I am not a classical liberal despite my Christianity or a Christian despite my classical liberalism. I am an unrepentant classical liberal because I am an unapologetic Christian.
This rather brief piece of writing is not an apologia for my Christian worldview, so no-one should read it as such. However, this piece is written with the basic, immovable, and uncompromising assumption of my Christian faith. I can even now hear the cascade of comments by adolescent keyboard philosophers or atheist missionaries seeking to needle my Christianity out of me. You are of course at liberty to do so, but no-one should be under any illusion as to what this piece of writing is and is not.
It is not an effort to convince non-believers to become Christians. It is not an attempt to argue that only Christians can be classical liberals. It is not an attempt to argue that Christianity is only compatible with classical liberalism.
It seeks to be nothing more or less than a presentation of what should by rights be an uncontroversial claim: that Christians can believe in liberty – including the liberty to adhere to a worldview other than Christianity, and to be critical of all worldviews including Christianity.
I believe in liberty because I am a Christian.
I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of the individual because I believe man was created with such in the image of God (Genesis 1:27 & Matthew 10:31).
I believe in liberty because I believe man was created with liberty (Genesis 2:16).
I believe in consequences for the violation of liberty because I believe godly justice demands such consequences (Luke 20:47).
I believe in the existence of the state with the authority to tax reasonably because I believe Christ when he tells His followers to give unto Caesar that which Caesar is entitled to (Matthew 22:21).
I believe in legitimate government power, but in government power being wielded justly because I believe that that is decreed by God (Jeremiah 22:1-3 & 1 Kings 3:9).
I believe in freedom of speech because I believe it allows me the freedom to serve and worship God (Daniel 3:16).
I believe that those who are not Christians are at liberty to say so and live so because I believe God to decree it so (Matthew 11:15).
I believe in the freedom of others to commit what I consider to be sins because I believe that God is not a formulaic God of mundane and superficial control and judgement, and that obedience to God is not something to be controlled by others (1 Samuel 16:7 & Romans 1:28-32).
I believe in the moral duty of empowerment rather than dependence because I believe in the Pauline position that working to earn a living carries God-given duty and dignity (Ephesians 4:28).
I believe in the ownership of property because I believe in God’s giving ownership of things to individuals (Exodus 20:15 & 17, Luke 12:48 & Acts 2:45).
I believe in non-racialism because I believe that all are created in the image of God and because, well, my Saviour is not of my race.
It is my conviction that a reading of the Bible, carried out with a well-informed, grounded understanding of biblical genre, historical context, scriptural context, and authorship, brings one to a worldview where liberty is given; where just duty and obligations are demanded; where human life has inherent value and worth and beauty; where it is better to empower truly through honest labour than make dependent; where fair and moral treatment of others is non-negotiable; where caring for the vulnerable is no mere signal of virtue, but a command; where the Aristotelian inevitability of the state is acknowledged; where rulers are warned to use power justly; where justice can be done for the violation of liberty; where property is justly possessed and at the behest of the owner to give away; where those who do not obey God do so because God has decreed them the liberty to do so; where more focus is given to the personal and internal battle against selfish sin against God than to the pharisaic policing of the sins of others; and where it is not the duty of man to save the eternal souls of others, but the duty of man to limit the suffering of sin on earth, and to worship willingly at the feet of a great Saviour.
In this, I find the core tenets of a substantive classical liberalism I will stand to defend with whatever strength God gives me.
If ever you want to find powerful historical illustrations of some elements of individual liberty and classical liberalism following in the wake of the Christian belief I describe here, look at three examples: the Reformation, the political battle against the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Whatever the ultimate successes, failures or manifestations of these significant historical movements, I think it would be difficult to argue that they were not in the pursuit of individual liberty, yet driven by Christian conviction.
The Reformation, led by such Christians as Luther, called for the individual to be able access Holy Scripture and the truths therein contained. The Abolitionists, led by such Christians as Wilberforce, called for the acknowledgement that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with intrinsic, inalienable human dignity – not mere creatures and objects to be traded and shipped. Martin Luther King Jr., leading the Civil Rights Movement against racial discrimination, was a potent voice among many that called for the right of all to participate fairly and fully in the democratic process of choosing a government – the symbol of citizenship and God-given equality and dignity.
For the individual’s liberty to have, without mortal intercession, access to God and Revelation, to be considered a human being of divine worth, and to have full citizenship equality and dignity with its symbolism and function of democratic participation in a vote – these liberties were pursued for individuals to live in just and free societies.
But mere victories for the pursuit of individual liberty they were most certainly not. These great campaigns of history were propelled by the deeply held and unapologetic Christian belief that all men are endowed with the human dignity of being created in the image of God. These pursuits of liberty were not those of men seeking equity among atoms or parity among animals, but of Christians seeking the acknowledgment of dignity created by the hands of holy God and denied by the laws of fallen man.
Fundamentally, these immense shifts in the realisation of individual liberty, the core of classical liberalism, stand historically engrained with the Christian worldview and perspective on liberty as presented in 2 Corinthians 3:17: Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
The IRR is an organisation with an unashamedly proud legacy of opposing the racism that Archbishop Hurley, president of the IRR in the 1960s, called ‘blasphemy from the pulpit’. Describing apartheid like this caused quite a stir, ruffling many NG Kerk and NP feathers at the time.
While cherishing a rich legacy of Judeo-Christian values as the basis of liberty, and having stood with religious peoples and institutions in fighting apartheid and its divisive successors, the IRR is not an organisation with any specific religious inclination beyond the inclination that liberty, perceived by Christians such as myself to be God-given, includes the liberty to be unashamedly, unapologetically religious or not.
Introspection and some humility are always of value, especially when a specific opinion on a platform by an organisation like the IRR’s Daily Friend news site has given rise to healthy debate.
Had the IRR erred by allowing the freedom of the Daily Friend editorial team to publish the views of Ivo Vegter? This is a question worth asking without fear, but also one worth answering unequivocally.
From in-depth discussions over past days with our CEO Frans Cronje and other of my senior colleagues, the answer is ‘no’. Publishing divergent and even controversial views, as long as the foundational principles of non-racialism and liberty are adhered to, is an inherent part of the liberty the IRR fights for – the same liberty that stands at the heart of freedom of religion. There will be no apology, no retraction, no change in editorial or authors’ freedom.
For more than nine decades the IRR has been fighting for liberty in South Africa, creating the climate of opinion for freedom to advance in a country desperate for it, crippled too long by division and the illiberal, and unchristian, denial of human dignity. Over almost a century, the IRR has come to fully appreciate that it is no accident that the fascists and oppressors first shoot those with ideas of liberty and burn the books that might doctrinally and dogmatically threaten a new prescriptive order that brooks no dissent.
For all those who long for liberty and place their faith in Christ, let us not be distracted from the challenges to liberty in this beloved country – let us rather remember the striking lyric: As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on.
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