This article was published in the Spring 1995 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
Religious Influence on Political Structure
Lessons from the Past, Prospects for the Future
by Roderick T. Long

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Does Religion Matter to Politics?
Why Catholics Became Monarchists
Why Protestants Became Democrats
Will New Agers Become Anarchists?

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Does Religion Matter to Politics?

Libertarians are fond of observing that the longevity of a free society ultimately depends on its citizens' will to remain free. We can design the constitution so as to slow down the process of decay as much as possible; we can rely on market incentives to keep the system stable. But ultimately, if free men and women lose their understanding of and commitment to freedom — if freedom no longer seems natural to them, if it ceases to answer to their deepest convictions — then in time they will lose their freedom, bartering their sacred birthright for some new idol that has taken the place of liberty in their hearts.

The right political structure can help a society remain free; but political structure is not enough. Its effectiveness depends crucially on the broader social and cultural context.

I don't want to overstate this point. The Blood Feud — hardly a libertarian institution — was a central and pervasive feature of mediæval Northern European societies during the early stages of their development; yet over time many of these societies (e.g., Anglo-Saxon England and Viking Iceland) began to move toward a more peaceful and humane restitution-based practice as a result of the economic incentives inherent in their competitive legal system. Taming the Blood Feud was no easy task, and its accomplishment in this instance is testimony to the power of political structure to prevail against deep-seated cultural norms.

But this example is a sword that cuts both ways. For in the long run these same societies ended up abandoning their quasi-anarchic political structure, and one of the forces driving them toward a centralization of power was the Catholic ideology of Kingship, which served to legitimize the aspirations of war chiefs like England's King Aelfred or the Icelandic storgodhar. Describing the case of England, Tom Bell notes: 

David Friedman offers a similar observation with regard to mediæval Iceland:  (For the interplay of political structure and statist ideology in the downfall of these societies, see my "The Decline and Fall of Private Law in Iceland" (Formulations, Vol. I, No. 3, Spring 1994), "Anarchy in the U.K.: The English Experience with Private Protection," and especially "Can We Escape the Ruling Class?" (Formulations, Vol. II, No. 1, Autumn 1994).)

So culture matters. And religion, as in the case of Aelfred, can be a powerful factor in shaping culture, for good or evil. How, then, might a culture's religious ideas influence the stability of a free society?

Conservatives often maintain that a strongly religious society is more apt to remain loyal to the ideals of liberty. Specifically, they claim that religion offers two advantages: that it provides a firmer foundation for moral character and personal responsibility, thus creating a citizenry more honest, self-disciplined, and self-reliant, and so less likely to be tempted to advance themselves at the expense of their neighbors through government coercion—and that it offers the authority of God as an alternative to the authority of the State, and thus serves as a check on governmental aggrandizement.

Such conservatives frequently conclude that the government of a free society should take active measures to promote and strengthen religion. Even if we accept the premise, however, this conclusion does not follow. A society in which the coercive power of the state is enlisted in the support of certain religious ideas is no longer a free society, at least as libertarians understand the notion of freedom. Hence, even if religion should prove to be a necessary bulwark of freedom, such a bulwark would have to be held in place through voluntary means only, lest coercion in the means undermine the freedom that is sought as an end.

Many libertarians hold precisely the opposite view, that religion is always an enemy of liberty — that by discouraging independent thought, fostering intolerance toward non-believers, and demanding submission to authority, religion simply reinforces habits of mind that predispose citizens to become obedient slaves of the State. For such libertarians, the best guarantor of liberty is a society without religion; hence the laissez-faire utopias of libertarian fiction are frequently atheistic utopias as well (as in James P. Hogan's Voyage from Yesteryear or Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged).

But if liberty cannot triumph until religion has withered away, then I suspect we are in for a long wait; the religious impulse seems to be a basic fact about human society, and shows no signs of vanishing any time soon. Libertarians had better learn to live with it.

Fortunately, the notion, held by many libertarians, that religion is the natural enemy of freedom, is as much a caricature as is the conservative idea that religion is the natural bulwark of freedom. It all depends on the content of the religious ideas in question. Religion has certainly served as a force of oppression, as the simplest survey of history will show. And religion has served as a pro-freedom force too; for example, historians are beginning to recognize that the American Revolution was motivated nearly as much by religious Dissenters' resistance to the Anglican establishment as by Lockean republicans' resistance to King and Parliament. (See, e.g., J. C. D. Clark, The Language of Liberty, 1660-1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynamics in the Anglo-American World (Cambridge University Press, 1994).)

If we who seek to build a Free Nation wish to gauge our prospects for success, we might want to ask ourselves two questions. First, which sorts of religious ideas may be expected to advance, and which sorts to hinder, the establishment of a libertarian society? And second, which of these sorts seems likely to gain cultural dominance in the near future?

I don't have a full answer to these questions, but I'll share some of the ideas I've come up with so far.

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Why Catholics Became Monarchists

History — to quote Lord Bolingbroke — is philosophy teaching by examples. So let's follow our teacher back to mediæval Europe to see what we can learn.

In the Middle Ages, most political theorists liked to describe the King as the "shepherd" or "steersman" of the community. The King's authority was not absolute — he was expected to rule within the bounds of the moral law, and his authority was contingent on his so doing — but it was supreme. The King was seen as the chief, almost the sole, source of order and harmony in the community; he was the protector, the judge, and the lawgiver. In the exercise of temporal power the King had neither partners nor rivals, but enjoyed undivided sovereignty; all decisions passed in a top-down fashion from the will of the King to the obedience of his subjects.

What is bizarre about mediæval political theory is that it bore so little relation to mediæval political reality. In most cultures, the dominant political ideology is an idealized version of the political institutions actually existing in that society. But not so here. Throughout most of mediæval Europe, Kings had very little power; they were basically war chiefs, specializing in foreign rather than domestic policy. The Kings generally did not create law, but rather rubber-stamped prevailing legal customs; far from exercising undivided top-down sovereignty, the King had to share his authority with countless local lords and barons, on whose support he crucially depended. Most of the political action took place at this more local level; the idea of the King as the supreme source of order in society would have seemed fantastic to the average serf, to whom the King was as remote a figure as the Shah of Persia. It was to the local lord, not to the King, that the common people turned for help. When they obtained justice, it was the lord, not the King, who received their gratitude and loyalty; when they were oppressed, it was the lord, not the King, whom they cursed and resented.

But if monarchy was so marginalized in feudal society, why did that society's political theorists find it natural, for the most part, to conceptualize political authority in terms of the very un-feudal top-down monarchist model? The answer, I think, lies in the influence of Catholic Christianity.

The Bible is ambivalent on kingship. Kings are portrayed as chosen and anointed by God, and the faithful are urged to obey them; much of the "King as shepherd" imagery is drawn from scriptural sources (though also from Greek political theory). Yet on the other hand, Kings are frequently reviled and condemned, and resistance to their rule is often presented in a positive light. Defenders and foes of monarchy can each claim Biblical support; so adherence to the Bible alone is not sufficient to explain the Catholic enthusiasm for monarchy.

There is another reason, I think, for the affinity between mediæval Catholicism and monarchist theory. My hypothesis is this: 

Mediæval monarchist theory was a woefully inadequate description of the mediæval State — but as a description of the mediæval Church it scores significantly higher. The Catholic Church, after all, was a top-down hierarchical structure in which supreme and undivided authority rested in the divinely mandated Pope, who carried a shepherd's crook (!) and radiated his benign authority downward. Most political theorists were Churchmen, after all, and simply translated into political terms the notions of authority that seemed natural to them from their ecclesiastical experience.

The structure of the Roman Catholic Church, in turn, was modeled on that of the Roman Empire, with the Pope being the spiritual equivalent of the Roman Emperor. In many ways the Church represented the last survival of Imperial Roman society; its leaders even wore the flowing robes and regalia of the old Roman aristocracy, when their congregations had long since switched over to the trousers of the "barbarians." More importantly, the early Church borrowed much of its internal organizational structure from the faltering Empire, even keeping such words as "diocese" (originally referring to an Imperial subdivision). Thus we see that relations of influence between religion and politics are a two-way street!

The mediæval political theorists, then, were looking at the politics of feudalism through the lenses of a political framework appropriate to the long-defunct Roman Empire. (Some even realized this; Dante Alighieri, for example, devoted his treatise On Monarchy to a call for the resuscitation of the Roman Empire, and in his Inferno the assassins of Cæsar are relegated to the lowest level of Hell, which they share with Judas alone.) It was the political structure of the Catholic Church — the idea that supreme authority derives from a single leader, responsible only to God — that made a similar structure for secular society seem natural, thus giving rise to the Catholic theories of monarchy that lent moral legitimacy to, and so fostered, the gradual centralization of power in the hands of monarchs during the later Middle Ages.

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Why Protestants Became Democrats

The very factors that made powerful monarchs attractive to Catholics in the Middle Ages had the effect of making democracy become more and more attractive to Protestants during the Early Modern period.

That is not to say that the leaders of the Protestant Reformation harbored democratic sympathies themselves. Luther and Calvin were authoritarian to the core; and early Protestant political theory was on average more statist, and gave more power to the monarch, than Catholic political theory of the same period. Indeed, Protestant defenders of absolute monarchy generally dismissed all attempts to limit the authority of the King as "Papist" trickery. (Some of the reasons for this were political. Catholic theorists needed to limit the power of Kings so as to preserve the authority and autonomy of the Church; Protestants, on the other hand, were attempting to enlist the aid of the Kings in order to resist that Church, and a theoretical justification of absolute power was a useful carrot with which to win royal support. Thus Protestant theorists initially became the champions of the newly powerful Kings that Catholic theorists had unwittingly created.)

But the alliance between Protestantism and powerful Kings was doomed to a short future; for there were political time-bombs hidden in Protestant religious doctrine, and in due time they were triggered. Protestants rejected the structure of the Catholic Church on the grounds that it wrongly placed human intermediaries between the worshipper and his God; they taught instead that each individual has a direct relationship to God, and must be responsible to his own conscience. Over time this led more and more Protestant sects to reject the top-down ecclesiastical structure in favor of a bottom-up approach in which the Church was run, not by a prelate from on high, but by the members of the congregation themselves. After all, if each individual enjoys the direct relation to God that in earlier times was reserved to the ecclesiastical hierarchy, it seems a natural conclusion that the powers of that hierarchy should be extended to the rank and file as well.

But as Protestants began to think of spiritual authority in bottom-up rather than top-down terms, they also began to find it natural to think of political authority in the same way. If individuals joined together in congregations can run their own Church, why cannot they equally well run their own State? And so Protestants began to drift toward democratic, or at any rate republican, ideals. Indeed, the more democratic a Protestant sect's Church structure was, the more democratic were its views on the State. Members of Protestant sects from the top-down end of the spectrum, like the Anglicans, tended to be politically conservative and to favor governmental authority; while those at the bottom-up end of the spectrum, like the Quakers, had the greatest tendency toward radical democratic ideas.

It has been said that everyone in America is a Protestant. Its Catholics are Protestant Catholics, its Jews are Protestant Jews, and its atheists are Protestant atheists. I take this to mean that the ethos originally associated with Protestantism has permeated the entire culture. (American Catholics might well be said to be taking an increasingly Protestant attitude toward the authority of the Pope!) Certainly this country's founders were by and large drawn from the bottom-up end of the Protestant spectrum, and this no doubt does much to explain their attachment to popular rule.

Yet few Protestants rejected the core idea of State authority; a typical Protestant no more thought of abolishing the State than of abolishing his own Church. On the contrary, the State, like the Church, was seen as an arena in which power could at last be used for good purposes, since with its new democratic structure it now supposedly represented the interests of its members rather than those of a privileged élite. Nor did the increasing Protestant abandonment of the old Catholic claim to a spiritual monopoly, and the consequent acceptance of competing denominations, lead Protestants to the correlative idea of competing legal systems; for the religious life of the average Protestant was not experienced as a zone of competition: rather, one was born into the sect of one's parents, and one generally remained in it.

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Will New Agers Become Anarchists?

In my view, Western culture is currently undergoing a religious revolution comparable in significance to the Protestant Reformation. I am referring to the New Age movement. Few opinion-makers are inclined to take the New Age movement seriously or indeed to recognize it as a religious phenomenon, much less to consider its political implications. But the motivations that drive it, and the needs it promises to meet, are paradigmatically religious, and its influence is rapidly spreading.

The New Age movement is not, in any traditional sense, organized; it has few churches, few prominent leaders, and no unified body of doctrine; and most of its adherents probably do not even recognize themselves as participants in a movement. Since its inception in the 19th century (when it was called New Thought), the most salient feature of the New Age movement has been its eclecticism; different branches of the movement mix and match, to taste, elements from Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Celtic, Shamanist, Platonic, Gnostic, and various other traditions.

But there are some common themes, running through most (though not all) strands of the New Age web: the quest for mystical enlightenment, stressing understanding over faith; the immanence of the divine in everyday life; the divinity of the individual; the continuity of the natural with the supernatural, and the consequent openness to "mind over matter" experiences; the importance of

personal transformation and growth through self-actualization; the recognition of opposing religious traditions as containing distinct but complementary insights into the nature of reality; a preference for holistic and organic over reductionistic and mechanistic ways of thinking; the rejection of original sin and eternal damnation; a preference for progressive as opposed to static conceptions of the afterlife; God as a "Force" to be accessed in one's everyday experience rather than an angry personal judge to be feared; and so on. Ideas like these — ideas that clearly represent a heterodox religious consciousness — are rapidly becoming dominant in our culture, even among people who think of themselves as members of mainstream religions and have only contempt for the wackiest and most visible (but doctrinally marginal) manifestations of the New Age outlook, such as astrology and crystal power.

It is an open question whether New Age ideas will prove to be favorable or unfavorable to libertarianism. I consider them favorable, on the whole; but my present concern is less with the theology of the New Age movement than with its structure. In this respect, the New Age ethos stands to the Protestant ethos as the latter once stood to the Catholic ethos. The Catholic ethos championed a single monopoly Church, outside of which there was no salvation; the Protestant ethos sanctioned a plurality of broadly similar Churches, bound by a common sacred text, with each worshipper being a member of exactly one Church; the New Age ethos offers a smorgasbord of wildly diverse organizations, where participation in one is not held to preclude participation in others, and where many adherents drift from one to another as they please, or else practice New Age techniques privately and participate in no organized activities at all. Final authority rests not in another human being, like a King or a Pope — not in a common sacred text, like the Bible or the Constitution — but in oneself and one's own personal spiritual development.

That is not to say that the New Age movement lacks human leaders. On the contrary, it has a plethora of them; and public perceptions of the New Age movement often focus on these gurus and cult leaders as a sign of the movement's apparent authoritarian tendencies. But the membership of the more authoritarian and cultlike groups is small and fluid. If authoritarian leaders are being offered in the marketplace of ideas, there will always be some who are willing to buy; but most New Agers, as far as I can tell, regard their spiritual development as their own personal responsibility, and patronize "leaders" only so far as they find their insights helpful. Likewise, the New Age movement does not lack for sacred texts; it has plenty of competing texts — some new and some ancient (and some only allegedly ancient!). But New Agers tend to pick and choose what they find meaningful in these texts, without feeling bound to the "package deal" of a traditional sectarian allegiance.

If the natural political expression of the Catholic ethos was monarchism, and the natural political expression of the Protestant ethos was democracy, then the natural political expression of the New Age ethos is free-market anarchism.

This does not mean that today's New Agers are libertarians. Some are; but most, I suspect, are moderate statists of the eco-left variety. Yet likewise the first Protestants had few if any democratic inclinations. If the historical pattern repeats itself, however, then as the New Age movement continues to grow, its adherents will come to find its anarchic organizational structure more and more natural, and will gravitate toward manifestations of that same structure in the political realm. Hence, I suggest, we who hope to found a Free Nation should view the emerging religious climate as a reason for optimism. D

Roderick T. Long is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A frequent lecturer on libertarian topics, he is currently completing a book tentatively titled Aristotle on Fate and Freedom.

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