Church & State

Christianity provides a safe context for free institutions to flourish

Christianity and Freedom: Volume 1  Historical Perpectives edited by Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D Hertzke, Cambridge University Press 2016  413 pp   £66

As the American Presidential election nears with forebodings christianity-and-freedom-bookcoverof threats to religious
freedom, this timely collection of fifteen essays examines the contributions of pre-Reformation Christianity to the development of freedom,  (particularly religious freedom for all since religious belief cannot be coerced), and how various protestant traditions and communities contributed to it after the Reformation.

Starting with a hard-hitting essay by Kyle Harper on “Christianity and the Roots of Human Dignity in late Antiquity”.  Mythologies purveyed by an older generation of liberal scholars paid more attention to nineteenth-century biblical skepticism and existential philosophy than the actual wrestling of the fathers with scripture in Greco-Roman society.

To answer the question “How did humans come to be seem as universally free and incomparably worthy figures?” (p.127) needs more than the usual “drive-by history” that begins with the Enlightenment . “It needs to take seriously its deep taproots in an ancient religious view of humanity”, where “Christian sexual morality collided with the systematic exploitation of men and women who lacked access to social honour by virtue of their status.”(p. 137)

Without Christianity, these essays ask, would the Enlightenment have produced the American and French Revolutions? No, it produced Nietzche. “Impartial historians will have to acknowledge that free institutions hardly ever developed in places that were not influenced by Jewish and Christian ideas.” (p 402).

Then read Robert Woodberry’s groundbreaking work on “Protestant Missions and the Centrality of Conversion Attempts for the Spread of Education, Printing, Colonial Reform and Political Democracy” who asserts that Protestants stimulated mass printing for the masses since they believed everyone had a right to read the Word of God. When other religious interests were thus threatened, they released control of texts by printing for mass distribution.  The quest for religious liberty unleashing the right to convert helped lay the foundations much that Western academics ( and others) value – freedom of speech and of association, mass education, wide availability of printed texts, NGOs, colonial reform movements including the abolition of slavery and better health.

Timothy Samuel Shah’s helpful introduction summarises the essential points from each contributor, particularly valuable given that one or two are shrouded in scholarly hat-tips and caveats and are like wading through treacle.

David Philpott challenges the secular liberal narrative which claims that liberal democracy could only emerge when politics was cast free from religion.  Rather Christian liberals between 1800 – 2000 can be shown to have directly contributed to the widening of the franchise, the freeing of slaves, the toppling of dictatorships and the legal guarantee of religious freedom.

The collection should find its way into every seminary library as a major set text on human rights and freedom to inform engagement in current debates with its nuggets of insights: “Without religion, human rights become infinitely expandable, become too captive to Western libertarian ideals and the state is given an exaggerated role to play as the guarantor of human rights” John Witte Jr (quoted on p 176).  Remind you of anybody?