There Is No Conflict Between Classical Liberalism and Religion

Since at least as early as the 1960s, pundits and intellectuals of the conservative movement have employed a caricature of “classical liberals” as amoral hedonists who make an idol of freedom.

Modern observers might be forgiven for thinking that this critique has only been leveled against the people we now call libertarians—some of whom are the sorts of people who strip down to their underwear at Libertarian Party political conventions.

Classical Liberalism Can’t Coexist with Religious Faith?

But those people aren’t the (only) ones being targeted here. Rather, it has long been the position of many conservative authors and pundits that the entire liberal tradition—including all those laissez-faire “classical” liberals like Frederic Bastiat and Lord Acton—embraces a political ideology utterly incompatible with the notion of a higher moral order.

Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen, for example, makes this claim in a 2018 book—appropriately criticized by Allen Mendenhall here.

But this position is most succinctly summed up in an essay by conservative M. Stanton Evans from 1964:

The libertarian, or classical liberal, characteristically denies the existence of a God-centered moral order, to which man should subordinate his will and reason. Alleging human freedom as the single moral imperative, he otherwise is a thoroughgoing relativist, pragmatist, and materialist. [Emphasis added]

Again, this isn’t just a bunch of pot-smoking anarchists we’re talking about here. Evans is explicitly attacking classical liberals in general, and this naturally includes libertarians of all types.

Presumably, then, we must apply Evans’ critique to the entire range of classical liberals including the Jeffersonians, the Jacksonians, the British Liberals, the French liberals, and numerous other groups that have historically embraced laissez-faire on liberal grounds.

[Read More: “‘Libertarian’ Is Just Another Word for (Classical) Liberal” by Ryan McMaken]

The general narrative embraced by Evans here is largely unchanged over the decades in some conservative circles: all types of liberalism are immoral and dangerous, we’re told, and from John Locke to John Stuart Mill, the classical liberal tradition is one that leads to the destruction of Western civilization. This is because—to use Evans’s words— it “characteristically denies the existence of a God-centered moral order.”

Mendenhall addresses this in his critique of Deneen, demonstrating that on a theoretical level, there is nothing “characteristic” about classical liberalism that makes it materialistic or opposed to Evans’s notion of a proper moral order.

Historian Ralph Raico has also addressed this at the theoretical level, specifically addressing Evans’s charge in the New Individualist Review in 1964. 

A Brief History of Religious Classical Liberals

But it should also be emphasized that this position exonerating liberalism of its alleged anti-religious bias is not merely idiosyncratic revisionism after the fact, or the position of a few eccentrics.

Rather, we can find numerous examples of leading liberal theorists and practitioners who were not just vaguely “religious,” but were explicitly Christian. 

The apparent compatability between liberalism and religion—which in practice here usually means Christianity—is not merely theoretical, but is apparently a fact accepted by liberals themselves. That is, historical case studies help to illustrate the error of Evans’s thesis as well. 

In response to the charge that consistent classical liberals can’t be religious, Raico contends:

This is false, of course, in regard to the many liberals who were Christians (e.g., Ricardo, Cobden, Bright, Bastiat, Madame de Stael, Acton, Macaulay, etc.). Indeed, many classical liberals (including present-day ones) have felt that the connection between their political and their religious and ethical views has been a very intimate one. Frederic Bastiat, for instance, who, because of his “superficiality” and “glib optimism” is sometimes taken to be the very paradigm example of a classical liberal, expressed himself as follows towards the end of one of his more important works:

There is a leading idea which runs through the whole of this work, which pervades and animates every page and every line of it; and that idea is embodied in the opening words of the Christian Creed—I BELIEVE IN GOD.

John Bright was the man who, with Cobden, and for twenty years after Cobden’s death, was the leader of the Manchester School in British politics and political and economic thought—surely a typical liberal, if there is such a thing. Yet the following characterization of Bright, by his most authoritative biographer, hardly seems compatible with [Evans’s] description:

Religious feeling, in its simplest form, was the very basis of his life. He was always a Friend [i.e., Quaker] before everything else; and a servant of God; a man of deep, though ever more silent devotion.

Although Christians were probably, and theists certainly, in the majority, it is true that a certain number of liberals were atheists or (much more frequently) agnostics: J. S. Mill, Herbert Spencer, John Morley, etc. Nevertheless, the following points ought to be made: (a) the denial of a “God-centered moral order” has been no more characteristic of classical liberalism than its affirmation; (b) even if a majority of liberals had been atheists and agnostics, the connection is so far accidental and historically-conditioned, and not logical; (c) supposing the majority of liberals to have been tainted with unbelief in one form or another, Evans still presents no reasons for dismissing the liberalism of Christian writers like Bastiat.

Raico doesn’t mention the American counterparts of Cobden and Bright: the Jacksonians and the Democrats under Samuel Tilden and Grover Cleveland. As noted by Murray Rothbard, the Democrats of this period were the proponents of laissez-faire and the heirs to the Jeffersonian tradition. But by no means were the American liberal Democrats of the nineteenth century animated by atheism, moral relativism, or materialism, except in a few corners of the movement. Indeed, the Democrats of that era attracted in large numbers Lutheran and Catholic immigrants and—later in the century—Irish Catholic immigrants as well.1

Far from trashing a “God-centered moral order” the American liberals of the nineteenth century were deeply moralistic while promoting a social order that was Christian, middle class, and in many ways Victorian.

The same was true of the British liberals under Cobden and Bright. 

Nor do we find much help for Evans’s thesis when we look to France.

It is true that giants of French liberalism like Alexis de Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant were not especially devout men. But it is also true that both Tocqueville and Constant, in the words of Raico, “looked to religious faith to aid the cause of liberty.” To these men, “religious faith appeared as a welcome—indeed, an indispensable—ally.” They apparently failed to find any inherent conflict between liberalism and the Christian faith they promoted as a bulwark against despotism. 2

But this “alliance” between liberalism and religion was not limited to using religion as a mere tool one might use against the state.  The school of Catholic liberals—not to be confused with the “liberal Catholics” of today—sought to make it quite clear that there was no conflict between practicing Christianity and promoting liberalism.

Chief among these liberals we find the influential editor and legislator Charles de Montalembert—described by Gustave de Molinari as “the Cobden of religious liberty”—who denied there is an necessary connection between liberalism and moral relativism. Indeed, Montalembert was not at all a relativist when it came to doctrinal religious controversies and he explicitly rejected what he called “the ridiculous and culpable doctrines that all religions are equally true and good.”3

As part of their crusade for religious freedom, the Catholic liberals in France—including Montalembert, but also the Dominican friar Henri Lacordaire and the Catholic “blessed” Frederic Ozanam—sought to separate French liberalism from the fanatical anti-clericalsm still held by some liberals under the influence of the French revolutionaries. 

Confusing Liberalism with the Ideologies of the French Enlightenment 

So why has Evans’s caricature of the classical liberals endured? 

Some of the misunderstanding may stem from the fact that many theorists of the so-called Enlightenment period have often wrongly been called liberals. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, it seemed virtually anyone radically opposed to the status quo was labeled a liberal. But this opposition could take many forms. It might manifest itself in utopian notions of the democratic “general will” or in attacks on the clergy. But such notions do not make one a liberal. This became much more clear by the nineteenth century as socialist parties began to bring into focus the difference between being positively in favor of political freedom, and merely being against the prevailing social order.  The classical liberal—and practicing Catholic—Lord Acton alluded to this problem when he wrote:

all these factions of opinion (in pre-Revolutionary France) were called Liberal: Montesquieu, because he was an intelligent Tory; Voltaire, because he attacked the clergy; Turgot, as a reformer; Rousseau, as a democrat; Diderot, as a freethinker. The one thing in common to them all is the disregard for liberty.

Acton, of course, understood that the fanciful notions of Enlightenment theorists did not define the reality of liberalism as applied in the real world, as or believed by liberals themselves. Given the experiences shared by countless classical liberals in the United States, Britain and France, it’s hard to come to the same conclusion as Evans and his conservative ideological descendants. Although some conservatives may insist that the classical liberals are necessarily opposed to a “God-centered” social order, the historical facts suggest otherwise. 

  • 1. For a more complete image of the liberal political and ideological environment in both the US and England, see Robert Kelley, The Transatlantic Persuasion (New York: Knopf, 1969.)
  • 2. Raico’s doctoral dissertation, The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton was devoted specifically to this issue. 
  • 3. Ralph Raico, Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2012), 233.

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