Mark Richardson of Australia expressed the view that Christianity and liberalism were incompatible: Notes from underground: Clarissa's Blog: Being Hated by Conservatives vs Being Hated by Liberals:
I'm a little surprised that you are both an orthodox deacon and someone who appears to identify with liberalism.

Liberalism is the replacement philosophy for Christianity. It is founded on the idea that the good in life is to be a self-creating, autonomous individual.

What matters to a liberal is that we are 'liberated' from impediments to choosing as we will. Therefore, the sexual revolution is thought of as a good thing by liberals as it liberated individuals from an older Christian morality.

The liberal concept of freedom, in other words, is incompatible with the Christian concept of freedom.

I recently read the biography of Peter Brown, the former leader of the former Liberal Party of South Africa, and reviewed it on my other blog here.

Reading Peter Brown's biography prompted some reflection on just what it was that made me get off the fence of a theoretical political neutrality and actually become a card-carrying Liberal. Though I had been sympathetic towards the Liberal Party since the age of 12 (when it had been founded) and urged my mother to vote for them when I was too young to vote myself, I thought that it was better, as a Christian, not to actually join a political party, but to maintain a certain critical distance from all of them (as I do now).

I did have a brief flirtation with the Progressive Party soon after it was founded, when a friend invited me to a meeting and I was carried away by the rhetoric of their leader, Jan Steytler. I even attended their founding congress as an observer, where they adopted their policy of a qualified franchise, which basically meant giving votes to the rich and educated, regardless of colour, rather than the current Nationalist policy of votes for whites only. I had some misgivings about that. While I was still at school I had read a novel by Neville Shute, In the wet, in which he had described a system of multiple voting. It made sense to me at the time. It gave everyone a say in running the country, but avoided the main weakness (as it seemed) of democracy -- counting heads with no regard for what is in them. I tried to advocate this idea at the Progressive party congress, but no one was interested, so I lost interest in the Progressives.

When I went to the University of Natal at Pietermaritzburg in 1963 I actually met some real live liberals, and attended some of their meetings (as opposed to just reading their election pamphlets and other literature, which was the only contact I had had previously). The Liberals advocated "one man one vote". I thought it better than the Progressive qualified franchise, but still thought that a multiple voting system would be better.

What finally made me join was a combination of three factors that convinced me that the Liberal Party policy of one-man, one vote was right. The first of these was my theological studies at the university. The second was the people I met at rural branches of the Liberal Party, and the third was attending Evensong at St Alphege’s Anglican Church in Scottsville. Theology, political activism and worship. My theological studies convinced me that since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, no one is qualified to hold political power over another, and certainly neither education nor wealth (the basis of the Progressive qualified franchise) qualified one to do so. Neither did race (the basis of the Nationalist whites-only franchise).

The peasants who belonged to the Liberal Party in the rural areas were, most of them, under threat of ethnic cleansing since they lived in “black spots”, and without votes they were simply political footballs of Nationalist ideology, and most of them would not have qualified to vote under the Progressive Party policy. And those who devised the evil and unjust policy of apartheid would all have qualified to vote, but their wealth and education did nothing, absolutely nothing, to prevent them from promulgating evil and unjust laws. Some of the Nat legislators had PhDs. It was the poor and oppressed who had some moral sense, and a better grasp of political reality.

So though I could truthfully say that I had been a Liberal Party sympathiser from the age of 12, when I first saw a banner announcing the formation of the party, it was not until another 12 years had passed, at the age of 24, that I saw the need to become fully committed as a party member.

And the kind of thinking that led me to that conclusion has been very well expressed by G.K. Chesterton, when he said,

I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy, in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity. If any one finds the phrase vague or threadbare, I can only pause for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy, as I mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves--the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

And it was such things that convinced me that the racist elitism of the Nationalists and the economic elitism of the Progressives was not for me, and so I became a Liberal.

Of course not all members of the Liberal Party were Christians. There were Jews, Muslims and Hindus as well. There were atheists and agnostics. They all had their own reasons for joining, and supporting liberal principles and policies like the the rule of law and civil rights and being opposed to authoritarian government and apartheid and ethnic cleansing. I cannot speak for the others, but I can say what led me, as a Christian, to join the Liberal Party.

So I hope that answers Mark Richardson's question.

I also disagree with almost every one of Mark's contentions about the nature of liberalism and what constitutes liberalism. I am a political liberal, not a theological, economic or philosophical liberal. And as a political liberal I see the freedom advocated by liberalism as being quite limited. It is limited to freedom from being oppressed by other men. It has nothing to do with being freed from morality, because part of morality, or at least Christian morality (as I see it) is that we should not oppress others. As our Lord Jesus Christ said "All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets" Matt 7:12. Anyone who wants to be freed from that aspect of morality is not a liberal but a fascist. Unless you want to be detained without trial yourself, then, don't detain others without trial -- and that applies equally to John Vorster Square, Lubyanka, and Guantanamo Bay.

For more, see here.


Fr. Andrew said...

American liberalism is what I think the gent had in mind, and even that is a multifarious thing. Our politics is almost entirely liberal by the classic definition you're using, at least theoretically. (Guantanamo is a good example of how we have violated our most basic political traditions.)

James Higham said...

Yes, Christianity and liberalism [of the American variety - the hijacking of the word and not classic liberalism] are incompatible because the latter leads to Statism and Totalitarianism and the snuffing out of Christianity. One only need read the liberals to see their agenda.

Steve Hayes said...

Aye, but the gent is from Australia, and if I recall correctly the Liberal and Country Party there is fairly conservative, and the other main party is the Labor (sic) Party.

Anyway, I am in South Africa, and the Liberal agenda was very much as I described it in my messagfe above: abolish apartheid, stop ethnic cleansing, restore the rule of law, have a democratically elected government by universal adult suffrage and have an entrenched bill of rights that can't be altered by a simple parliamentary majority.

I really don't see why it would be more Christian to support fascism than to support that.

Anonymous said...

I think the difference between your liberalism and the version that offends Mr. Richardson is the notion of common good. That also is what has been lost in America. Both the Calvinist-flavored Puritan tradition, which spoke of covenant, and the more secular civic humanism of the Southern planters, which spoke of independency as a means of serving the common good, assumed that private self-interest stood in tension with the public good. The Puritans associated self-interest with Mammon, and the republicans associated it with Parliamentary corruption. Only later did Americans develop the view that self-interest WAS the common good, or rather, that the common good would naturally emerge if competitive, acquisitive individuals simply tended to their private interests. That this now is called “conservatism” in America testifies to the nation’s deep confusion. It actually is a rabid, irresponsible form of liberalism, one closer to what Richardson described than what you or Chesterton described. I find myself put off by the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, et. al., because of how LIBERAL they are (in the worst sense of the word). Basically, they are Social Darwinists, another irony given that they claim to be anti-Darwinian. Walt

Steve Hayes said...

I think it is important to distinguish between political, economic and theological liberalism. Economic liberalism is sometimes called "neoliberalism" nowadays. I espouse political liberalism, not the other two.

Much confusion is caused by treating "liberalism" and "conservatism" as opposites. They are not. The opposite of liberalism is not conservatism but authoritarianism. The opposite of conservatism is not liberalism but radicalism.


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