Ethics & Public Policy Center

No, Religion Is Not Antithetical to Liberalism

Published in The Washington Post on March 20, 2019


People often ask why religious evangelicals and other people of faith support President Trump. The answer is to be found in Robert Kagan’s treatment of traditional American Christianity in his lengthy Post essay, “The strongmen strike back,” about the rise of authoritarianism around the world.

Kagan suggests that traditional Christianity is inherently authoritarian and hence inconsistent with liberal democracy. In his view, Christianity shares a common root with other autocracies, especially the pagan ones that Christianity overthrew. They all seek to establish, at least in theory, an official orthodoxy to which all others in society must conform. These autocracies, he contends, were “ruled by powerful and pervasive beliefs about the cosmos, about God and gods, about natural hierarchies and divine authorities, about life and afterlife, that determined every aspect of people’s existence.”

This contrasts with Kagan’s view of liberal democracies. These countries, in Kagan’s telling, “exalt the rights of the individual” and therefore must “weaken the authority of the church and other authorities that presume to tell individuals what they must believe and how they must behave.” The fact that a supermajority of people might want to live in a different way is irrelevant. “In a liberal state,” he writes, “the rights of the few, once recognized, supersedes the preferences of the many.”

One could easily tell the story of American liberal democracy differently, as a story of imperfectly realized ideals that nevertheless share important values with traditional Christianity, such as the dignity of the individual. Indeed, one might note that liberal democracy first arose in intensely Christian nations, the United States and Britain, and that white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants were often in the forefront of social changes such as the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. That would be a story that traditional Christians would accept, as it accords with their own values and lived experiences.

That is not the story Kagan tells. Instead, he argues that liberalism’s progress has inherently “meant the breakdown of white, Christian cultural ascendancy.” As it applies to the United States, liberalism is inherently in conflict with a conservatism that at its core is based on the desire to protect “white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant United States [that is] being threatened both from within and without.” In short, conservative evangelicals and others who are purportedly favorable to Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin and Trump are simply reverting to their natural home, autocracy.

That worldview would strike the traditionally religious person in the United States as utterly absurd. White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants established a country based on democratic elections that provided freedom of worship, including to Jews and Catholics, at a time when no other major country in the world did so. They eliminated property qualifications for voting decades before the rest of the world. There was never a question of the emancipation of religious minorities, as there was in Britain and France in the 19th century, because those minorities were free from the get-go. WASP-dominated America had many faults — prejudice, racism and slavery, to name a few — but it was far from inherently authoritarian.

Who saved Europe from authoritarianism in World War I? Who saved the world from fascism in World War II? Who won the Cold War, freeing the world from the terror of Communism? It was the United States, politically dominated throughout those decades by Christians. How odd that an inherently authoritarian worldview would expend the blood of its sons and daughters and mountains of treasure to destroy the leading autocratic powers of its day.

To many religious Americans, especially those whose worldviews Kagan contends stand in the way of liberal democracy, views such as Kagan’s sound like a declaration of war, an effort to expel them from the only home they know. And like anyone with their backs against a wall, they will resist in any way they can.

Kagan approvingly cites Abraham Lincoln and John Locke as authorities of liberal views. Neither contended that Christianity was incompatible with liberal democracy. Lincoln, in fact, was accused of not being a Christian during a campaign for Congress by his Democratic opponent, a Methodist minister named Peter Cartwright. In response, Lincoln conceded that he was not a “member of any Christian church,” but argued that no one running for office should “insult the feelings, and injure the morals, or the community in which he may live.” Contending that American Christianity is inconsistent with American democracy does more than insult Christians’ feelings: It inflames them, invokes fear and dread, and thereby potentially drives them into the arms of his avowed enemy. It is extremely unwise to make enemies out of about three-quarters of the nation when it is imperative, per Kagan’s argument, to mobilize the entire nation to confront the threat that resurgent Chinese and Russian autocracies pose.

The great Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu counseled that “when you surround an enemy, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” Many deeply religious Americans feel surrounded and are desperate for some route of escape. That’s why they reluctantly backed Trump. Liberals who want to confront autocracy abroad would be wise to find an accommodation with their adversaries at home before it’s too late.

Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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