Another Kind of Liberalism

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to The
Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville,
and Lord Acton
by Ralph Raico.

Religion and
liberty – few issues are more controversial among current-day
libertarians. At least four positions can be distinguished. One
well-known position holds that religion and liberty are separate
spheres that are almost hermetically sealed from one another, while
any historical point of contact is purely accidental or contingent.
According to another widespread position, religion and liberty are
outright antagonistic. These advocates see in religion the most
deadly foe of individual liberty, an even greater enemy of mankind
than the state.

A third position
contends that religion and liberty are complementary – on the
one hand, pious men facilitate the workings of a society with minimal
or no government, and, on the other hand, political liberty facilitates
religious life as each one sees fit.

Finally, some
thinkers defend a fourth position, namely, that religion –
and in particular the Christian faith – is fundamental for
individual liberty, both as far as the historical record is concerned
and on the conceptual level.

In our thoroughly
secularized culture, the third position is held to be daring and
the fourth insolent. Yet today I do believe they are both true and
that the third is a skin-deep statement of the truth, while the
fourth goes to the root of the matter. Once a pagan interventionist,
I first saw the truths of libertarian political theory, and eventually
I started to realize that the light of these truths was but a reflection
of the encompassing and eternal light that radiates from God through
His Son and the Holy Spirit. This realization has been a slow process
and I could not say now when and where it will end. But I can pinpoint
the circumstances of its beginnings. I can pinpoint the one writer
who got this stone in me rolling.

At the beginning
of my academic career I had the good fortune and privilege to translate
Ralph Raico’s magnificent essay on the history of German liberalism
into my mother tongue. This book brilliantly displays the virtues
of its author – his scholarship, his wittiness, his righteousness,
and his courage. For me it was an eye-opener. It set the record
straight on the main protagonists. In particular, Friedrich Naumann,
a man of undeserved libertarian fame, was thrown out of the pantheon
of the champions of liberty, while Eugen
, today virtually unknown, was elevated to his rightful
place as the foremost leader of the fin-de-siècle
German party of liberty. Ralph Raico explains that the German liberals
failed not least of all because at some point they started missing
their target. Rather than opposing the state, they began to see
the enemy in organized religion. They endorsed Bismarck’s repressive
laws designed to wage a culture war on the Catholic Church.

A typical case
in point was Rudolf Virchow, a surgeon, professor, and liberal party
leader, who displayed the very same haughty and ignorant attitude
toward organized religion that is also the intellectual plague of
modern culture, and of modern libertarianism in particular. Ralph
Raico’s book highlighted the lines of continuity between the Virchows
of all times and the French Enlightenment. The thoroughly anticlerical
writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, Didérot, d’Alembert, Helvétius,
and so many other apparent champions of individual liberty and opponents
of oppression had created a continental European culture of liberalism
in which the antagonism of faith and freedom was taken for granted.
As a consequence, religious people have always been suspicious of
this movement. It seemed as though one had to choose between religion
and liberty.

However, Professor
Raico also stresses that there was another tradition within classical-liberal
thought, one that recognized the interdependence between religion
and liberty. This tradition includes most notably the three great
thinkers that Professor Raico portrays in his 1970 doctoral dissertation,
explaining how the political thought of Benjamin Constant, Alexis
de Tocqueville, and Lord Acton flowed from their religious convictions.

This early
work is here reprinted and made available for all people of good
will. At the beginning of the 21st century, it has not lost its
timeliness and importance as a tool for reunderstanding the history
of liberalism. I salute its publication and predict it will open
many more eyes.

This originally appeared on

14, 2009

Guido Hülsmann [send him mail]
is senior fellow of the Mises Institute
and author of Mises:
The Last Knight of Liberalism
. He teaches in France, at Université
d’Angers. See his website.
See his
Mises archive

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