In his brilliant defense of Christendom–to which I hope to devote more attention later–Oliver O’Donovan offers what amounts to a drive-by dismantling of what we might call the neo-liberalism of John Rawls and others.  As most evangelicals are either libertarian or think that only secular reasons ought be used to decide matters of public policy, O’donovan’s critique merits serious consideration.  I quote it in full:

“This impressionistic sketch will suffice for our limited purpose, which is not to engage self-conscious liberal theorists but to articulate the grounds for a common and largely implicit distrust of the Christendom idea. Those grounds seem to take us back behind alarm about governments to an alarm about society. For it is society that makes outsiders. Government may wrong dissidents by repression or persection; but it does not make them dissidents by recognizing and affirming things upon which its society agrees and they disagree. Deep social disagreements unreflected in the government would merely delegitimise the government. We are left with the suspicion that this liberal view springs from a radical suspicion of society as such and of the agreements that constitute it—to be traced back, perhaps, to the contractarian myth which bound individuals directly together into political societies without any acknowledgment of the mediating social reality.

However that may be, a theological discussion can take a short cut at this point: it is not Christendom but Christianity that is attacked, since by implication it makes the Church inadmissible. If any social agreement is potentially coercive and to be justified only by the needs of the civil order, then the agreements which constitute the church, with which many disagree, are coercive and unjustifiedly so. If there is no religious test on the right to vote, or to have access to education or medical care, why should there be one on attending Mass and receiving communion, which is, after all, a source of satisfaction to religious temperments and an important means of social participation? This conclusion, that the church should not be defined by belief, seems to me to follow rather obviously from the general refusal of ideology, though I do not know of anyone who has yet drawn it, except for the incomparable Simone Weil, who proposed, in her wartime tract The Need for Roots, that it should be prohibited to publish any opinion on any subject in the name of a collective body. Any society defined by its belief was to be banned.”

If evangelical culture has been co-opted by the secular world, as is so often claimed, then it has so been co-opted in part because of its adoption of the neoliberal thesis that religious reasons have no place in the public square.  Private/public distinctions for the sake of governance functionally lead to the marginalizing of Christian theism on the one hand, and the erosion of the ecclesiastical order on the other, as the Church is an inherently public society and so must operate as such.

It is, I think, on this common ground that natural law theorists and evangelicals can meet and work together.  Evangelicals have historically had suspicions about natural law and its sufficiency for ethics, and rightly so.  O’Donovan’s own ethical theory attempts to validate those concerns without repudiating the insights from natural law.  Yet such suspicions should not lead to a muted public witness, as they sometimes have among younger evangelicals.  Instead, where the content of evangelical proclomation and natural law theory overlap they ought be co-belligerents against a culture of secularism, and not cede to the neoliberal thesis O’Donovan critiques above.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. This seems an important book length alternative to critiques of Christendom, such as Craig Carter’s “Rethinking Christ and Culture” or William Cavanaugh’s “Torture and Eucharist.” The latter is critical of Maritain’s “Integral Humanism,” but that still remains the starting point for any “new” (i.e. non-coercive) Christendom project. I wonder how O’Donovan intesects with Maritain.


  2. It’s here: RT @mattleeanderson: that is the suspicion about societies that is the hallmark of classical liberalism.

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


  3. […] Though Blond is a student of theologian John Milbank, one of his main objections to contemporary liberalism echoed that which Oliver O’Donovan raised. […]


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