When Christians Turn Against Freedom

Christians aren't immune to the lure of the power to "engineer" human souls.

By John Zmirak Published on May 26, 2016

Here’s a quick smell test that I use when someone presents me with what he considers a brave and “radical” interpretation of the Gospel: Are this theory’s implications so appalling — not just for me, but the whole human race — that they would make me hope from the depths of my very soul that Christianity isn’t true? Does this reading of the Christian message

  • So outrage our natural instincts that it makes God seem like a sadistic monster or a bumbling incompetent, who made men fundamentally wrong — and now expects us to torture ourselves to correct his initial mistake?
  • Suggest that the Fall obliterated from the human heart any inkling of the Good, effectively re-creating the race of man according to Satan’s specifications?
  • Cut Christianity off completely from Judaism by making nonsense of the Old Testament — suggesting that the Jews of Jesus’ time were justified in rejecting him?

Such theories stink of brimstone. Gnostic attempts to remake Christianity as a hatred of life on earth are not so much real intellectual options as temptations from the devil aimed at the virtue of Faith. And countless saints have warned us to “flee the occasion” of sin. Any version of Christianity that would send a reasonable person on a quest for the nearest synagogue is false. 

Using the Brimstone Smell Test

Employing the Smell Test has saved me going down countless blind alleys over the years. It helped me to shrug off the fringe arguments of those who claim that all non-Catholics are doomed to hell, and that for this grim reason we Catholics should seek to reinstate the Inquisition — using totalitarian means if need be to save as many souls as possible from plummeting into the Fire.

The Test helped me quickly reject the idea — which bedeviled some in the early Church — that really every Christian ought to live as a monk or nun, leaving marriage as a quasi-pagan halfway house which the truly devout should reject. (As Lezscek Kolakowski reports, the great Pascal imbibed this idea — and used it to bully his sister into shunning the man whom she loved.)

The same Test helps me know right off the bat what to think of Christians who call for pacifism or open borders.

Today’s Anti-Freedom Christians

I used the Brimstone test again when I read a famous essay by Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, where Dawson (who was born into money and later handed an endowed chair at Harvard) argued that any kind of financial planning, any effort to turn a profit or provide for your children’s future, is profoundly unchristian.

All Christians, even fathers of families, should live as St. Francis did, existing from day to day on whatever tithes come over the transom. Hence business, the free market, banking, insurance, savings, inheritance, and even children’s college funds are all fundamentally evil. Soldiers, noblemen, artists, clergy, kings and even conquistadors make better Christians than businessmen, said Dawson. Since students of mine were using this essay’s argument to justify making irresponsible decisions about their lives, I felt compelled to analyze it and point-by-point refute it. I left not a single stone piled on another.

Dawson’s argument is false but it isn’t dead. In fact, his ideas have found new apostles, in a broad and influential movement among some Christians who reject business, the free market, and indeed freedom itself — as forbidden fruit that fell from the Enlightenment’s poison tree. In such Christian circles you will find sneering references to “Liberalism,” by which the authors don’t mean the ideology of the Democrats. Instead, what they’re rejecting is the worldwide movement for freedom — religious, political and economic — that might be better called “Classical Liberalism.”

It’s a movement America’s Founders imported from England, and its roots reach back through the Magna Carta to the Saxons. This Liberalism is the heritage of the Anglosphere, and its benevolent effects can be seen from India to Australia, from Texas to the Falkland Islands. Pope John Paul II, who had endured the only feasible modern alternative to Classical Liberalism — ideological tyranny — wrote in Memory and Identity that such Liberalism reflects in politics the Christian vision of the person, as a free, responsible being answerable finally only to God.

This broad-based movement of Liberalism was the force behind demands for religious, economic, and political freedom first in England, then in America, and then around the world. This freedom movement was what caught fire in Poland, which brought down the Soviet empire. Such freedom is what persecuted Christians seek in the Middle East, and dissidents call for in China. Our Constitution’s guarantees of this freedom serve in America as the last, fragile bulwark against government repression of Christianity, as we saw the Obama administration attempt against Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor.

And now there are Christians who reject such freedom as incompatible with the Gospel. Elsewhere I have laid out in depressing detail the claims of Catholics who crave a return of the old paternalistic order, which saw priests collude with governments to maintain a religious monopoly, suppressing non-Catholic speech, outlawing Protestant churches and censoring the press. The Church renounced this power, all too belatedly, at Vatican II — but there are Catholics out there who reject the Council’s teaching, or try to get around it by looking for loopholes in the text.

The Free Market Is the Enemy. So Poverty Is Our Friend

More common by far are Christians — and we are seeing them in various denominations now — who skip lightly over the question of whether the state should impose their religious ideas by force. Instead their attention turns, almost obsessively, to the economy. Classical Liberalism includes as its natural by-product a basically free economy, where citizens strive to maximize their economic benefit by adapting what they produce to what others wish to consume — letting the price system coordinate the vast and incomprehensibly complex neural net of human cooperation, instead of handing that power to bureaucrats and “scientific” managers, as the Soviets tried to do.

Most Christians (as I do) favor a safety net designed to protect those who cannot take care of themselves, one constructed with respect for subsidiarity — the principle of protecting the free institutions of civil society, favoring voluntary over coerced charity, and keeping power as decentralized as possible. But there other Christians out there who seem to oppose freedom in principle.

The Latest Attack on Freedom: David Bentley Hart

Most recently, Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has used the pages of First Things — which was founded to further the alliance of faithful Christians and Classical Liberals — to preach the gospel of what we might call the “Illiberal Christians.”

Illiberal Christians resent the dynamism, unpredictability, and spontaneity of an economy driven by the free choices of billions of people, without the guidance of wiser souls with advanced humanities or theology degrees. But these thinkers are running out of cudgels with which to beat the free economy.

In past decades, it was perhaps plausible to blame the market economy for failing to serve the interests of the global poor. Cold hard statistics now show that in the past 20 years, economic globalization has lifted more than a billion human beings from the grinding misery of absolute poverty. India, China, South Korea and parts of Africa have moved or are quickly moving out of the grinding cycle of subsistence agriculture and periodic famines.

Of course, it was only the market economy that lifted the population of Western Europe and America from the perennial want and anxiety that characterized most of human existence, between the early 19th and mid-20th centuries — a fact that Deirdre McCloskey celebrates in an eloquent trilogy, written in defense of freedom and the class that historically demanded it: the constantly libeled bourgeoisie. (I have just discovered that trilogy, and am working my way through it — expect more on McCloskey’s fine work in months to come.)

Illiberal Christians know by now that the economic effect of Classical Liberalism and the free economy on the poor is overwhelmingly beneficial. They just don’t care. Since they cannot blame freedom for failures that permitted global poverty, now Illiberals damn it for its success at creating global wealth, which engenders “consumerism.” The market feeds people’s bodies, and thereby endangers their souls.  As Hart writes in First Things, the market system cannot

coexist indefinitely with a culture informed by genuine Christian conviction. Even the fact of the system’s necessary reliance on immense private wealth makes it a moral problem from the vantage of the Gospel, for the simple reason that the New Testament treats such wealth not merely as a spiritual danger, and not merely as a blessing that should not be misused, but as an intrinsic evil.

Hart goes on to claim:

In the Sermon on the Plain’s list of beatitudes and woes, he not only tells the poor that the kingdom belongs to them, but explicitly tells the rich that, having had their pleasures in this world, they shall have none in the world to come. He condemns those who buy up properties and create large estates for themselves. You cannot serve both God and mammon.

Is the Old Testament Just … Evil?

The entirety of the Old Testament is predicated upon God promising blessedness, prosperity, happiness and freedom on earth to the Jewish people if they obeyed Him. Christianity teaches us that there is another and higher happiness to found in the next life. But God could never have promised worldly blessings to His people in the first place if they were “intrinsically evil,” as Hart pretends. His rejection of all the this-worldly good things — such as a better life for one’s children — which Jews craved from Abraham onward strikes me as frankly Marcionite, partaking of the heresy which starkly opposes the “wicked” and “unspiritual” Old Testament to the New. Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar was the first to note the deeply Marcionite, and often frankly anti-Semitic, biases of modern radicals who also — not by accident — rejected the market economy as evil.

We learn from the Gospels and the church’s traditions that we must imitate Christ, Who healed the sick and sought to alleviate worldly suffering. Indeed, the extraordinary and Christ-like work of Christian doctors and nurses, teachers and abolitionists, are all devoted to alleviating suffering. If suffering is in fact spiritually preferable to decent comfort and freedom, then Christians have no business trying our best to stamp it out. We ought to be spreading it. Imagining the highly “spiritual” austerity which Hart prefers to modern prosperity, I cannot help thinking of the program favored by Ingsoc in Orwell’s 1984, which was organized around suppressing pleasure of any kind. If that really were Christianity, then (as Flannery O’Connor said of another heresy) “to hell with it.”

It’s “Consumerist” When Vulgar People Crave Tacky Things

I will yield the field of refuting Hart’s exegesis to the learned Samuel Gregg, who did so comprehensively last week, drawing on Gregg’s fascinating new history of Christian attitudes toward economics and banking, For God and Profit, which I was privileged to edit for its publisher, Crossroad. There is not much left of Hart’s thesis when Gregg is finished, but don’t count on that to change any minds. Those who find freedom repulsive do so for very deep reasons, which won’t go away when you prove to them that they are misreading the Gospel, any more than the market’s success at uplifting the poor cured them of their resenting it.

What seems to motivate Illiberal thinkers is a visceral aesthetic, pseudo-spiritual disgust at the outcome of freedom, at the fact that given their druthers, ordinary people make vulgar choices — picking Nash-trash music over string quartets, pre-fab suburbs over quirky historic neighborhoods, and shallow spirituality over the Desert Fathers. Such choices distress me, too — as it bothers me when people adopt religious beliefs which I think are false and spiritually harmful.

Don’t Play God. Lucifer Tried It, and See How It Worked Out for Him

But respect for the dignity and autonomy of others, and the realization that God is at work in their consciences every bit as powerfully as in mine, teach me to reject the use of force to train other human beings like recalcitrant pets “for their own good.” As long as ago as 1850, the great Catholic Classical Liberal Frederic Bastiat diagnosed the Olympian pride involved in presuming to engineer human souls (a phrase I borrowed from that famous Illiberal, Stalin). As Bastiat wrote of socialists, so we must now say of Illiberal Christians:

Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations. This is so true that, if by chance, the socialists have any doubts about the success of these combinations, they will demand that a small portion of mankind be set aside to experiment upon….

In the same manner, an inventor makes a model before he constructs the full-sized machine; the chemist wastes some chemicals — the farmer wastes some seeds and land — to try out an idea.

But what a difference there is between the gardener and his trees, between the inventor and his machine, between the chemist and his elements, between the farmer and his seeds! And in all sincerity, the socialist thinks that there is the same difference between him and mankind! … To these intellectuals and writers, the relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter.

One of the greatest works of 19th-century literature, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, foresaw the eventual merging of socialist and religious Illiberals, into a single movement that used coercion to suppress the unruly desires of the vulgar, grasping masses, and herd them into orderly, predictable ghettos, walled in by coercion, poverty, superstition and ignorance. That is the “heavenly city” which would result if the Illiberals have their way. The gospel they are preaching belongs not to Jesus Christ, but the Grand Inquisitor.

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  • Wayne Cook

    Well written, John, including “Gnostic attempts to remake Christianity as a hatred of life on earth are not so much real intellectual options as temptations from the devil aimed at the virtue of Faith.:

    After being swayed as a young man by the Gnostic arguments, I realized later that they were fake; games meant to divert away fromt, not point to Christ. The more strenuous the effort, the less strength the premise contained.

  • ARB

    I genuinely do not understand how the second point, which appears to be an abstract jab at the teachings of Total Depravity taught by Calvinists and in similar form by Lutherans such as myself, and Psalm 14, ties into your argument. It seems stapled on with little built on top of it.

    • Zmirak

      I didn’t mean to offend–and please note that the essay is much more critical of Catholic than Protestant thinkers.

      • Micha_Elyi

        I too caught the reference to Calvinism in your examples of the Brimstone Smell Test, Mr. Zmirak. Don’t worry about offending the totally depraved, the truly depraved won’t care. Same goes for Luther’s piles of… ahem, dross. A believer in such doctrines refutes those very doctrines by taking offense.

  • Clark Coleman

    The contradictory attitudes towards poverty (the poor are noble and free from the inherent evil of wealth, yet we should labor to bring them more wealth and lift them from their poverty) among the Social Justice crowd reminded me of the definition of poverty in Ambrose Bierce’s “The Devil’s Dictionary” :

    “Poverty, n. A file provided for the teeth of the rats of reform. The number of plans for its abolition equals that of the reformers who suffer from it, plus that of the philosophers who know nothing about it. Its victims are distinguished by possession of all the virtues and by their faith in leaders seeking to conduct them into a prosperity where they believe these to be unknown.”

  • Yankeegator

    This man is still blinded by the enlightenment!!

    • Clark Coleman

      “This man …” Which man? Zmirak, or someone he mentioned in the article?

      • Zmirak

        He means me.

  • Thomas Storck

    I’m not surprised that Deidre McCloskey would indeed celebrate the values of classical liberal society, for it was such a society that allowed him to transition (as it’s now called) from being Donald to Deidre, a perversion that the traditional society you castigate would never permit. But we’re discovering today that liberty as conceived by liberalism is all of a piece, the striving to fulfill one’s will regardless of its connection to any real goods. This is what Satan is really engaged in, promoting the idea that fulfillment of one’s will, whether for the aimless pursuit of money or pleasure, is what our existence is all about, and that the social order has no authority to restrict such pursuits.

  • John Richards

    Come now, you who are rich, weep, howling at the miseries coming upon you; your riches are corrupted and moths have consumed your clothes; your gold and silver have corroded, and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. You have stored up treasure in the Last Days! See, the wages you have given so late to the laborers who have harvested your fields cry aloud, and the cries of those who have harvested your fields have entered the ear of the Lord Sabaoth. You have lived in luxury, and lived upon the earth in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned—have murdered—the upright; he did not stand against you. (James 5:1–6)

    You pay a meager lip service to a social safety net, but let’s get real: the majority of extremist free market types view all taxation as theft. As free market zealots have come to dominate mainstream economic thought, the social safety net has always come first when it comes to you talk of keeping power as “decentralized as possible” but curiously this move towards decentralization always seems to move against the trade unions, aid to the poor, and so on. It is the clothing of class warfare against the poor in the most noble rhetoric of our day.

    I’m all in favor of a free market. In the apocryphal words of an imaginary Gandhi, “I think it would be a good idea.” The problem is that a truly free market has never existed, and given the constraints upon us as humans, it seems hardly possible in our present situation. Not only is a free market constrained by negative externalities, but it doesn’t factor into the equation the real human psychology we live with, where a perfectly understandable desire to support one’s family and provide a better life for your children can be utterly transformed into avarice.

    “Illiberal Christians resent the dynamism, unpredictability, and spontaneity of an economy driven by the free choices of billions of people, without the guidance of wiser souls with advanced humanities or theology degrees. ”

    What a straw man. The problem isn’t the the lack of advanced humanity degrees, the problem is the ever-present temptation for self-glorification that the world incessantly provides us with. You imagine that this argument comes from envy (a bad faith argument if ever there was one) when really it comes from sympathy. I know that I am a sinner, a dreadfully avaricious, greedy, gluttonous and prideful, and that it takes a tremendous effort to be true to the ethical principles I hold dear. I trust in the wisdom of others, but that trust does not go so far as to imagine that all of my fellow human beings have completely purged themselves of greed and the fear of want and the love of status that fuel it. In the words of Adam Smith, “People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion but the conversation ends at a conspiracy against the public.”

    Let’s stop imagining that when people talk about socialism today they’re talking structurally about the communism of tomorrow. When people talk about socialism today, they’re not imagining a mass wave of nationalized industry, but rather envision a return to a civilization where the rich pay into the commonwealth their fair share, and that wealth is used to enrich the lives of all, through infrastructure, education, and health.

    “Indeed, the extraordinary and Christ-like work of Christian doctors and nurses, teachers and abolitionists, are all devoted to alleviating suffering.” My goodness, what a perverse act of rhetoric this is, using the good works of others to shield legitimate criticisms of our wealth-obsessed culture. Yes, this is all true, and none of this is what Hart is getting at. What classic misdirection, holding out in one hand a gathering of social workers who live outside of desperate poverty while at the same time, in the other hand, hiding behind your back the plutocrats that are the engine of so many demented and irrational public policies.

    “In past decades, it was perhaps plausible to blame the market economy for failing to serve the interests of the global poor. Cold hard statistics now show that in the past 20 years, economic globalization has lifted more than a billion human beings from the grinding misery of absolute poverty.”

    I’ll grant that, in terms of pure numbers, the very, very poorest are better off than they were previously. And I’ll grant that this has much to do with freer trade. But what this point misses is the missed opportunities of our current economic thought. How much better off would those in the third world be if corporations which founded factories in their societies were willing to accept a slightly smaller profit to pay those who they employ a slightly larger wage than the bare minimum they need to attract workers? And how much better off would those in the third world be if those in charge of corporations listened to their conscience and refused to work with petty and corrupt warlords who viciously drain the blood and treasure of their citizens? But no, legally CEOs are required to maximize profits for shareholders regardless of the effect on human lives, so they’ll happily work with any tin-pot tyrant who helps them further that end.

    This reading of Christian tradition and scripture doesn’t pass my own sniff test. It smells of brimstone. It smells of asking us to quietly accept injustice and inequality because to demand that those in the highest echelons honor their part of the social contract would be to tear all of liberty and freedom to tatters. So long passenger pigeon. We did not dare ask that people restrain themselves from slaughtering you en masse, so we sacrifice you to the alter of our mere whim. So long employee unions, we sacrifice you to the alter of shareholders profits. So long, living wage, we sacrifice you to the alter of efficiency and automation. So long, social mobility, we sacrifice you to the alter of government austerity. These are all sacrifices made to the alter of a single individual, and this alter smells of brimstone.

    • Dagnabbit_42

      Look, you’re treating the matter as if it were either/or, as if we can either live in a society which protects property rights and enforces contracts and doesn’t enact truly gigantic tariffs; or, we can live in a society that outlaws slavery and sex-trafficking and limits the sale of addictive substances and punishes false advertising. Y’know, it is possible to do both.

      The economic laws which allow Free Market Capitalism are but one small part (and by itself, an insufficient part) of the legal system which naturally ought to grow from well-catechized Christian society.

      But it would produce more than just that in its laws. And its culture and its voluntary behavior would be even more important.

      The critical observation, however, is that the laws would be more than merely free-market capitalist in nature, not less than. It is like valid doctrinal development: That which is added to the sum of that which is already known must develop from it, not contradict it.

      So, no, nobody’s asking you to accept injustice. (Inequality? Depends. Only when things are supposed to be disparate in order to fulfill justice. Please keep in mind that in a perfect society, everyone isn’t equally rich, equally educated, et cetera, because God is not a one-hit wonder.)

      No. The ask is much more just and merciful and humble: You are asked to not attempt to delegate to the police the deeds of mercy for which you are individually responsible. You are asked to perform local deeds of charity in an artistic and personal way rather than outsource them to be done in an impersonal and assembly-line fashion.

      At minimum, of course, you can just up your charitable giving to/through Church-related ministries. This is still impersonal and assembly-line-esque, to a degree. But it has the advantage of not starving the Church out of the almsgiving business the way that government-run taxpayer-funded programs do. We all know that the Church doesn’t demand a “tithe” in the sense of 10% of pre-tax income; but, keep in mind that’s because she must give the same rules both to Americans and Ecuadorians and Somalians. Realistically, for persons in the U.S., 10% of pre-tax income is the minimum, with perhaps some adjustments for large numbers of dependents, for those in the lowest income/wealth percentiles. For those in the higher percentiles, one’s giving ought to exceed 10% in proportion with one’s income and wealth. That’s just common sense.

      But once that bare minimum has been accomplished, what next?

      Well, there’s always tutoring a low-income flunking student from the nearest rough neighborhood. Done that? Okay; how about becoming the personal purchasing-agent for a nearby Catholic home for unwed mothers? Done that, too? Okay…the list can go on and on, but use your own creativity.

      See, here’s the thing. Persons can interact with other persons in 3 fundamental ways:

      1. by Force, wherein the other person is treated as an object to be shoved this way and that (or discarded entirely);
      2. through voluntary Trading, in which the other person’s dignity as an autonomous rightful chooser is honored through mutual agreements, producing a net increase in wealth on both sides; and,
      3. through Love, in which we self-sacrificially pour out time, talent, and treasure to seek the good of the other as other (where that good is properly identified through right reasoning). Love is also inherently voluntary. Any coerced act, though it may resemble love in its externals, is not, in fact, love.

      Now, every act of government is backed by the use of force; that is its nature. This is a good thing in instances where the use of force is warranted. In areas where the use of force is unjust, the government activity, to the degree to which its forcibility is direct and immediate, also becomes proportionately unjust.

      But both trade and love are non-coerced, and they thus belong to a separate order which values the dignity of the other as other. Trade allows the other room to perceive his own goods; Love requires the lover to wisely perceive the goods of the beloved and act to achieve them.

      From these observations we can see that in an idealized Christian society, each person gives voluntarily gives love to those whom he knows sufficiently well to know their goods, engages in voluntary trade with all others, and only delegates authority to his servants (the government) to use compulsion in cases where compulsion is justified.

      Such a system, it is easy to see, would include free market capitalism (and the legal system, including deeds and titles and contract-enforcement, which make it possible), but would extend far beyond free-market capitalism without thereby nullifying it. Free-market capitalism would play as small a part in the whole description of that society as, say, the rules for vestments do in the laws of the Church. But it would be in there.

  • Zeke Clinton

    Good work. I am curious though about the fringe element that calls for a return of the Inquisition. Hyperbole or do you know of such folks?

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