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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Hermann Pretorius
Hermann studied law and opera before entering politics and think tankery – an obvious career path. In furtherance of the logicality of his career trajectory, he worked for the election campaign of a liberal, formerly growing opposition party in 2019. In an attempt to deal with his PTSD from this latter experience, he took up a position as an analyst at the IRR, where he is currently the IRR’s Head of Strategic Initiatives. A Protestant, landless, Anglophilic, Afrikaans classical liberal still awaiting his letter of acceptance to the Patriarchy™, Hermann tries to make the best of, you know, things.

9 COMMENTS

  1. The author selects those points in Christian text that would understandable lead to a liberal approach – freedom of thought, expression, action, association and the relief of suffering – all within the limits of decency and law. Nothing wrong with this. My problem is that the bible contains other texts that go against all these things and the fact that Christian faiths have decided, possibly by interpretations of the bible, to make or imply that some things are facts – like the trilogy and things like heaven and earth, and the use of these concepts to force behaviour, and compliance with certain dogmas and practices like baptism, confirmation and communion being essential, and that these interpretations bring about other behaviours like cleric celibacy, anti homosexuality and certain methods of birth control etc. Belief in, and essential following of these practices are distinctly not liberal. One is being told what to think and do. I would not go so far as to say the author has been cherry picking, because the outcome is beneficial to humanity, but suffice to say that the arrival at a liberal approach is not uniquely to be had from Christianity, but from other faiths, atheists, agnostics, deists etc and the belief that man is inherently good, and from common sense.
    What is interesting insofar as the IRR is concerned, is that it is able to draw from a wealth of often divergent sources and opinions, to arrive at the common positive attributes of liberty.

    • Can you point me to the verses that go against any verse pointed out here?
      I am not picking up the fight, just would like to know where in that book one verse goes against another?

      • Thanks Soly, you ask a very salient question. Whichever way we look at it, and this is anathema to the modern atheistic cause, Judeo-Christian beliefs underpin our western world. Hermann’s article is excellent and I, for one, am very grateful for his clear exposition.

  2. Classic liberalism is informed by the key ideas of western monotheism, specifically the Judo-Christian tradition. Any serious history of ideas cannot ignore this relationship or in fact the morality of most classic liberal thinkers.

    This article however also shows in turn how the bible can be used to make sense of political systems and changing world views. You can just as easily cherry pick the bible for proof of social-democracy or conservatism. Coming back to my original point that humans don’t use reason to discover some ultimate objective “truth” – we cannot – but to give meaning to human needs and survival. In this case for Herman to show how his Christianity is compatible with classic liberalism…For the modern church to be more liberal towards marriage and gay rights etc…During the Apartheid struggle to both justify Apartheid but also the liberation struggle…

    I would argue in many respects this moderation of reason with actual living together is healthier and more liberal than the fundamentalist notions of religious conservatives or secular humanist or libertarians…

  3. Very good article. Argumentative, and, as expected shocking to people that believe that Bible promotes violence, slavery and killing people not agreeing with. To truly understanding The Bible takes years of reading and good thinking what one reads. Going regularly to a church sermons helps a lot.
    For a long time i considered myself as a conservative, as was told by media, if I go to church and believe in God, I must be right wing conservative.
    Well, reading The Bible and going to church more often, I realized that image is not true at all.
    Came out that I am a liberal.

  4. A helpful article by Mr Pretorius. Mr Vegter clearly did not research hermeneutics, which is the study of sound principles of Bible interpretation. One of these is that all of Scripture needs to be interpreted in the light of the revelation in Christ.

    Another error of Mr Vegter is that he confuses religion and spirituality. He seems sadly to have been exposed to a destructive form of outward religion. Spirituality is an inward personal relationship with Christ that expresses itself in values of love, justice and caring for the marginalised, inter alia. Such spirituality is what appeals to all cultural groups in South Africa.

    I like Mr Pretorius’s emphasis on freedom of speech. However, for the IRR to be consistent on this one, they need to reinstate David Bullard, who was fired for expressing a controversial opinion. I believe this cost the IRR a lot of credibility, which is sad, because they are such an important alternative voice in South Africa.

  5. Thank you for this confirmation that the IRR also allow the possibility for convicted Christians to participate in their quest for liberal freedoms. The nature of something as transcendent as human freedom in a world that more and more ignore our metaphysical human properties in favour of some amoral mechanistic survival utility, ask that we do more than just put human freedom in some undefined sphere of freedoms, because it can be lost at any moment, in fact it is being lost and gained at any particular moment. But like a body that is always exposed to pathogens, but thanks to an amazing working immune system, the body can actually be healthy and thriving, I believe humanity needs a “moral immune system” able to assist our wellbeing and our freedoms. Maybe this unfortunate situation with Ivo’s views is exactly the situation where a moral immune system is supposed to become aware of a pathogen and acts on it. High fever might be the result of the immune response but a healthy body usually is the endpoint.

    I strongly agree with the fact that Christianity played a pivotal roll in most of the liberal freedoms of our age. But I also know how much effort it took and is still taking to gain those freedoms. What I also know is that there are in fact no excuse for promoting a historically known pathological world view like scientific materialism (…consult Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings to understand the actual endpoint of scientific materialism, then read 20th-century history to find the actual devastation of all aspects of human dignity caused by scientific materialism).

    This pathological world view was allowed to propagate on your platform, through an argument in favour of the call to eradicate Christian influence by blatantly creating strawman depictions of the Christian history, in line with the modern decolonisation movement. Saying you (Ivo Vegeter) don’t support the broader decolonisation movement, but then still enticing us to use the same illiberal and destructive method to get at Christianity is a very ill-conceived message to be presented on the IRR’s platform.

    Hermann, I respect the freedom of secular liberal ideas like you but I cannot play ignorant of pathologically destructive ideas that have no credentials other than the destruction of human freedoms. Genetic determinism, methodological naturalism, utilitarianism, scientific racism, moral relativism, centralized economic planning, marxism are just some of its most influential scientific materialist ideas. But the overarching problem is that it promotes nothing that even closely aligns with any transcendent human value, and has been actively proven to destroy freedoms.

    Why do you protect it? How do you get there, please enlighten me of the values of scientific materialism of the atheist kind, I have searched and found nothing to convince me of a situation other than the one Nietzsche paints?

    I don’t agree with the IRR not taking action to prevent this pathological world view to be promoted with impunity, especially when you have impugned other views that falls in the same category.

  6. I don’t like the usage of “classic liberalism”, because it gets confused with being liberal, when in fact it’s currently almost the opposite. Liberal parties such as the American Democrats and UK Labour are preaching a big control state of a restricted set of values that are forcefully honoured, and many of those values are in contradiction to Scripture, making it very hard to vote Democrat as a *Biblical* Christian. I prefer classic liberals call themselves libertarians. Dave Rubin on YouTube is one of the most well known libertarians and he also talks about the struggle of being assumed to be “liberal” because he calls himself a “classical liberal”.

    Evangelical conservatives like myself and libertarians have a lot in common, especially a small govt view of economics. Where we differ is on the Great Commission: “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” There is absolutely a behavioural aspect to the Christian life, and those that deny it and preach an excessive “grace” gospel are simply not reading Jesus. While we can’t force people to be Christian or to be good, there is a definite message throughout the Bible to influence, not to back off. You rightly mention the work against the slave trade, and in today’s light we hold the same view of abortion, a treacherous evil. If unborn children are being murdered, you don’t simply stand back as a libertarian and say you’re just hands off – our Christian morality drives us to be involved, and that’s where I think the libertarian mindset comes short, it lacks love. Your article seems to preach liberty as the core of the Gospel. I don’t believe that. Now these three remain: faith, hope and love (not liberty). Love drives us to influence and intervene.

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