Liberty has not subsisted outside of Christianity — Lord Acton1
The most liberating political force in the history of mankind has been Christianity (Jn. 8:36). Christianity branched from the trunk of godly Old Testament Hebrew religion, and the ancient Hebrew commonwealth (before the era of the kings [1 Sam. 8] was arguably the most libertarian society in the history of mankind. Christianity inherited from Old Testament faith the bedrock belief in the sovereign, transcendent God Who stands above and judges all humanity, including its systems of civil government.2 The political order is never ultimate.
The Ancient World
Christianity shattered the unity of the ancient, pagan world.3 The source of that unity was the state, usually identified with society itself, at the head of which was a great political ruler, a king or emperor, thought to be a god or god-like. The unity of the ancient, pagan world consisted of the divinization of the temporal order in the form of the state.
Christianity recognized “another king” (Ac. 17:7). While by no means anarchists, the early Christians recognized that no earthly authority, especially political authority, could be ultimate. God’s authority is ultimate.
In clarifying orthodox Christology (the doctrine of Jesus Christ), the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) laid the foundation of Western liberty.4 Jesus Christ alone is both divine and human, fully God and fully Man, the unique link between heaven and earth. He is the only divine-human Mediator. This decision dramatically repudiated every divinization of the temporal order. No state, no church, no family, no man could be God or God-like.
This recognition set patristic Christianity on a collision course with classical politics. Early Christians were savagely persecuted not because they worshipped Jesus Christ, but because they refused to worship the Roman emperor. Polytheistic societies encourage the worship of deities. What they resist is the exclusion of all deities, particularly the state, except the true Deity, the God of the Bible.
The Medieval World
In the medieval world, the Latin Church became a countervailing force in society, checking and limiting the authority of the state. In fact, much of the time, the church’s size and strength far exceeded that of any particular state.5 Lord Acton was correct to suggest that the practice of political liberty in the West arose largely from this medieval church-state conflict.6 In addition, the medieval world, despite its many defects, supported a large measure of political liberty in fostering several human institutions besides the church which claimed the allegiance of man: the family, the guild, the feudal lord, and so forth.7 This meant that the state had to share its authority with other equally legitimate human institutions. No human institution may exercise ultimate authority.
The Modern World
Constitutional limitations on political power, out of which arose the practice of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century constitutional democracies, started in Christian England with the Magna Carta. England also delivered the first successful assault against the evil doctrine of the divine right of kings during the Puritan Revolution in the first half of the seventeenth century, and in 1688-89 during the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary it nailed the coffin shut on this long-lived threat to political liberty. The founding of the United States was the greatest experiment in political liberty to that time, and it operated self-consciously on certain distinctly Christian premises. The Founders, for example, recognized the Biblical doctrine of original sin and human depravity, and therefore fashioned a system of civil government that divided decision making among several branches and did not vest any single branch of civil government with too much power.8 Second, they argued that the role of civil government is to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and happiness,” with which God as Creator endowed all men. Third, recognizing the Biblical doctrine that civil government should protect minorities (Ex. 23:9), they drafted a constitution to which they attached a Bill of Rights, thus inhibiting tyranny arising from quick political change at the whim of democratic opinion.
Political liberty as reflected in the separation of powers, as well as checks and balances; the role of the state in protecting life, liberty, and property; and the constitutional protection of the rights of minorities all these were bequeathed to the modern world by Christianity.
Whither the West?
Today the West languishes under the violence of abortion and euthanasia, the scourge of homosexuality, the poverty of materialism, the coercion of socialism, the stranglehold of public education, the chaos of judicial activism, and the injustice of a forced racism and sexism. These tyrannies are all the direct result of the abandonment of Biblical Christianity. The Western world has increasingly accepted the proposal of that first modern political liberal, Jean Jacques Rousseau: the state will emancipate you from responsibility to all non-coercive human institutions like the family, church, and business, if only you submit yourself to the coercion of the state.9 Modern man has been willing to trade away responsibility to the family and church and business for subjugation to an increasingly coercive and violent political order. We are returning to the classical, pagan world in which the coercive state is the unifying principle for all of life.
The most vicious, violent, and murderous political regimes in the history of mankind have been non- or anti-Christian: the primitive pagan humanism of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, and the sophisticated secular humanism of revolutionary France, the Soviet Union, Red China, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and other modern secular states. Humanism is and always has been a recipe for political terror and tyranny.10
The only hope for the return of political liberty and the free society it fosters is a return to orthodox, Biblical Christianity. Christianity is not merely a matrix in which political freedom flourishes; it is the only foundation on which to build a free society.
1. Lord Acton, Essays in Religion, Politics, and Morality, ed. J. Rufus Fears (Indianapolis, 1988), 491.
2. James Muilenburg, "The Faith of Ancient Israel," in ed., George F. Thomas, The Vitality of the Christian Tradition (New York and London, 1945), 9.
3. Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (London, 1955).
4. Rousas John Rushdoony, The One and the Many (Fairfax, VA , 1978), 161-164.
5. Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe (London, 1948), 204-208.
6. Lord Acton, Essays in the History of Liberty, ed. J. Rufus Fears (Indianapolis, 1985), 33.
7. Robert Nisbert, The Social Philosophers (New York, 1973), 125.
8. John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution (Grand Rapids, 1987), 20-21.
9. Nisbet, op. cit., 145-148.
10. E. Stanton Evans, The Theme is Freedom (Washington, D.C., 1994), 39-56.