Fatalism about liberal democracy is nothing new and has always found a disaffected audience. Left-wing politicians, writers, academics, activists: for decades they have denounced the Western liberal project as the primal cause of racism, inequality and exploitation. This time, though, the most strident prophets of gloom are residents of the cultural and religious right. Liberalism has collapsed, they tell us, because it was steeped in sin from its birth: it has failed “because it was true to itself.”
The conservative critics of liberalism offer an important and often penetrating analysis of our social ills. The epidemic of loneliness, the rampant materialism, the dissolution of ties to family and community—these are fearsome problems. Yet the true object of their complaint lies in the very origins of the liberal order: its foundational beliefs and ideals. The right-wing condemnation of liberal democracy—supported by intellectual sins of omission and outright distortions of fact—is as mistaken as that of the radical left.
Behind their protest, one detects a wistful nostalgia for the pre-modern world, an attachment to the medieval concepts of virtue, community and authority. In this, they fail to reckon seriously, if at all, with the sins of Christendom: the denigration of individual conscience, the criminalization of dissent, the corrosive entanglement of church and state, the hedonism of clerical leadership and the deeply rooted anti-Semitism. The Catholic medieval project, for all its achievements, ultimately failed to uphold one of the most transformative ideas of the Jewish and Christian traditions: the freedom and dignity of every human soul.
The conservative critics of liberalism thus ignore its actual historical beginnings. The attempt to construct a Christian society through coercion led to the betrayal of the most basic biblical and humanistic ideals. The quest for a unified community, once idolized, unleashed a long campaign of repression and terror. This, at root, is what produced the existential crisis of Christendom.
Yet this catastrophic failure—judged as a deep contradiction of the life and teachings of Jesus—generated a robustly Christian response. In this sense, the liberal project began as a protest: whispered in the Christian humanism of Erasmus, quickened by Luther’s Reformation, advanced by John Locke’s biblical vision of natural rights and culminating in James Madison’s religiously rooted republicanism. The abandonment of liberalism—as suggested by its critics—will lead where it always has led: to widespread ignorance, servitude, tyranny and totalitarianism. Understanding and defending liberalism’s historical achievement is the first step toward any serious effort at cultural renewal.
The Christianization of the Roman Empire brought with it profound reforms in European law, politics and society. The Catholic Church ended Rome’s gladiatorial games, established institutions to care for the poor and abolished human slavery. The universities founded by the church in Paris, Bologna, Oxford and Toulouse were an innovation: institutions devoted primarily to higher learning. At its best, the monastic tradition helped to dignify the concept of work, challenged the materialism of medieval society, extolled the disciplines of prayer and the study of the Scriptures, and strengthened the relationship between Christian belief and Christian virtue.
Nevertheless, the medieval church eventually replicated—and institutionalized—the repressive habits of pagan Rome. By the eleventh century, the Roman pontiff embodied the desire of the church to impose its inflexible will on the entire Western Christian world.
In 1075, in an effort to end the emperor’s intrusion into church affairs, Pope Gregory VII issued “Dictates of the Pope,” an utterly revolutionary document in church-state relations. Among other propositions, it asserted the infallibility of the church and authority of the pope over every living creature—including every political authority. “He himself may be judged by no one,” the pope declared, adding that “all princes shall kiss his feet.” He even granted himself the power to depose emperors. In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII reaffirmed these claims in his Unam Sanctam (“One Holy”): “We declare, state, and define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”
Conservative critics of modernity properly fault those enlightenment thinkers who promoted “radical individualism” under the banner of liberty. One of the consequences, they explain, is a relentless quest for political power that renders democratic self-government impotent. The rise of the omni-competent state is indeed a formidable problem.
Yet it is not an entirely novel problem. In asserting claims of supremacy for the Roman pontiff, Gregory began by “looking within his own breast” for authority: an expression of individual autonomy that would make enlightenment philosophes blush. By attempting to consolidate in a single individual unprecedented—and unchallengeable—religious and political power, the church endorsed a theory of governance that would rival the political absolutism of Thomas Hobbes. By overreaching, the medieval church discredited itself before the emerging power centers of Europe.
There were other self-inflicted wounds. The Renaissance popes—who evidently inspired Mario Puzzo’s The Godfather—were notorious for their venality and greed in their own day. Clerical bribery, nepotism, sexual immorality, ruthless violence: these were open secrets among a disillusioned laity. Meanwhile, the sale of religious relics and indulgences invited the rank commercialization of the gospel. Patrick Deneen, a Catholic political scientist at Notre Dame, excoriates liberalism for promoting “hedonistic titillation” and a society obsessed with “consumption, appetite and detachment.” The critique neatly describes the ecclesiastical culture of late medieval Europe.
The debauchery of church leadership and the power struggles between church and state, however, were not the only cause of the deepening crisis of Christendom. The gravest issue was its domestic policy: confronting the religiously unorthodox. Unlike ancient Rome, the Holy Roman Empire would not tolerate religious pluralism within its borders. No Christian thinker did more to legitimize the use of force against religious dissenters than Augustine of Hippo.
The patristic works of Origin, Jerome, Ambrose and others had cited the Bible to anathematize heterodox belief. But it was Augustine (354–430) who interpreted Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast in Luke’s gospel—“compel them to come in, that my house may be full”—as a rationale for the use of force against heretics. For Augustine, coercion of this kind was “a just persecution” aimed at rescuing souls from damnation and preventing the heretical disease from spreading. “The church persecutes out of love,” he wrote, “the ungodly out of cruelty.”
Thus, the greatest authority in Western Christianity—whose writings were disseminated widely in medieval Europe—put his stamp on state-sanctioned violence against the unorthodox. So entrenched was the Augustinian doctrine that the seventeenth-century philosopher, Pierre Bayle, a convert to Protestantism, was moved to compose a 600-page (in modern type) rebuttal. “I don’t think it possible to imagine anything more impious, or more injurious to Jesus Christ, or more fatal in its Consequences,” he argued in A Philosophical Commentary, “than his having given Christians a general Precept to make Conversions by Constraint.”
Nevertheless, a theology of coercion would instruct European society for well over a thousand years. It helped to underwrite the Inquisition: church tribunals created to root out heresy—a capital offense—and reconcile heretics to the church. First authorized by a church council in 1229 in France, clerical leaders vowed to “diligently, faithfully, and frequently seek out heretics” in their parishes. Church courts to judge the accused soon were established throughout Europe.
We need not overstate the brutalities of the Inquisition. Those judged guilty of heresy who renounced their views could find mercy and be restored to the church. Large public executions—like the two hundred Cathars burned at the stake at Verona in 1278—were rare. The machinery of the Inquisition was never as efficient as its proponents claimed. Nevertheless, over the span of six centuries, tens of thousands of people met violent deaths, their property seized and their families left destitute, for one reason: they dared to think differently about God than the established order.
In his much-discussed book, Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen fails to mention this feature of Christendom. Instead, he argues that the medieval cultivation of virtue was “a central defense against tyranny” and one of the distinguishing marks of European Christianity. “Protection of rights of individuals and the belief inviolable human dignity, if not always consistently recognized and practiced, were nonetheless philosophical achievements of premodern medieval Europe,” he writes. Rod Dreher, an editor at The American Conservative, brushes aside church abuses by extolling the “enchanted world” of medieval Europe, with its consciousness of spiritual realities. Medieval men and women “carried within their imagination a powerful vision of integration,” he writes in The Benedict Option. “In the medieval consensus, men construed reality in a way that empowered them to harmonize everything conceptually and find meaning amid the chaos.”