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The Liberty of a Christian in a Democratic Age

October 23rd, 2019 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

Writing for the Catholic Herald, my friend Matthew Schmitz argues that the current political divide opening up in America confirms that Christian life and contemporary American ideas of liberty cannot permanently coexist. Eventually the two will come into conflict and when they do, those who have attempted to hold them together will have to choose between Christian life (and specifically the unchanging teachers of the Roman church—there is no room here for Protestantism) or liberty (and the rejection of God and religious life that it entails).

As is often the case in these debates, for the Roman side of the issue all roads lead back to Newman: Just as to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant, likewise to be deep in Christian piety is to cease to be Protestant—eventually. But, as is also often the case in these matters, the Roman critic has rebutted something, but whatever it is, it is not recognizably Protestant.

The problem here is Schmitz’s definition of liberty, which, the reader should note, must be supplied since he does not offer one explicitly. The liberty that he sees as being at odds with religious life is purely negative in nature, defined as “freedom from” something rather than “freedom to” something. Specifically it is an autonomous personal sovereignty, which is the dominant view amongst most American progressives.

In other words, a materialistic conception of liberty does not mesh well with Christianity. But in that case Schmitz’s argument is tautological: What exactly does one expect to happen when materialistic assumptions about freedom are set against Christian conceptions of the good life?

As to the fixedness of the Roman church, one need only cite Schmitz’s own concerned writings about the current pontiff to note that even Schmitz himself seems concerned that the Roman church’s teachings may not be as immune to historical change as the Herald piece seems to assume. We might also consider the state of on-the-ground practice amongst American Catholics, a point Ross Douthat raised on Twitter. Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Schmitz cites while developing his own argument, makes something like the same point early in Democracy in America, noting that Catholicism is much more threatened by democracy than is Protestantism, which is able to supply moral content that regulates democracy in a way that Rome struggles to replicate due to its strident anti-democratic nature. It is possible, of course, that the Protestant move is not coherent or sustainable; but it is odd to argue from Tocqueville that liberty and religious life are at odds when his entire project begins by arguing that America might be the place where the two are held together thanks to Protestantism.

And what does historic Protestantism say regarding liberty? Contrary to the contemporary progressive view of liberty, it would hold that liberty is realized not through unhindered choosing, but through living according to one’s rightful end as a human being. Contrary to Rome, it would argue that the Church cannot speak with a universally authoritative voice, such that there is little room left behind for individual or social liberty. The liberty of the Christian is a genuine spiritual and political good that ought to be preserved and protected.

In this it is not only de Tocqueville that Protestants can point to but, more importantly, scripture itself: The burden of Romans 14 is to establish precisely this understanding of liberty. In Christ, we are freed from the need to worry about whether or not the decision to, say, eat sausages on a Friday, is acceptable before God. We are made acceptable to God by faith and that faith frees us to, “(make) use of existing conditions as though they were holy, since they have been hallowed by the divine forgiveness,” as Emil Brunner writes. And yet this liberty is not purely negative. Rather, the freedom we have in Christ is given for a very particular reason, as Brunner goes on to explain: “We have no right to believe that our action is approved by God unless we do all that lies in our power to make even these means, as far as possible, conform to the Divine End, that is, to Love.” But we do this not because it establishes our standing before God, but as a response to the standing before him that is already ours by faith.

The church only speaks authoritatively when it speaks the Word of God as given to us in Scripture. In other matters, both social bodies and individual Christians must be governed by wisdom and prudence, all of which is ordered toward the end of knowing God and loving neighbor. In this conception, the point of ‘liberty’ is not that one is free from all restraint, but that one is free from the particular burden of obtaining merit in the eyes of God. As Luther well understood, once you remove that particular fear, you are not left with a moral free-for-all; you are left as a saved individual, beloved of God, who has been called to serve and love neighbor. Love for neighbor is characteristic of the liberated person, as understood by historic Protestantism. 

Luther himself is very clear on this point: “Here is the truly Christian life; here is faith really working by love; when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that freest servitude, in which he serves others voluntarily and for nought; himself abundantly satisfied in the fulness and riches of his own faith.”

Thus the things we are freed from under negative liberty are conditioned by the things we are freed to in positive liberty: the freedom of doing what you are meant to do according to your nature as a human being, which is loving God and loving the people he has made. Liberty is not a condition, but a mode of life that one indwells constantly. We need negative liberty, but what we are freed from is not unchosen restraint, but rather those false limits which subvert our ability to act according to nature.

Your liberty is not primarily for you, but for your neighbor. The state’s liberty is not primarily for itself, but for the aid of Christian society. So the modern conception of liberty is inverted; it is less a right to liberty, framed as perhaps being given access to a certain degree of privilege or wealth or receiving public recognition from others, and more a yoke of liberty. We are made free for good works. But these good works are themselves in agreement with our nature and so our doing good works is much the same as water running down a hill or a newborn sheep nursing at his mother’s side—it is only a burden if our desires have become so twisted that we desire that which harms us. 

Again, Luther is clear: “Whoever will not be persuaded that he is able to establish a kingdom of heaven on earth or make out of his own home or situation a house or temple of God is heading toward the devil. For where there is service to God, there is heaven. When I serve my neighbor, I am already in heaven, for I am serving God. Consequently, we are making for ourselves a paradise and heaven here on earth when we are obedient to God and serve our neighbor.”1

There is space that exists between the purely negative freedom of modern libertarianism (and liberaltarianism) and the prescribed piety mandated by the Roman church. There are more choices available to us than O’Rourekian progressivism and Catholic integralism. The space between these regrettable poles is Christian liberty.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).