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Free Liberal: Coordinating towards higher values

Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

The Role of Christmas in the History of Freedom

by Micah Tillman

It’s a(n) historical thing, more than a religious thing. Or, rather, because it’s a religious thing, it became a(n) historical thing.

Either way, liberalism (I speak of the classical version) owes a lot to Christmas.

Dare I go so far as to say classical liberalism is a consequence of Christmas?

The argument would go as follows:


Whether you believe in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life (or even believe there was such a person as Jesus of Nazareth at all), the Gospel accounts are a fact.

Not fact, but a fact. They exist, whether or not they’re accurate.

And they’ve existed for a long time—between 1,918 and 1,948 years, if I remember correctly.

Over the centuries they’ve had a huge effect on Euro-American civilization.

Three passages from the Gospels have been of particular importance for liberalism:


First, there’s Luke 10:25–37, the parable of “The Good Samaritan.”

It’s presented as Jesus’ answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” (An important question to answer, since loving God and loving neighbor are the two prerequisites for “eternal life.”)

Instead of actually answering the question, however, the parable tells the reader how to be a neighbor. And it does so by making ethnicity and class irrelevant to being a neighbor (and, therefore, to being loved or valued).

Second, there’s John 4:4–26, the story of “The Woman at the Well.”

It’s another story that emphasizes the irrelevance of class and ethnicity.

What’s different, however, is its emphasis on decentralization.

When asked which of two mountains was the right place to worship God, Jesus responds, Neither. Location is irrelevant to where one makes contact with God.

It is spirit and truth, not place, that matters.

Third, there’s John 8:31–37.

Once again, the story has to do with the irrelevance of ethnicity.

But this time, what is irrelevant about ethnicity has to do with freedom. Whether one is free or not has nothing to do with one’s genetics.

It is truth that brings freedom.

Furthermore, Jesus argues in the story, slavery isn’t just a physical matter. It’s also a matter of heart and mind.


Thus, whether or not you believe the Gospel stories, millions of people in Europe and America believed them for centuries. And this had a profound impact on our culture(s).

The continual presence of “The Authoritative Holy Scriptures,” and in them of the idea that everyone was to be treated as a neighbor (regardless of class and ethnicity) led eventually to the widespread belief that each person had value (regardless or birth or power).

This led to the idea that no one had any more right to rule than anyone else, but, rather, everyone’s “voice” had an equal value.

Thus, the necessary foundations for modern liberal democracy were gradually solidified.

Also, the ideas (a) that there is no connection between ethnicity and freedom, (b) that there are slaveries other than the physical, and (c) that truth was the way to freedom, reinforced the idea of the value of every voice.

Freedom of speech and thought grew into the norm, because truth (not some single voice from the throne) became the standard, and truth became celebrated because of the freedom it brought.


Then there was the cultural impact of the ideas—elaborated in the Epistles (written before the Gospels, but placed after them in the Bible)—about who Christ was and what Christ did.

They developed into the doctrine of the “Priesthood of All Believers.” Not only was each voice to be valued, but each person could speak directly with God.

You didn’t have to go through a hierarchy to make contact with Divine Truth, and no one had more right than anyone else to speak for Divine Truth.

Nor did the contact with the divine have to happen at any specific spot (on any specific mountain, in any specific temple, for instance).

Believing certain things about the nature of Christ and his work (see Hebrews 10:19–22) led people to reject the ideas that God spoke only to and only through certain people at certain places.

The forces of (what we might call) democratization and decentralization eventually leaked out of the theological debates over scripture, and into the popular understanding of scripture.

And from there, they began to have an impact on how Europeans saw each other—whether they were thinking in religious terms or not.


Thus, when we reach Descartes—with his assertion that everyone has reason, and therefore can seek the truth for themselves—and Locke—with his assertion that reason reveals the truth that all are equal, and therefore only a democracy can be a just government—people are ready to listen.

The cultural foundations are already in place.

Classical liberalism begins to spread.

But if you trace that spread back to its source, you eventually come to Christ, and therefore to Christmas Day.

Or you come to the beliefs about Christ, and therefore to beliefs about Christmas Day, at least.

Either way, Christmas is where (classical) liberalism—the politics of freedom—begins.

So, whether you’re religious or not, Christmas is a political holiday.

And I hope it’s a merry one for you and yours.

Micah Tillman is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

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Yes, no matter how "practical" one is, there's no escaping a philosophical POV. Whether it's explicit and intellectual or implicit and worldly, it's always there.

Truth is right there in front of collective our noses. Yet, the quietly desperate spend lifetimes in denial.

Except for Micah and a few brave souls willing to look a bit deeper.

Lovely Merry Christmas message, professor!

# posted at by Robert Capozzi

Micah, have you seen Tod Lowestein's Book on the Political Teachings of Jesus? Given this post, you will find it interesting.

As far as the celebration of Christmas itself, I addressed that on my blog, which you can link to from my name.

There has always been a tension in the holiday between the Saturnalia surrounding the winter solstice and the attempt to move Jesus Birthday from April 17 (too close to the Resurrection to avoid reincarnation metaphors) and purify the holiday. While using Jesus as our light in darkness is legitmate for Christians, it is time as libertarians to end any endorsement of denying everyone else their winter saturnalia (including Christians of a more Epicurian variety). One way to do that is to move the Saturnalia of New Years Eve to the solstice, changing the calendar.

Haven't read Lowenstein. Thanks for the suggestion :-)

Am pretty steeped in the social gospel though, attending a progressive Mennonite church as I do. (The Sojo/Jim Wallis-style reading of scripture is all the rage there, and I don't find it uncompelling).

Didn't intend to make any (de jure) arguments about whether Jesus would have preferred classical liberal or neo-liberal politics, though.

Just wanted to bring out some (de facto) historical consequences related to the texts of the New Testament (which can be centered on the birth of Christ, at whatever point on the calendar one might choose to celebrate that birth).

(I do think the solstice would make more sense as the date for New Years, fwiw. :-)

Tod's main point is that the political teachings of Jesus have already mostly been adopted in our culture. He makes some strong points. I think the Emerging Church would really get into it.

# posted at by Michael Bindner

Perhaps this explains why P.J. O'Rourke said that Santa Claus was a liberal. :-)

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