If asked to choose one word to define the basic creed and catchword of Western modernity, I would not hesitate: That word would be freedom, provided one understands that, for a modern, there can be no freedom where there is no equality.  If endowed with a minimum capacity to express himself, the average citizen would probably declare his most-cherished treasure to be what it was for John Locke: “a state of perfect freedom to order his actions and dispose of his possessions and person as he thinks fit without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”  Such is the founding dogma of the philosophy that came to be known as liberalism.

Locke’s words constitute a famous but ambiguous proposition.  For it may translate in a sedate way, not as a rejection of any rule at all, but only as an abhorrence to any rule that is not subordinate to justification and smacks of arbitrariness.  But it just as well translates, for the average uneducated individual, as a natural right to do whatever pleases him.

This basic ambiguity is crucial to understanding what amounts to the modern predicament in which the West stands today, usually unwittingly.  If freedom ends up having two opposite meanings, then there are two contradictory versions of liberalism.  One borders on anarchism pure and simple, be it rather brutal (like the libertarians’) or imbued with the vague sentimentality characteristic of the lawless promiscuous manner of living of hippies.  And the other, classical liberalism, has for its ideal ordered liberty, the keystone of a society reputed to be peaceful, because its citizens are supposed to be endowed with a built-in limitation to their own freedom.  Liberalism is not a doctrine but a dilemma: What is it that may transmute a basically limitless freedom into an orderly one?

With the Renaissance came the demand that man be at last acknowledged as a free creature, endowed with a real freedom—real, because that freedom would be emancipated from what had been thought to be its natural limitations.  Though for entirely opposite reasons, and though entertaining contrary opinions about it, both humanism and the Reformation embodied that new freedom.  Traditional Christianity could not but stand in its way.  But then, was the emancipation of man to lead to a rejuvenation of the old religion, or to its total upheaval?  Did it imply a reformation of Christianity or a revolution against it?  Inasmuch as liberalism summed up the new call to a new freedom, there were two ways liberalism could consider religion: as a possible ally with which a compromise could be reached, or as an irreducible foe against which war must be waged.

War was most logical.  The mere word renaissance, which imposed itself as best suitable to describe the prevailing mood of the time, refers literally to a new birth, that of a new man, supposed to be born again.  Born again, because redeemed from his former enslavement to ready-made, indisputable ideas and dogmas to be revered and obeyed passively.  Born again as a creature endowed with reason, entitled to claim there was no truth but what he consented to acknowledge as such.  Born again as a being whose nature was not to obey some so-called natural laws, not to fulfill a supposedly preordained order, but to make his own nature and frame his own laws, to be a law unto himself, the only legitimate one.  Born again as a creature who had rights, the first of all being intellectual rights (to use Tom Paine’s subsequent words).

It is easy to realize such freedom could only clash with everything the old religion required of man, particularly on two counts: the conceptions of human freedom and reason.

In the old Christian world, to be free was basically not to be forced to go against the grain of one’s nature—or, conversely, to obey oneself.  Freedom then required that one be able to acknowledge one had a nature, to recognize it as worthy of respect, and therefore to wish to fulfill it to the best of his ability.  In the modern world, man is free to such an extent that he cannot even conceive of having a nature, or conceive of it as anything but a constraint.  Then his freedom is not to be himself but to be what he chooses, which amounts literally to creating himself.  For the new man to become a man, there must be no God.

The same goes for human reason.  For a Christian, reason cannot be but man’s ability to discover and understand God’s laws and the order of the universe.  Its rationale is that God has willed man not to be His slave but His coadjutor, so that He gave him reason to behold His Creation: Reason’s finality was theoretic, and it presupposed faith.  For a modern, if man is free, then there is no intangible order preexisting his freedom, and there is nothing particular to understand in a universe made by the actions and reactions of atoms.  Then to be endowed with reason can only mean this: Man happens to have an ability to rationalize his actions, to use the most rational means toward the ends he has assigned himself.  To be true means to be usable.  There no longer is anything sacred about the exterior world, nothing like a revelation, nothing that can be forbidden to reason and impede reason’s progress toward its natural end, dethroning God.

Such liberalism goes far beyond waging war on a particular religious institution for wielding a spurious spiritual power (for instance, the Catholic Church); it wages a war against the very notion of religion.

I have said liberalism is essentially ambiguous, and so it is toward religion.  For there is another liberalism, even though it stems from the same root.  Even though it professes the same freedom to be natural to man, what is properly called classical liberalism has never ceased to claim such freedom was to be limited by a “natural law which is reason” (Locke’s words).  And it even went so far as to claim that liberal freedom does not exclude religion.  Thus was born this particular creature crowding our societies and calling itself a liberal Christian.  The idea has progressively taken a firm hold on Christendom: There is hardly a Christian today who does not worship freedom—which is natural—and therefore does not think of himself as a true-blooded liberal (which is, as we shall see, not natural).

There is no doubt that such a combination of freedom and religion appealed—and still does—to many a fine mind.  From Locke to Tocqueville and Constant, from Erasmus to Comte to Rousseau, from Tom Paine and Kant to the authors of the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man—these are only a few who agreed that the rights of man include that of “not being molested on account of his opinions, not even on account of his religious opinions” (Article 10).  Even Pope Paul VI a while ago joined the chorus in his Dignitatis humane.  Any criticism of standard wisdom faces a formidable opponent.

In order nonetheless to embark on a tentative criticism, one must understand why classical liberalism demonstrated a reluctance to follow up on its original creed, the complete natural freedom of men—and why it contradicted itself by claiming man to be both totally free but nurturing “a duty to God” (Tom Paine’s own words).  Though the traditional liberal is loath to accept the notion of man submissive to the will of any other being, including God, he also appears keenly aware of the risk involved for each man in his neighbor’s freedom.  (He is no naive anarchist, and he is more often than not rather pessimistic about mankind.)  So the traditional liberal discovers himself in need of a law restraining all individual freedoms without infringing upon them.  And he thinks he has unearthed the key to the dilemma: Reason teaches men that, since all are equal, one must not do to others what he wouldn’t like others to do to him.  But then the traditional liberal appears wary that such a law may be the mere product of an enlightened self-interest.  He wants it to be somehow sanctified, under the appellation of a law of nature, or of God.

This is a typical instance of vice paying homage to virtue.  The traditional liberal does not stand in a virtuous middle; he is in a bind.  He hates the notion that God may know better, but he also knows that if God has not created man and each man’s rights, these rights are likely to appear only as a figment of man’s imagination; that if God has not imposed duties on mankind, a man’s duty to others is likely to be reduced to mere calculation, not morally binding; and that if God has not created a universe—a stable one, because God cannot act by caprice­—even human knowledge is doomed to rest upon an unwarranted wager on the intelligibility and stability of the universe.  The traditional liberal discards a God issuing commandments, even be He benevolent, but he seeks what I would call a sound insurance as to the seaworthiness of his launch.  He needs a Creator who wants exactly what the liberal wants—men to be free, to have rights, to be rational enough to understand the principle of reciprocity (Locke’s natural law); a Creator Who, being God, bestows on man’s freedom, his rights, and his duties to others the sanction of His divinity without which all liberals’ aspirations could not be perceived as universal norms.  In other words, a God Who essentially underwrites the legitimacy of man’s claim to complete freedom as well as the existence of a law of reason (of moderation), and then stops creating because the ultimate perfection of His Creation is to make a creature who can dispense with his Maker and feel entitled by Him to do precisely that.  Such is the gist of deism, that strange liberal religion that requires a God acting as a warranty that man does not need any God to live his own life.  In other words, the liberal Christian is a reluctant Christian or a half-hearted atheist.

Deism, that offshoot of classical liberalism, is then not only a contradictory proposition but one that has most unfortunate consequences.

Conceptually, deism results from a basic inability or refusal to distinguish between two understandings of what constitutes freedom.  Does a man remain free while obeying laws he has not written himself but which are entirely suitable to him (because they are the laws of his nature), or is it that he must be the actual lawgiver for him to be considered free?  The first answer was that of traditional Christianity; the second, the one given by liberalism.  But then I don’t see how liberalism can escape the consequence: If man, and not God, is to himself his own ultimate lawgiver, then it amounts to making God in the image of man, and even, since each man is a free being, making God in the image of each man.  Liberal religion and liberal Christianity can only end up proclaiming, “To each, the god who pleases him most.”

This makes for a strange god: a god who has no features of his own but all those that a possible worshiper might like; a god who is an indeterminate being, so as not to frighten any customer, but just as well a distinctive one if it is what the customer wants; a being supposed to transcend the faithful, but whose divinity wholly depends on man’s agreement; a god who may be a feathered snake, an egg, or a guru.  It is no happenstance that Locke was an extreme latitudinarian.

And it makes for a strange faith.  Liberalism’s god is only the CEO of an insurance company, and he addresses only those who need his particular type of insurance.  But since liberals take freedom to mean not freely trusting God and freely obeying His laws, but freely choosing which god may be believed in, liberals are inescapably confronted with a plurality of gods.  Which is why the indispensable dogma that goes hand in hand with liberal spiritual thinking is tolerance.  But, applied to religious beliefs, tolerance implies at least two things: first, that these beliefs remain essentially private.  There cannot be civil peace when one belief promotes polygamy and another calls for monogamy.  But then, is it not a strange faith that requires the Christian to shun abortion, but allows him to remain silent and unprotesting when it is practiced under his nose?

The second requirement of tolerance is no less surprising.  Liberalism requires all believers, whatever their faith, to tolerate other faiths, which seems reasonable enough, but only until one realizes that this requires that all faiths be considered equally valid, and therefore that every believer acknowledge that his faith has no more worth than any other.  Now that is nothing but asking the believer not to believe in the truth of his own beliefs, which is to say not to believe, or to believe in them while believing at the same time that they are not worth believing any more than all other possible beliefs, which is not to be a true believer.  In this respect, it must be pointed out that Muslims are more coherent—and so were, as a matter of fact, Luther and Calvin, who were not famous for their tolerance.

Let us draw some pragmatic conclusions.

Does this criticism of religious liberalism lead to imposing religious creeds by force?  Of course not: It is perfectly true that there is no faith where there is no freedom to convert.  Let us leave fanaticism to the Muslims, who like to convert with a sword.

But let us also leave relativism to the barbarians.  Where there is no commonly shared faith—and I mean faith, not conventions agreed upon by the majority—there is only the war of all against all, which can only be terminated by the prevailing force of a despot strong enough to impose peace on all fighters.

So what is between relativism and fanaticism?  Considering that no true faith may be tolerant of other faiths claiming to be true, my answer would be this: a commonwealth led by two principles.  The first is an old one that used to be part of the traditional wisdom of nations, inferred from experience: cuius regio emus religion, which, practically speaking, is to say, let anyone dissenting from the prevailing religion emigrate to a place more to his liking.  The second is true tolerance: tolerating the existence of unbelievers, while forbidding dissenting creeds the right to compete on equal footing.  The schoolmaster has no right to force multiplication tables down the throats of his pupils, but he is perfectly justified in forbidding some nut to teach in his classroom that two plus two equals five.