Nota Bene W. Bradford Littlejohn

Christianity, Violence, and the Rise of the Liberal State

In his remarkable new book A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, Ephraim Radner offers a respectful but ultimately withering critique of the narrative of early modernity offered by Radical Orthodoxy and particularly by political theologian William Cavanaugh.  Toward the end of the chapter, he offers these marvelous lines about the irreducibly Christian character of the emergent liberal politics forged in the crucible of early modernity and its inter-Christian violence:   

“As scholars like John Coffey have shown, the specifically religious origins of the political transformations in England should not be minimized because it really was the experience of religiously identified violence that drove the motor of reform, however unsteadily, through the Civil Wars to the Glorious Revolution and beyond.  There is a genetic line from early Anglican Latitudinarians through to the Puritan and Leveller debates over religious freedom and the duties of magistrates in regards to religion to Locke’s own defense of toleration, as well as its embraced benefits by sectarian infallibilists like Isaac Watts.  The impulsive motivation along this line toward religious pluralism and its civil protections was both the evident need to control conflict as well as the desire to resolve the contradiction Castellio had underscored, that is, that the followers of a Christian gospel would imprison, torture, and kill those who did not agree with them.  If this sounds like the Whig theory revived, it is in a sense.  Even Herbert Butterfield, who first articulated in 1931 the existence of such a theory itself, for the sake of criticizing it, came to admit its inescapability, at least from a moral perspective and in part through reflection on his own place as a ‘dissenting’ Christian in England.  But that is the point: the Whig theory makes sense only if it includes a key element regarding the churches’ struggle with their own sin, something that accounts for the highly uneven character of political development and consequence in Britain, let alone elsewhere.  We must, that is, understand that Christianity itself, through its representative thinkers, politicians, and finally practitioners, sought to withdraw from the political realm, mainly for the sake of a now-accepted pluralism, in the shadow of now-acknowledged sins and for the sake of a more clearly recognized gospel.  The Lockean vision, however divergent from common standards of the time, was nonetheless fundamentally Christian not only in the mind of its formulators but in the minds of those who embraced it.  It was a vision, furthermore, that drew together the shared concerns of Dutch and French thinkers in the wake of their own experiences of religious violence, with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes looming over the new century. . . .

There is then, theologically, something that has rightly come to be called ‘religion’: the human response to God’s impinging reality, however rightly or wrongly understood.  The identification of this response as a ‘transhistorical’ and transcultural reality is bound up not with the voraciousness of a self-inventing ‘nation-state’ but with the difficult effort by many, mostly by Christians, to navigate and resolve challenging human differences that in fact have often led to violence.  Indeed, it is appropriate to see the rise of the ‘state’ in a modern sense as but the particular definition of a more general peace-building political sovereignty whose origins and quite robust analogues are deeply rooted in Christian experience all the way back into antiquity, moving from Roman to Israelite models but maintaining a continuity of purpose well into the eighteenth century.  It is out of this specifically Christian desire to see political ‘rule’ establish and maintain peace among Christians that the liberal vision finds its moral point of leverage—political order, understood as a ‘secular’ demand, has long been a specifically religious impulse, not opposed to it.  The rise of the ‘liberal state’ in relation to this effort is intimately, though hardly wholly, bound to these efforts at Christian peacemaking, and it is fruitfully informed by them.”

A Brutal Unity, pp. 51-52, 54-55

By W. Bradford Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh, 2013), is President of the Davenant Trust and an independent scholar, writer, and editor. He is researching the political theology of the Reformation, especially Richard Hooker (the subject of his dissertation), and other areas in Christian ethics, especially pertaining to economic questions.

2 replies on “Christianity, Violence, and the Rise of the Liberal State”

An excellent summary of a crucial development in our history. Christians basically turned away from the church and from theology, toward the state and a secular ideology, in the pursuit of unity and avoidance of conflict. God became particular, man the universal. This may have been the only possible course of action at that time. But at the juncture in history at which we have now arrived, we must move beyond it, or perish.

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