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A Book Review… The Moral Logic That Joins Christianity With Civil Liberty

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Siedentop, Larry. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2017. 448 pp.

In the opening pages of this book, historian Larry Siedentop, Emeritus Fellow of Keble College Oxford, asks, does it make sense to talk about the West? “People who live in the nations once described as part of Christendom — what many would call the post-Christian world — seem to have lost their bearings. Some may welcome this condition, seeing it as liberation from historical myths such as the biblical story of human sin and redemption or a belief in progress ‘guaranteed’ by developments in science.”
Siedentop is convinced that, like it or not, we are in a period of competing beliefs, and it behooves us in the West to understand who we are. The West is challenged on two major fronts, in Europe by Islamic fundamentalism — a world in which religious law excludes a secular sphere — and elsewhere by Marxist socialism, transformed into quasi-capitalism as in China. He then asks, “Can the West still be defined in terms of shared beliefs, ‘liberalism,’ for example?”
Liberalism, he believes, has come to stand for nonbelief, for indifference, for permissiveness, for decadence. If we are to understand ourselves, that is, understand the relationship between our beliefs and our social institutions, we must delve into the history to determine what made us what we are. Deep moral changes in belief, he acknowledges, can take centuries to develop and modify social institutions.
The book tells a fascinating story of how the “individual” became the organizing social principle in the West, and how moral equality became protected before the law. Many people in the West today describe themselves as Christian without going to church or having even a rudimentary knowledge of Christian doctrine. Forgotten is the origin of the moral logic that joins Christianity with civil liberty. Human equality is not decreed by nature, but by culture. The cultural and legal recognition of human equality is not simply told. Give the scope of this volume, a reviewer can only point to a few things that have elicited his interest and perhaps convey the tone of the volume.
In the first century after Christ, we find St. Paul teaching that the “Brotherhood of Mankind under the Fatherhood of God” entails seeing one’s self in others. Whereas men are not equally endowed by nature, they stand morally equal before God. By the second half of the third century, Christianity had become recognized as a component of the Roman Empire. Ambrose and Augustine had become major players. Augustine’s City of God became a template for an understanding of separate roles of civic and ecclesial authority. There were legacies from the past that had to be dealt with.
Siedentop insists that the ancient world was by no means secular. He identifies three inseparable customs inherited from pre-Roman antiquity: 1) domestic religion, 2) family, and 3) the right of property. Every family had its hearth, its ancestors, and its gods, i.e., gods only adored by the family, gods who protected it alone. There was a crucial distinction between public and domestic spheres. The family was everything, a world in which obligation, gods, and priesthood were exclusively domestic.
At the core of such ancient thinking, Siedentop finds an assumption of natural inequality. The ancients instinctively saw a hierarchy or pyramid. Different levels of social status reflected inherent differences in being. The paterfamilias, priest, or citizen did not have to justify his status. His superior status reflected his nature. Reason or logos provided the key, both in the natural and social order. Thought and being (or status) it was assumed were collateral.
Early chapters are devoted to the roles played by Charles Martel, Charlemagne, Gregory the Great, Benedict, and monasticism in the unification of Europe. Charlemagne was undoubtedly the most important. In a reign of nearly fifty years he established Frankish control over most of Western Europe. Given the fall of the Roman Empire and the chaos that remained, Charlemagne attempted to establish social order, create a defensible frontier, and suppress the ever barbarian threat.
Above all he wanted to establish a Christian empire and to propagate correct beliefs and practices which he regarded as the precondition for order and unity. To that end, with the help of Alcuin, he devoted resources to improving education for both the clergy and the people. In Siedentop’s judgment, “Charlemagne presided over the last gasp of antiquity and the foundation of Europe.”
The Council of Reims (1049) decreed the protection of the poor and the sanctity of marriage, condemned consanguinity, and limited the power of the paterfamilias. Europe at the prodding of the Church was acquiring a moral identity. Pope Urban II’s call to halt the spread of Islam revealed a Christian Europe. In Siedentop’s estimation, “The Crusades were a truly universal event, involving all strata of the population. They revealed a people with a shared identity.”
Liberalism as a coherent doctrine, Siedentop maintains, was not born effortlessly. As a political system it developed against the fiercest resistance of the Catholic Church. By the fifteenth century belief in moral equality, natural rights, representative government, and the importance of free enquiry had come to be accepted. They were employed against the Church’s claim to have a right to enforce Christian belief with the help of secular authorities. The Reformation put an end to confessional unity in Europe: Religion came to be looked upon as a private affair, a matter of conscience. Mounting opposition to the claims of the Church was fostered by the natural rights theory of Grotius and Hobbes, and by religious skepticism. Calls for toleration widened until it even included atheism. The only birthright recognized by the liberal tradition is individual freedom.
In the closing pages of the book, Siedentop asks, “Will Europeans come to understand the moral logic that joins Christianity with civil liberty?” It is a pertinent question. The freedoms Europeans take for granted are challenged as a result of the massive immigration of Muslims into Europe who desire to replace the laws of the states that received them with Sharia law. The old warfare between those of religious belief and “godless” secularism may have run its course. The religious camp eventually came to accept civil liberty and religious pluralism. The French anticlericals, with the exception of hard-line Marxists and writers like Richard Dawkins, have given up on their attempt to extirpate religious belief.
The new conflict between Christianity and Islam may be in principle irresolvable — a prospect that needs to be faced.
Siedentop has grounds to argue that, in its origin, “the liberal ideal” is Christianity’s gift to the world. That is, from the time of St. Paul, the belief that moral equality implies a private sphere distinct from the civic, one in which each individual is free to make his decisions apart from secular authorities. That sphere of conscience and free action, the joining of rights with duties, finds its expression in the doctrine we know as separation of church and state. Secularism in its ancient sense, Siedentop insists, does not mean nonbelief or indifference.

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