The origins of secular liberalism

5th November 2015

I have always maintained that secular democracy was the best expression of Christian values in the political sphere. Jesus called people to repent and believe, to be born again, to make a choice of the will to deny themselves and follow him. Some of his hearers did so, others didn’t. Jesus early followers challenged people to confess Jesus as Lord (rather than Caesar as Lord) – to make an individual (and often costly) choice to follow Jesus. Some of their hearers did, others didn’t. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, education and choice without coercion was the way the Christian gospel spread for the first 2 centuries. It follows, so I’ve been saying, that a Christian polity must champion the freedom of an individual to make wilful choices in areas of conscience. I’ve quoted the early Baptist Thomas Helwys here before. He died in Newgate prison for telling King James II that it wasn’t his place to punish Jews, Turks or Heretics.

But something I had not clocked is that the liberal-ish secular-ish democracy we enjoy is the product of Christianity. Inventing the Individual, one of the books I read during my recent sabbatical makes this point very persuasively. It’s author, Larry Siedentop a former lecturer in political thought at Oxford University traces the routes of modern secular liberalism to Paul’s understanding of the re-invention of the individual in Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Siedentop’s take on this was that Paul’s teaching emancipated the individual will from the ties of the family cult, religious identity and the imperial economy. Inventing the individual traces this freedom through the early church and canon law in the middle ages to the emergence of western secular democracy. I don’t know enough about history to spot the flaws in the argument, but it makes perfect sense to me. “Secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world”

The fascinating thing for me as a Christian reader of Inventing the Individual was the number of times Siedentop feels compelled to say liberals may not like this but… The freedom and tolerance we enjoy today really are products of our Christian roots. Perhaps it’s time we got a little less embarrassed about Christianity and understood a bit more about how much of a positive influence Christian thought has had on our society.