The Victory of Reason

Last week, President Bush took part in ceremonies commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Hungary’s 1956 uprising against its Soviet occupiers. According to the president, the Hungarians taught the world that “Liberty can be delayed, but it cannot be denied.” While the president was right, that still leaves the question: Who taught the Hungarians, or the West, for that matter, about freedom? What moved the Hungarians to give their lives to be free? Unfortunately, most Americans haven’t got a clue where this belief originated. If pressed, they might guess the American Revolution or maybe even Enlightenment figures like John Locke. But as Rodney Stark tells us in his classic work The Victory of Reason, Locke and others built on a foundation laid by Christianity. According to Stark, Western ideas about democracy and equality stem from “the central Christian doctrine that . . . inequality in the most important sense does not exist . . .” By the eleventh century, the Christian belief that we are all made in God’s image and therefore equal “in the eyes of God and in the world to come” brought an end to slavery in Europe. Slavery only returned after Christianity’s cultural influence had waned. Another way that Christianity contributed to our concept of freedom was its stress on the individual, especially in the moral realm. The Christian idea of Free Will meant that, instead of being captives to fate, people were responsible for their actions and choices. As a result, people increasingly saw themselves as having control over their lives. Western ideas about freedom are rooted in this Christian understanding of the individual. In addition to changing the way ordinary people thought about themselves, Western Christianity changed the way people thought about governance. The idea that there are limits to the sovereign’s power over his subjects is a distinctly Christian one. It became particularly clear during the Reformation that there were aspects of life over which the king had no legitimate authority. The Reformers called it “sphere sovereignty” – every sphere carrying out its own responsibility before God. These limits on state power, as Stark tells us, weren’t limited to Church matters. Christianity insisted that “the state must respect private property and not intrude on the freedom of its citizens to pursue virtue.” This is one reason President Bush so frequently says freedom is a God-given gift to all humanity. Sadly, this isn’t what’s being taught in our schools today. Instead, students are taught that freedom resulted from putting as much distance between us and our Christian past as possible. This is what Stark calls the “myth” of the “Dark Ages.” Like many myths, it has little basis in fact, but it reflects what some people need to be true if their secularist worldview is to make sense. This not only does violence to the past, but it also hurts the present. It leaves people unable to understand why “all men and women should be free.” Clearly as modern Western nations (including our own) continue to distance themselves from Christianity, they imperil their freedom. A sobering, cautionary thought for us as we prepare next week to celebrate our freedom.


Chuck Colson


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