Acton Commentary

Christianity and the History of Freedom


For Americans the Fourth of July marks national independence, but the holiday has become symbolic of a more universal cause: human liberty. The development of human freedom, in theory and in practice, is in large measure the story of Christianity.

How we understand the past influences how we live in the present, which is why debates about history can be so rancorous. Whether Christianity is a vehicle of oppression or a force for liberation is a question whose answer has remained contentious for two millennia.

For many, Christianity is oppressive. For them, the Christian religion is associated with the Crusades, the Inquisition, and Puritanical moralism. It conjures images of witch hunts, the scarlet letter, and “Hitler’s pope.”

Contemporary Christians cannot ignore these associations. What truth they contain must be acknowledged. But the critics of Christianity cannot have it both ways. If evil done in the name of Christ is to be highlighted, then so must the good. Antislavery crusades, orphanages and hospitals, protection of the weak and innocent—these too have marked the historical record of Christianity.

Christianity’s impact on civilization has occupied some of history’s greatest minds, who have both reflected and influenced their respective zeitgeists. Augustine defended the followers of Christ against the accusation that they were to blame for the decline of the Roman Empire; fourteen centuries later British historian Edward Gibbon revived the charge, giving voice to his age’s skepticism toward revealed religion.

Another and better informed English historian, Lord Acton, addressed the problem in the late nineteenth century. The result, The History of Freedom in Christianity, was a masterpiece of historical summary, distilling almost two thousand years into a single story of the gradual unfolding of human liberty. Acton reversed the Enlightenment narrative that he had inherited. The rise of Christianity did not smother the flame of liberty burning brightly in Greece and Rome only to be rekindled as medieval superstition gave way to the benevolent reason of Voltaire, Hume, and Kant. Instead, Christianity took the embers of freedom, flickering dimly in an ancient world characterized by the domination of the weak by the strong, and—slowly and haltingly—fanned it into a blaze that emancipated humanity from its bonds, internal and external.

Christianity’s confrontation with culture was not a matter of the truth about God and man transported whole into civilization via religion. Beginning in sources prior to Christianity—Judaism and classical Greece—and continuing in secular political, economic, and social movements, Christianity interacted with the world and honed its own understanding of human nature and God’s will for mankind on this earth.

Christianity’s signal achievement, as Acton recognized, was the creation of space for human freedom vis-à-vis the institution that has, in fact, been the gravest threat to liberty throughout history: the state. The story is admittedly complicated by Church officials’ sometime collaboration with state oppression. Yet a fair reading of history must credit the ideas as well as the institutions of the Christian faith with the leading role in curtailing the totalitarian tendency—government’s inclination to usurp ever greater power over an ever larger swath of human existence.

In our own day, we find the Church again serving in this capacity. It is the foremost voice defending those whose rights are threatened by neglect or direct attack: religious minorities, vulnerable women and children trapped in slavery, the infirm and the unborn. In education, health care, and family life, religious individuals and organizations resist the tyranny of state aggrandizement.

The twenty-first century’s version of Enlightenment distortion has manifested itself in the tendentious arguments of the New Atheist movement, whose avatars Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have declared Christianity to be, among other things, the enemy of human liberty. As is too often the case, these purported champions of freedom are the opposite of what they claim. Harris, for one, says religious beliefs of certain kinds should be capital crimes: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them” (The End of Faith). Harris’s focus is on belief that promotes violence, but his concept of justice is itself dangerous, neglecting the conventional distinction between thought and act (the latter being punishable). It is not altogether clear, moreover, that in Harris’s reading of history and theology, orthodox Christianity does not qualify as “dangerous.”

New challenges to an accurate understanding of faith and freedom require new rejoinders. The Acton Institute’s striking film, The Birth of Freedom, is such a response. Like Lord Acton, it sweeps through history, revealing the contours of humanity’s struggle for freedom. “Christian Europe got rid of slavery,” says one of the documentary’s featured commentators, sociologist Rodney Stark. “That’s a story that’s seldom told, and it’s a shame.”

Christ came to set captives free, the scriptures say. The work is not yet complete, but the record of accomplishment is impressive.