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.