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Christianity and Liberty Defined

Numerous political scientists among modern American conservatives and libertarians have lamented the redefinition of the term “liberalism” away from its classical meaning, delimiting it to meaning a political philosophy emphasizing individual freedom and limited government. Many of these scholars who lament this change have correctly traced how neo-liberals have redefined liberalism by redefining liberty itself. Relatively few, however, have explained why many twentieth-century Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, have abandoned the classical-liberal view of freedom in favor of neo-liberal, Rawlsian notions of distributive justice or even more radical liberation theology. This article will explore the reasons for modern Christian hostility toward classical liberalism and will attempt to reconcile Christian and classical-liberal definitions of freedom.

In 1960, as an effort to resurrect the classical definition of liberalism, Austrian-British economist Friedrich von Hayek (1899—1992) reasserted the classical-liberal definition of freedom in his Constitution of Liberty: “[Freedom] meant always the possibility of a person's acting according to his own decisions and plans, in contrast to the position of one who was irrevocably subject to the will of another, who by arbitrary decision could coerce him to act or not to act in specific ways. The time-honoured phrase by which this freedom has often been described is therefore 'independence of the arbitrary will of another'.”

Hayek's definition of liberty was consistent not only with the classical-liberal writings of deists and atheists such as Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill but also those of devout Christians like Hugo Grotius and Alexis de Tocqueville. Nevertheless, many modern Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, are troubled mainly by four aspects of this definition of freedom.

First, Hayek's definition is “negative” in that freedom can only be decreased but never increased since the condition of liberty relates only to the absence of fraud or force by individuals against one another, not the presence of charity among individuals toward one another, and disregards the ability, the “power,” of individuals to make the best of their liberty. As Hayek explained, “In this sense 'freedom' refers solely to a relation of men to other men, and the only infringement on it is coercion by men.”

For many Christians the seeming selfishness and absence of social responsibility in Hayek's definition of liberty too closely resembles the radical individualist and materialist philosophy of Ayn Rand (1905—1982), whose novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged promulgated an atheistic and egoistic form capitalism rooted in a negative conception of liberty akin to Hayek's. Rand's conception of liberty was summarized by “Prometheus,” the protagonist of her novella Anthem, who proclaims, “There is nothing to take a man's freedom away from him, save other men. To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom. This and nothing else …. each man will be free to exist for his own sake.”

While Rand's “objectivist” movement was capturing the hearts and minds of so many anti-socialist conservatives and libertarians in America during the 1950s and 60s, many Christian intellectuals were drawn to the inspirational writings of Thomas Merton (1915—1968), a Trappist monk, priest and civil rights activist who is often described as a “Catholic Thoreau.” In No Man Is an Island, Merton relates, “There is something in the very nature of my freedom that inclines me to love, to do good, to dedicate myself to others. I have an instinct that tells me that I am less free when I am living for myself alone …. My freedom is not fully free when left to itself. It becomes so when it is brought into the right relation with the freedom of another.”

Although Merton was at least as fervent in his opposition to totalitarianism as Rand or Hayek, his notion of liberty seems incompatible with an atomistic—a strictly negative—form of freedom and appears to concur with T. H. Green's contention that “the mere removal of compulsion, the mere enabling a man to do as he likes, is in itself no contribution to true freedom ….” More profoundly, Merton appears to be endorsing Green's definition of freedom as “a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, is something that we do or enjoy in common with others.”

The second aspect of Hayek's classical-liberal definition of freedom that is troublesome to many Christians is its disregard for the object or purpose of individual liberty. That is, is a person's liberty being used for good or evil? Typically, for libertarians this question is irrelevant unless an individual uses his/her liberty in a way that violates the natural rights—the life, liberty, or property—of another. Libertarians often regard so-called “victimless crimes,” such as substance abuse or prostitution, as neither good nor evil; or dismissively argue that freedom, as understood by classical liberals, includes the right to commit evil against oneself. Hayek himself argued that “the range of physical possibilities from which a person can choose at a given moment has no direct relevance to freedom.”

The writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225—1274) would appear to be in harmony with Hayek and classical-liberal limitations on the state's ability to enforce moral laws. For example, Aquinas argued in Summa Theologica (I—II, q. 96) that “human law does not prohibit every vice from which virtuous men abstain, but only the graver vices from which the majority of men can abstain; and especially those vices damaging to others and which unless prohibited would make it impossible for human society to endure, such as murder, theft, etc., which are prohibited by human law.”

Friedrich von Hayek

However, Hayek's laissez-faire attitude seems contrary to earlier Church philosophy typified by Saint Augustine (354—430), who in On the Christian Conflict held that “it is the greatest liberty to be unable to sin,” and modern Catholic writers such as Thomas Merton who, in New Seeds of Contemplation, echoed Saint Augustine: “The mere ability to choose between good and evil is the lowest limit of freedom, and the only thing that is free about it is the fact that we can still choose good. To the extent that you are free to choose evil, you are not free. An evil choice destroys freedom.”

The third aspect of Hayek's notion of freedom that makes many Christians uneasy is its disregard for the outcome of liberty, particularly the economic outcome. For example, Hayek observed, “Above all, however, we must recognize that we may be free and yet miserable. Liberty does not mean all good things or the absence of all evils. It is true that to be free may mean freedom to starve, to make costly mistakes, or to run mortal risks.”

At face value, Hayek's liberty as “misery” and the “freedom to starve” seems uncharitable when compared with the positive liberty of T. H. Green, the Oxford Hegelian philosopher (1836—1882) who proclaimed, “We mean by [freedom] a power which each man exercises through the help or security given him by his fellow-men, and which he in turn helps to secure for them.” Although most Christian intellectuals may agree with classical liberals that negative freedom—the absence of coercion—is a necessary condition for virtue, particularly charity, Green's appeals for positive freedom capitalize upon Christians' discomfort with laissez-faire capitalism.

Typical of many anti-capitalist Christian inspirational writers in the years following T. H. Green was G. K. Chesterton (1874—1936) who in What's Wrong with the World excoriated so-called robber-barons of industrial America and Europe: “I am well aware that the word 'property' has been defined in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk, that the Rothchilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land; but other people's.”

Decades later, across the Atlantic, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used language very similar to Green's “positive freedom” to redefine freedom and liberalism in America. In speeches throughout the 1930s the president declared, “I am not for a return of that definition of liberty under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of a privileged few” and called for a “second bill of rights” that included governmentally-guaranteed rights to remunerative jobs, decent homes, and adequate health care. Not surprisingly, FDR's neo-liberal justification of his “New Deal” expansion of the economic role of the federal government enormously appealed to the heavily poor Catholic base of his Democratic Party during the Great Depression and still dominates much of the “liberal” thinking with respect to liberty, rights, and the role of government in America today.

Finally, the fourth aspect of Hayek's understanding of freedom that would seem the most disconcerting to Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, is his separation of individual “freedom” from individual “free will,” which is central to Hayek's semantic defense against socialism. As Hayek explained, “Another meaning of 'freedom' is that of 'inner' or 'metaphysical' … freedom. It is perhaps more closely related to individual freedom and therefore more easily confounded with it …. To that extent, 'inner freedom' and 'freedom' in the sense of absence of coercion will together determine how much use a person can make of his knowledge of opportunities ….”

Definitions of freedom offered by many modern Christian writers would seem to oppose Hayek's fission of individual freedom and metaphysical, or spiritual, freedom. For example, in No Man Is an Island, Thomas Merton contended that “we too easily assume that we are our real selves, and that our choices are really the ones we want to make when, in fact, our acts of free choice are … largely dictated by psychological compulsions, flowing from our inordinate ideas of our own importance. Our choices are too often dictated by our false selves.” Merton would likely reply to Hayek that an individual acting out of his/her psychological compulsions is unable to be “independent of the arbitrary will of another”—unable to be free even in the absence of coercion by others.

In fairness, Hayek coined his metonym, freedom as opposed to metaphysical freedom, as a semantic defense against deterministic materialist philosophies by simply removing altogether the issue of individual autonomy from the definition of liberty. As Hayek noted, “Few beliefs have done more to discredit the ideal of freedom than the erroneous one that scientific determinism has destroyed the basis for individual responsibility ….” In other words, Hayek's separation of free will from freedom itself was aimed at pre-empting materialist arguments by many neo-liberal political theorists that deny individual free will altogether to justify unlimited government. In this regard most left-leaning Christians would likely sympathize with Hayek.

Moreover, Hayek admitted that the redefinition of liberty as power, i.e., positive freedom, would enable and legitimize the transformation of liberalism into a kind of socialism and crafted his definition of freedom accordingly. As Hayek warned, “This confusion of liberty as power with liberty in its original meaning inevitably leads to the identification of liberty with wealth; and this makes it possible to exploit all the appeal which the word 'liberty' carries in the support for a demand for the redistribution of wealth.”

For most Christians, however, mere opposition to socialism is probably insufficient to justify a return to classical-liberal definitions of freedom. For example, even the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis (1898—1963), a friend and politically-conservative ally of Winston Churchill, conceded in Mere Christianity that in a fully Christian society “we should feel that its economic life was very socialistic and, in that sense, 'advanced',” and that it would be “what we now call Leftist.”

Must Christians then conclude that their spirituality is incompatible with classical liberalism's conceptions of individual freedom and limited government? No. The key to reconciling Christianity and classical liberalism by means of reconciling their definitions of freedom can be found in the Christian understanding of human nature. Most Christians believe that, as the result of the Fall of Man, the bodies and souls, i.e., the natural and spiritual selves, of human beings were, to a great extent, divorced from and set against one another. From this dualistic perspective, it is logical to speak of two different kinds of freedom corresponding to the two types of human existence—natural freedom and spiritual freedom (akin to Hayek's “individual freedom” and “metaphysical freedom,” respectively).

Had the Fall not happened, there would be a dichotomy between neither spiritual freedom and natural freedom nor positive freedom and negative freedom. In a perfect world, negative freedom would still mean what Hayek maintained and would be the necessary condition for positive freedom. But positive freedom would mean the power of individuals to surrender their self-love for the love of God and the promotion of the welfare of others and would be the material realization of spiritual freedom in the Christian sense. Perfect freedom then would be complete spiritual freedom manifested in the material world in the form of positive freedom and permitted by the complete condition of negative freedom.

However, from a Christian perspective, the Fall did happen and the fully Christian society described by C. S. Lewis cannot exist outside a perfect world. Therefore, we must choose which definition of freedom, positive or negative, will underlie public policy in the City of Man, not the City of God. The issue most pertinent to this choice is not so much which definition of freedom, positive or negative, ought to be accepted as closer to the Christian ideal, but which definition in practice establishes the necessary though insufficient conditions for spiritual freedom that the state can uphold in the material world. Of the two definitions of freedom, only negative freedom establishes such practicable conditions since only freedom understood as the absence of coercion, the absence of fraud or force, can be proven by material standards and deterred or punished by material means.

Positive freedom, however desirable, often cannot be proven by material standards since in many cases the perception of the object of positive freedom, “doing good,” as well as the standard by which that object is considered worthwhile, varies from person to person according to the material desires, the “false self,” of each individual citizen and statesman. Furthermore, any material means provided by the state to guarantee the positive freedom of one individual invariably involve acts of coercion against another individual, a violation of “negative” or natural freedom, which usually undermines both individuals' pursuit of spiritual freedom.

In this light, the classical-liberal definition of freedom seems to be more congruent with the Christian understanding of freedom. That is, when generations of Christian inspirational writers from Saint Augustine to Thomas Merton concluded that perfect spiritual freedom is the total inability to make an evil choice, they were not arguing that a state's material restrictions on an individual's natural freedom will in themselves increase that individual's spiritual freedom. Contrariwise, even G. K. Chesterton warned in his anti-capitalist Utopia of Usurers, “I think it is not at all improbable that this Plutocracy, pretending to be a Bureaucracy, will be attempted or achieved … its religion will be just charitable enough to pardon usurers; its penal system will be just cruel enough to crush all the critics of usurers: the truth of it will be Slavery: and the title of it may quite possibly be Socialism.”

In short, anti-capitalism among post-industrial Christian apologists need not always mean anti-liberalism—opposition to private property and limited government. Indeed, Chesterton, a leading scholar of Saint Thomas Aquinas, concurred with the Thomist understanding that the protection of private property does not contravene natural law and that the state need not outlaw every vice but merely those serious vices that hurt others. When attempting to make converts of Christian intellectuals, classical liberals and libertarians would do well to forsake “victimless crimes” arguments and to emphasize the Aquinas tradition.

Ultimately, Christians who have abandoned the classical liberalism of Grotius and Tocqueville will return only when they are convinced that neo-liberalism's promise of positive freedom, like spiritual freedom, is something that only God and not government can guarantee.