Larry Siedentop is an emeritus fellow of Keble College, Oxford, and author of ‘Inventing the Individual’
The west is in crisis. The advance of China, India and other nations has led to a dramatic shift of economic power. In the political sphere, military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have compromised western influence, leading the US to draw back from its “superpower” role. Yet the west’s troubles go deeper than that. It is suffering a moral crisis, a crisis of identity.
Some are now uncomfortable using the term “the west” for fear that it carries the residue of an imperialist and racist past. But that is not the only source of discomfort. The crisis of identity also springs from the challenge of Islam, a creed that can make western liberal secularism seem morally tepid, if not worse. Indeed, the term “liberal” is at risk of becoming a pejorative. In continental Europe it connotes little more than market economics. In parts of the US it is becoming a synonym for “radical”, or even “socialist”.
But who are we, if not liberals? Elusive though it may at times be, this remains the best available description of western attitudes and institutions. We lack a compelling account of their evolution, a story we can plausibly tell ourselves about our moral roots. Our self-image comes dangerously close to equating liberal secularism with non-belief. A sophisticated version of that view is that our political and legal systems aim to achieve “neutrality”. But that does not do justice to the moral content of our tradition.
Accounts of western development usually involve a major discontinuity, captured in the phrase “the middle ages”. Since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, this period has been represented as one of superstition, social privilege and clerical oppression – the antithesis of liberal secularism. Historians have been tempted to maximise the moral and intellectual distance between the modern world and the middle ages, while minimising the moral and intellectual distance between modern Europe and antiquity.
Describing the ancient world as “secular” – with citizens free from the oppression of priests and an authoritarian church – became an important political weapon during early modern struggles to separate Church and state in Europe. But this account fails to notice that the ancient family, the basic constituent of the city-state, was itself a kind of Church. The paterfamilias was originally both the family’s magistrate and high priest, with his wife, daughters and younger sons having a radically inferior status. Inequality remained the hallmark of the ancient patriarchal family. “Society” was understood as an association of families rather than of individuals.
It was the Christian movement that began to challenge this understanding. Pauline belief in the equality of souls in the eyes of God – the discovery of human freedom and its potential – created a point of view that would transform the meaning of “society”. This began to undercut traditional inequalities of status. It was nothing short of a moral revolution, and it laid the foundation for the social revolution that followed. The individual gradually displaced the family, tribe or caste as the basis of social organisation.
This was a centuries-long process. By the 12th and 13th centuries the Papacy sponsored the creation of a legal system for the Church, founded on the assumption of moral equality. Canon lawyers assumed that the basic organising unit of the legal system was the individual (or “soul”). Working from that assumption, canonists transformed the ancient doctrine of natural law (“everything in its place”) into a theory of natural rights – the forerunner of modern liberal rights theory. By the 15th century these intellectual developments contributed to a reform movement (“Conciliarism”) calling for something like representative government in the Church.
The failure of that reform movement lay behind the outbreak of the Reformation, which led to religious wars and growing pressure across Europe for the separation of Church and state. By the 18th century such pressure had become a virulent anticlericalism, which reshaped the writing of western history and with it our understanding of ourselves.
It is this selective memory of our past that lies behind our failure to see that it was moral intuitions generated by Christianity that were turned against the coercive claims of the Church – intuitions founded on belief in free will, which led to the conclusion that enforced belief is a contradiction in terms. So it is no accident that the west generated a rights-based culture of principles rather than of rules. It is our enormous strength, reflected in the liberation of women and a refusal to accept that apostasy is a crime.
We should acknowledge the religious sources of liberal secularism. That would strengthen the west, making it better able to shape the conversation of mankind.