The American republic was founded on ideals of liberal democracy rooted in concepts of individual freedom and equality. The political and social liberalism of the early 21st century is in many ways radically different from the ideals of the founding fathers. U.S. culture reflects a radical or modern liberalism created by two centuries of political and social evolution.
To understand the origins of modern liberalism, you have to go back to the time in Western civilization known as the Enlightenment. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe entered the thousand-year period of the Middle Ages. It was a time of political fragmentation and feudalism, as well as an age of grand cathedrals and monarchs who claimed divine privilege.
Europe suffered confusion and horror in the 14th century with the Hundred Years' War, the Black Death (which killed one third of the population throughout the territory between India and Iceland) and the anarchy that followed in the wake of disease and war. During the next century, the economic structure and social life of Europe experienced dramatic changes, including a cultural renaissance—a revival of art, literature and music.
Medieval Catholic theologians believed the church was establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. Earthly kings received their authority from the clergy. Corruption in the church's hierarchy, and a papacy more concerned with temporal politics than spiritual purity, eroded trust in pontifical supremacy.
In the 16th century, religious protestors launched the Reformation. Protestants began to challenge papal rule and eventually to challenge the idea of the divine right of monarchs. Science flourished and philosophers began to assert that all human problems could be solved by reason.
These trends produced a period in European history known as the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, extending throughout the 1700s. The philosophers of the Enlightenment didn't see human nature as hopelessly corrupt, instead suggesting that solutions to humanity's problems were rooted in reason and scientific thought. This laid the foundation for the emergence of political and social liberalism, placing value on personal liberty and equality instead of duty to king and clergy.
Some Enlightenment philosophers accepted the idea of the biblical Creator, while others rejected the miracles and supernatural events claimed in the Bible. For some Enlightenment philosophers, the Bible contained good teachings, but they sought to strip it of the miraculous workings of God. Even the divinity of Jesus Christ was questioned.
The founding of the United States
The founding fathers of the United States attempted to create a government promoting ideals of the Enlightenment, like personal liberty, equality and the positive aspects of human nature, while still promoting the moral teachings of the Bible. They believed that the human tendency to turn freedom into lawlessness could be checked only by the ideals of a diverse yet moral Christian heritage.
At the same time, they rejected the class system and religious hierarchy of the Middle Ages. The influences of the Enlightenment can be seen in the Declaration of Independence. The most famous quote in American history is Jefferson's: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed..."
In the American republic, equality and the personal pursuit of life, liberty and happiness replaced the old ideals that life was lived under the restrictions of a state church and a monarchy ordained by God. Government was no longer seen as an instrument of divine authority, but as a human institution, elected by the populace, designed to protect individual rights ordained by God.
Many of the founding fathers feared that democracy would unleash anarchy. There had to be limits to the concepts of equality and the pursuit of individual happiness. In 1781 they created the Articles of Confederation to govern the relationships between the states. Within less than seven years this new government was in disarray. So, "in order to create a more perfect Union," these remarkable men created the Constitution of the United States in 1787.
From its inception as a nation, the people of the American republic struggled with the limitations of the rule of law, which restricts behavior for the good of society, and the philosophy of equality and personal freedom. Most founders believed that the entire experiment relied on a commonly accepted morality based on the Christian Bible. Over the next two centuries the moral teachings of the Bible became less influential in an increasingly hedonistic society.
Trends in radical liberalism
Robert Bork, nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan, outlines the two major precepts of radical liberalism in his controversial book Slouching Towards Gomorrah. One is what he calls "radical egalitarianism," or the attempt to control the equality of outcomes instead of providing equal opportunities. The second is "radical individualism," an idea promoting the eradication of personal limits for self-gratification regardless of societal consequences.
We can see this second precept in the promotion of pornography. Sexual freedom is one of the tenets of the radical liberal philosophy. Historically, Christian churches have opposed pornography in defense of the sacredness of sex in marriage.
Liberalism states that there can be no governmental enforcement of religion, and that pornography is a right in the pursuit of happiness. In the name of freedom, new laws are passed and pornography becomes an issue of free speech. The lawful proliferation of pornography eventually allows it to become tolerated and even accepted in print, movies, television and on the Internet.
The nation has come a long way from the founders' concept of freedom of religion, which was intended to promote a diverse Christianity as the foundation of society. Three major radical liberal trends have had an enormous impact on Christianity:
First is the idea that all concepts of morality are equal. Freedom to pursue happiness has come to mean that there are no absolute truths, and all morality is based on subjective criteria.
Second is radical feminism. Since most of the Bible was written by men, many feminists approach Scripture with a "victors write history" interpretation. This means that anything that doesn't fit feminist dogma can be discarded as male influence, instead of divine revelation.
Third is the democratizing of churches so that teachings reflect current culture, instead of the church being a moral authority, holding culture to higher standards. A good example is the controversy in many Christian denominations over the ordination of homosexual clergy. The biblical teachings of sin are subjected to a culture of acceptance.
Radical liberalism and the Bible
The most-quoted verse in the New Testament is John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." This certainly shows that God places an enormous value on the individual. He created human beings to be His children. Each person has abilities and personality traits that make him or her a unique creation.
But it is a far cry from recognizing the value of the individual, to the concept that freedom entitles people to abolish all boundaries of personal behavior. When reading Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, it is apparent that His emphasis is not on personal rights, but on personal responsibility, character and the law of God. The rights of the individual can only be protected in a society in which each citizen acts on a deep-rooted sense of responsibility to restrict harmful and immoral behavior.
The Bible reveals that all individuals are equal in the opportunity to receive the love of God, but all are not equal in abilities or in outcomes of life. Jesus illustrated God's thinking on this through the parable of the wealthy man who goes on a journey and gives each of his servants different responsibilities. He gives one 10 talents, another five and another one. When he returns the servants have to give an accounting. Two of the servants used their talents wisely and are rewarded. The third hid his talent and is punished. All had unique abilities, all had equal opportunity, but not all outcomes were equal.
The paradox of the human condition is that true liberty can only be protected through laws that restrict behavior harmful to society. The Creator of the universe knows how life works. He has given humanity a set of laws that protect the rights of the individual, the family and the greater society. They're called the Ten Commandments.
The U.S. Constitution is one of the most incredible documents ever written. It is the pinnacle of the concepts of the Enlightenment, tempered by the realization of the need for the rule of law and a recognition of the necessity of the moral restrictions of the Christian Bible. But in the final analysis, the Constitution can't fix the real problem with human government. All human governments eventually fail, because they are run by beings with a nature that is a mixture of good and evil.
As Christians, we must never forget that the only real solution to the problems of human government isn't human. It is the return of Jesus Christ to establish His Father's Kingdom on this earth.
This article is an excerpt from a recently aired Good News radio program. Good News radio is heard on stations across the country. For a listing of stations and times or to download radio programs, go to www.ucg.org/radio. While online you can also order the booklet offered on this program, The Ten Commandments. WNP