Can a Christian be a Social Liberal?

Faith should penetrate all areas of life—not just the religious, but also the social, the economic, and even the political. Notwithstanding the confused claims of today’s radical secularists, we are not constitutionally required to set our faith aside when entering the world of politics. Separation of Church and state does not mean separation of Church and conscience.

Of course, Christian Tradition offers little if any direct guidance on political behavior, since such earthly matters are immeasurably less important than spiritual ones. But it seems that we should at least strive—through prayer, spiritual guidance and our best use of reason—to base the various political choices we make on Christian principles. Thus, it is perfectly legitimate to judge political ideas with respect to their compatibility with Christian teaching (to be sure, this is not a straightforward task, and it should be performed with the utmost humility).

In this essay, I am particularly concerned with the compatibility between Christianity and the philosophy of those frequently described as “socially liberal”—that is, those who subscribe to the “harm principle” articulated by J.S. Mill, which holds that “no one should be forcibly prevented from acting in any way he chooses provided his acts are not invasive of the free acts of others” (Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, p. xxi). It is my contention that this principle is fundamentally incompatible with Christian teaching.

I should preface my argument with a note regarding terminology. For the most part, I will not be using the most common English renderings of the biblical terms amartia (“sin”) and soteria (“salvation”). This is neither to diminish the importance of these concepts to the Christian faith, nor to suggest that the primarily Western, juridical view on our fallen condition, which the words “sin” and “salvation” often evoke in the American mind, is necessarily wrong. Rather, my intention is to assist the reader in seeing these concepts in a new light; understanding them in a manner that accords more with the therapeutic view of the Christian East. Soteria denotes “healing” as much as it does “salvation,” while amartia—literally, “to miss the mark”—signifies a sickness of the soul (cf. Matt 9:12). Whereas it is possible to speak of someone committing a sin, as he would a crime, it is just as valid to speak of him contracting a sin, as he would an illness. So, to simplify this alternative view, the Christian aims for the restoration of spiritual health, and to sin is to miss that mark.

Not All Freedoms are Equal
Amartia is routinely described in the Scriptures as a form of bondage (e.g., Gal 5:1; Rom 8:21). “For he who has died [to his old self] has been freed from [amartia],” writes St. Paul (Rom 6:7) [emphasis added]. Since consciousness persists beyond the grave for all eternity, and the nature of our post-mortem existence is determined by how we live our earthly lives, we may reasonably infer that the eternal consequences of dying in spiritual bondage are incomparably worse than the temporal evil of spending even an entire lifetime in political bondage. Thus, whenever there is a conflict between political and spiritual freedom, the Christian should logically prefer the latter over the former.

Although I am in no way suggesting that earthly freedom is bad, it is clearly secondary in importance to true, spiritual freedom. St. Paul writes, “Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman” (1 Cor 7:21-22). Therefore, the pursuit of earthly freedom, while in itself good, can never be the Christian’s ultimate objective. Below I explain how this understanding of freedom relates to his obligations towards society.

Social Liberalism and the Logic of Love
Implicit in Christ’s command to preach the Gospel (Mark 16:15) is the truth that we should not be content with our own soteria (i.e., spiritual healing); or, to put it more accurately, our healing depends on whether we genuinely desire the healing of others. This desire was so strong in St. Paul that he was willing to be accursed from Christ for the sake of others (Rom 9:3). Thus, to express it in the broadest of terms, the fundamental social obligation of the Christian is to bring healing to the world, and all other social ends—including the pursuit of earthly freedom—should be subordinated to this objective.

But how do we “bring healing” in a modern democratic society, where “we the people” are the agents of force—that is, where we make rules (directly, or through elected representatives) that are binding on society? Should we seek to pursue others’ healing through the use of force?

The social liberal would respond that although we are certainly entitled to express our religious beliefs, we should not impose those beliefs on others. If my otherwise immoral actions entail no harm to others, then I should not be denied my freedom to perform these actions. This view commands the respect of not only liberals, but also a growing number of conservatives. The problem with this response lies not in its appeal to freedom, which is unequivocally good, and which explains why this view is inherently appealing. The problem, rather, is that it confuses true, spiritual freedom with a cheap, earthly imitation.

Further, experience teaches us that the harm principle violates the logic of love. Occasionally, love calls us to suppress another’s earthly freedom in order to preserve something incomparably more important. For instance, one who genuinely loves his friend will, if he is able, forcibly prevent him from taking his own life in a drunken bout of despair, and no reasonable person would regard him as an enemy of freedom in doing so.

Now, Christianity teaches that the love one has for a friend should be extended to all, since to imitate God is to love the world (John 3:16)—including, even, our own enemies (Luke 6:35). Consider how we express our love for strangers through voluntarism and charitable giving. If we are justified in seeking to alleviate their finite, earthly suffering, are we not even more justified in seeking to prevent their eternal, spiritual suffering?

Given both the imperative to love and the superiority of spiritual freedom over earthly freedom, I have arrived at the view that love is appropriately expressed through public policy (i.e., the use of force). True love knows no bounds between the realm of close, interpersonal relations and that of politics.

Before applying this framework to the specific issue of pornography, I should confess that it is, in theory, radical by the standards of our hyper-individualistic culture. But I might not be nearly as authoritarian in practice as the reader might suspect. In my view, one should always appreciate the social and political context of a society when contemplating public policy, for some policies that otherwise embody Christian principles might, once enacted, be ineffective or counter-productive, or do more harm than good by pushing people who are already increasingly skeptical of religion further away from the Church. Nevertheless, while there might be a certain number of issues on which social liberals and I concur, the agreement is based more on my appreciation of political realities than on shared political values.

The Case of Pornography
This moral-political framework is highly applicable to the issue of pornography. For although it is an unequivocal amartia (to most Christians, at any rate), making or viewing pornography does not necessarily infringe on another’s earthly freedom. From a socially liberal standpoint, therefore, the government must not ban pornography, however immoral it may be. Consider the Libertarian Party’s position on this issue:

We oppose any abridgment of the freedom of speech through government censorship … concerning obscenity, including “pornography” … despite claims that it instigates rape or assault, or demeans and slanders women.

As a parenthetical note, what is particularly disturbing about this statement is that the Libertarian Party does not dismiss these claims by disagreeing with them (otherwise, it could have written something along the lines of “despite false claims…”). Rather, there appears to be a perverse order of priorities, whereby the freedom to make and consume filth holds precedence over the protection of a woman’s bodily integrity. More to the point of this essay, there is no consideration of pornography’s spiritually damaging effects. For the consumer of such material, sex ceases to be an act of self-offering, but is one of self-gratification. The other is no longer honored as the image of God, but is blasphemously reduced to an object of pleasure. It is worth adding that pornography is not only immoral in itself, but also appears to be a gateway to other amartie, like extramarital sex and divorce (e.g., see here and here for studies).

For the sake of argument, let us assume that banning pornography would effectively reduce consumption of such obscene material, and that it would not produce unintended effects that leave society worse off than before the ban (testing these assumptions is beyond the scope of this essay). When contemplating such a ban in this case, the choice between earthly and spiritual freedom should be obvious for the Christian who sincerely desires to heed the call to love everyone. When we view the matter from an eternal perspective, we more easily see why there is nothing noble about upholding a man’s earthly freedom so as to place him in spiritual bondage.

Conclusion and Caveat
In the realm of public policy, the Christian should act upon the belief that spiritual freedom trumps earthly freedom. It seems to me that, in doing so, he cannot be socially liberal—at least on principle—without contradicting his faith. However, the last thing I wish to do is spark an ideological witch hunt against Christians who hold socially liberal values, as I suspect that most of them are sincere believers who genuinely, if erroneously, believe that their faith is compatible with such values. Thus, while explaining to others how we can express our faith more consistently in the political arena, we should always remember to do so with humility and love.

Amir Azarvan

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Amir Azarvan is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is the editor of Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience (Wipf & Stock).

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