Protestantism After Liberalism? An Untapped Resource for Christian Political Thought

George Cattermole, The Diet of Spires, 19 April 1529

Liberalism Run Amok

In perhaps the most famous passage of his City of God, Augustine argues that, since justice consists in giving to each his due, there can be no justice where God is not given his due, and thus a functioning commonwealth is impossible.[1] Instead, all we will have is a disorderly mass of individuals pursuing their own interests and goods. To which liberalism asks: “But what if that’s what justice is—allowing individuals to pursue their own interests and goods? I suppose we don’t need God after all.”

The benefits of this arrangement have been many, but just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does political society. Attempt to purge religious commitment from the heart of a polity and it will come back with a vengeance, taking the form either of a religious alter-polity committed to the polity’s overthrow, the sacralization of the polity itself, or the sacralization of what was at first merely a procedural commitment to individual liberty. The first is of course the approach of radical Islamism, the second is a perennial temptation within every political society which forgets its limits (and one which American Christians in particular have often succumbed to), and the last has become the creed of the Western consensus of globalist, secularist liberalism in recent decades.

That consensus is rapidly crumbling. It is increasingly apparent that the civic virtue of tolerance has been co-opted by the cult of individual fulfillment and self-definition to become a battering ram against all the other virtues within which it used to find its place, and which helped sustain public order. Of course, these virtues had already been reduced to mere “values” to which most in the West did lipservice out of sheer force of habit, the communities which nurtured and formed these virtues having long since been demolished by the demands of individual freedom. A long litany of essays and books have lamented this demise of the structures of civil society, the “intermediate institutions” which stood between the individual and the federal government, but what else could we expect once we had defined liberty as mere lack of constraint, and bent our wills toward the maximization of liberty? The logic of this move presses inexorably toward the eradication of all social structures (since structure is of necessity a constraint) in an ever-widening sphere around the sovereign individual, leaving only the impersonal machine of the market to continue feeding and fanning our desires, fastidiously and often ineptly refereed by unrepresentative supra-national bureaucracies.

To the extent that political authority persists in such a society, its task is reduced to the arbitration of rival rights-claims between individuals conceived as self-owners pursuing self-interest. This ever-expanding juridicalization means that government becomes ever more intrusive and ubiquitous even as its telos contracts. In response, the burdens it imposes become increasingly alien and alienating, generating resentment and making government into the favorite scapegoat for the thousand self-inflicted wounds that afflict society.

Donald Trump, President of the United States of America


Trumpism is of course but the latest and fullest expression of this fellowship of grievance, though it is also an inarticulate and ill-aimed gesture of defiance at late liberalism’s surrender of local and national identities. Ironically, though, as the unsettling spirit behind the slogan “Make America Great Again” and the apocalyptic fervor of many recent voters suggests, fierce resentment at the structures of the polity can co-exist readily enough with an idolatrous hope in politics and political institutions. Indeed, it is precisely this false hope which, when inevitably disappointed, often leads to a Gnostic (in Eric Voegelin’s sense) repudiation of the current political order or those that occupy it; the oscillation between such misplaced hope and fear has generated intense polarization and distrust in civil society.

Blame it on Protestantism?

The dim picture thus sketched is hardly original; indeed, many of these complaints have become thoroughly clichéd among the literati in recent years. Many have taken to sketching grand narratives of “How We Got in This Mess,” narratives in which Duns Scotus has played a bafflingly prominent role. Others have called for communitarian retreats from public life or perhaps a return to the good old days in which popes called the shots and ensured a moral and religious political consensus. But even the most ardent anti-modernist cannot but be grudgingly grateful for the blessings of liberalism, and the freedom it affords him to plot revolution on his laptop. Nor, in any case, is simply turning back the clock an option. The need of the hour, then, is for a political theory after liberalism, curbing its excesses while anchoring its virtues on a firmer foundation. Might not such a foundation be a religious one, since the effort to purge religion from politics has gone so badly? And given Protestantism’s centrality to America’s cultural and constitutional heritage, should it not make the greatest contribution to such a foundation?

Yoram Hazony of the Herzl Institute raised this question late last year, noting with surprise that many Protestant scholars were ready to concede that “Protestantism doesn’t have the resources to offer America an alternative political theory.” Protestants, the consensus seems to be among the self-flagellating contemporary Protestant intelligentsia, must admit defeat, accept the blame for the failures of liberalism, and cede the field of Christian political theory to Roman Catholicism.

One could forgive them for their cynicism; after all, how many of them have really been exposed to a thoroughgoing Protestant political theology? The options on offer today seem to be just three: the legalistic biblicism of fundamentalists, the theologically unhinged proceduralism and political correctness of the mainline, or the reactionary pacifism of the Anabaptist tradition, all contending within a milieu of irreligious individualism run amok—for which, we are told, the Reformation must be blamed.

Yet from a historical perspective, the question of Protestantism’s political potential seems easy to answer. The Reformers intended and achieved reformations of their commonwealths. Within the first few years of the Reformation, Protestant statesmen and jurists were hard at work reforming the polities and legal systems of Germany, as John Witte, Jr. has brilliantly documented in a host of writings, especially Law and Protestantism.[2] Conflicts with persecuting Catholic monarchs later in the sixteenth century spawned an explosion of Protestant political theory outlining the consensual basis of civil government and the criteria for legitimate resistance or even revolution, while affirming the divine obligation of government and the divine roots of legal order. In the century that followed, Protestant natural lawyers took their place at the forefront of European political philosophy and political theology, with men such as Richard Hooker, Johannes Althusius, Hugo Grotius, and John Selden making immense contributions in a thoroughly Protestant theological key. These laid the groundwork for later Protestant political theorists such as Samuel Pufendorf and John Locke, who, together with the Puritan covenantal tradition, furnished many of the concepts and assumptions for American constitutionalism. Nor, it should be added, did any of these developments mark the kind of sharp break with the medieval past that some presently fashionable grand narratives imply. On many fronts, Protestantism offered simply a Biblical and rational refinement of the time-tested classical and scholastic heritage of philosophy and ethics.

The Theological Foundations of True Liberty

Still, a rich historical legacy may be no guarantee of contemporary viability. After all, the world has changed almost beyond recognition from the days of Hooker and Grotius. And the problems of secularism and individualism noted above look suspiciously like the legacy of the Reformation’s preaching of the two kingdoms and freedom of conscience.

Luther at the Diet of Worms, by von Werner, 1877


This suspicion, however, is misplaced. When Luther proclaimed that the Christian is “free lord of all,” he paired it immediately with the statement that the Christian is at the same time the “dutiful servant of all.” The former, he contended, was the only way to get you to the latter. In a society where people are insecure about their spiritual status, their identity, and their future, they cannot but be consumed with the quest to define and secure it for themselves, and to barter and jostle with one another to gain an advantage. Protestantism rejected all this in favor of a fierce emphasis on God’s sovereign grace as the only ground of our past existence, our present identity, and our future hope. Joan Lockwood O’Donovan has frequently reminded us of the political implications of the Protestant insistence that “we are not our own; we were bought with a price.”[3] By this means, Protestantism sought to offer an antidote to the agonistic, contractual model of human society that flourished in the late medieval sacramental economy and that flourishes again today. Too often, political society is built around common objects of fear rather than common objects of love; Protestantism sought to refound the commonwealth on a firm foundation by exorcising fear from the heart of moral life.

Moses with Tablets of the Law

Indeed, as the Reformation gave way to “the biblical century” and a flowering of Hebraism, Protestant political theorists conceived this foundation along the lines of the Jewish concept of covenant. By this means they sought to steer a course between the Scylla of voluntarist absolutism and the Charybdis of voluntarist contractarianism as the basis of political society. Civil society and civil government emerged in response to divine initiative, a mutual commitment between ruler and ruled authorized by God and under his judgment, but spelled out by human laws and enforced by human agents. Covenantal society was a complex society, not a simple contract between distant bureaucracy and restless individual. Indeed, though Catholic Social Teaching today might like to wave the banner of “subsidiarity” as one of its distinctive contributions, no political theorist can lay a better claim to laying the groundwork for this principle than the early 17th-century Reformed thinker Johannes Althusius. With his “consociational” theory of politics as the outgrowth of “symbiosis”—which is to say, “life together”—Althusius sketched a rich model of a federalist politics arising from and incorporating the lesser spheres of human society, beginning with that great emphasis of the Protestant Reformation—the family.[4]

And just as surely as the Reformation rejected any claims by the individual to idolatrously ground his own identity, so it was a sustained polemic against any human institution’s claim to be the arbiter of truth, meaning, or morality; it constituted a radical relativization of political authority and rejected the late medieval arrangement in which the church helped share its aura of sanctity with the state in return for claiming coercive authority as its own proper power, merely delegated to the civil authority. As outmodedly “medieval” as this danger might seem, it is in fact recurrent and pervasive, apparent equally in the increasingly godless civil religion of the evangelical Right and in the sacred ambitions of progressivism. Eric Voegelin aptly warned several decades ago against the temptation of the political to “immanentize the eschaton” and it was against this temptation that Luther’s two-kingdoms theology, rightly understood, built a bulwark.[5]

Indeed, it is no accident that protections for conscience and religious exercise arose sooner in Protestant dominions than Catholic ones. This was not (as has oft been carelessly asserted by Protestant apologists) the simple formalization of Luther’s “freedom of a Christian,” which was an essentially inward rather than an outward freedom, nor (as secularization narratives repeat ad nauseam) simply a reactive measure to try and contain the ferocious conflicts that religious differences provoked in early modern Europe. No, it was a recognition of the limits of human law, which could not enforce righteousness but simply provide a framework in which righteousness flourish, as it could hardly do when religious conformity was coerced.

Remembering our Roots

Today, we take for granted this freedom while forgetting its ground. Forced to bear its own immense weight, the ideal of human freedom has assumed idolatrous proportions and, like all idols, has begun to consume its worshippers. As F. Edward Cranz remarks at the end of his great exposition of Luther’s two-kingdoms theology:

“Indeed, from Luther’s standpoint, we never find any true secularization apart from Christianity, for only Christianity teaches us not to ‘mix’ the two realms, which the natural man cannot even distinguish. Apart from Christianity, what ought to be the world or reason or polity will always falsely claim to be more than the world, to be in some way a means of salvation, or a stage on the way to heaven or a ‘church.’”[6]

Protestantism thus offers, more than any other doctrine that I am aware of, the promise of achieving the elusive balance of a secularity that does not become a self-defeating secularism. European Protestant polities rightly took the lead in developing protections for freedom of conscience and religious exercise, without renouncing some formal commitment to the doctrines that made such freedom possible and sustainable. It made space for the universal church as a standing witness to the provisionality of political community, without idolatrously enthroning the church as itself a non-provisional community, as Catholic theology tends to do.[7] And it conceived of covenantal and constitutional forms for political community that eschewed the liberal binary of sovereign state and sovereign individual.

It was not all that long ago when Protestant thinkers were guiding domestic and foreign policy in America—consider the Niebuhrs or MLK, Jr. And yet these were heirs in some measure of the riches of the earlier Protestant intellectual tradition. We may need to retrace our steps and recover this whole tradition to find the resources for a full-orbed theologically-rooted political theory after liberalism[8]; but if we do, I am confident, we will find a sure path forward.

Bradford Littlejohn is President of the Davenant Instituteauthor of The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty, and editor of Reformation Theology.

Read More about the Protestant foundations of Liberty


[1] City of God XIX.21.

[2] Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[3] 1 Cor. 6:20. See especially her excellent forthcoming essay, “A Timely Contribution of the English Reformation to an Evangelical Public Theology of Law and Freedom,” in Political Theology 19.4 (June 2018), or, in the meantime, her fine essays in Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics, Past and Present (Eerdmans, 2003)

[4] The key work here is of course his Politica, available in abridged form in an English translation by Frederick Carney (Liberty Fund, 1964)

[5] For more on this, see my recent The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed (Davenant, 2017).

[6] An Essay on the Development of Luther’s Thought on Law, Justice, and Society (Harvard University Press, 1959), 177.

[7] For more on this theme especially, see my Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology (Eerdmans, 2017).

[8] This has been one of the core objectives of my colleagues and I at the Davenant Institute over the past few years.