COMMENT: Evolution of liberalism —Ralph Shaw - Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The liberal quest was for an open, tolerant and more equitable society in which individuals could pursue their goals and interests free from religious (Catholic) control and as little interference as possible from the secular authorities

February 22, 2011 (e-mailed March 01, 2011)The same as many other ‘-isms’, liberalism, at the outset, appears to be a confusing jumble of ideas. That it has something to do with liberty, i.e. freedom and equality, seems obvious but a concise definition is hard to find. Fishing the internet, the best rendition this writer came across was on a Christian religious website. It crisply defines liberalism as a free way of thinking and acting in public and private life. Implicit within this definition is the suggestion that liberalism is essentially a secular ideology at variance with religion in some respects at least.

In liberal thinking, the individual is sovereign in the private sphere and accountability is only for conduct that affects society. In matters that concern his own self only the individual has absolute independence. According to J S Mills, liberty comprises the following three: liberty of conscience, i.e. liberty to think, feel and form independent, uninfluenced opinions and sentiments on all subjects including the moral and the theological. Liberty of tastes and pursuits, i.e. behaviour, however foolish, perverse or wrong, may not be censored as long as it does not affect other members of society. Liberty to gather and unite. A person’s private life, or that part of it which affects others with their free and voluntary consent, is not an area in which society may freely intrude. A liberal is perceived as an open-minded, tolerant and progressive person, which is fine, but some aspects of liberal theory certainly stand in stark contrast to a God-given way of life.

Liberalism is also a political and economic doctrine. Politically speaking, its fundamental beliefs are opposition to absolutist rule and equal rights for all. In the economic arena, liberals originally advocated a laissez faire approach to economic affairs but in a complete reversal of beliefs, late 19th century liberals started advocating an active role for the government in the economy so as to bring about a welfare state. According to scholar Fareed Zakaria, democracy succeeded in only those societies where liberalism preceded efforts at democratisation. He also says that in the less developed regions of the world, liberal autocrats rather than democrats have been instruments of change and progress.

Liberalism began in Europe as a reaction against religious and secular oppression. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church defined as its mission the saving of souls for the Kingdom of God. This, it deemed, was done best by teaching and upholding ‘correct belief’. The Church was the one and only official interpreter of the Will of God and correct belief was whatever the Church construed as the Divine Will. As the singular interpreter of Divine Will, the Catholic Church demanded absolute conformity from the populations under its religious yoke. The Church orthodoxy, as the Church saw it, had Divine sanction and any attempt to deviate from orthodoxy was to be rejected and punished. Since the Church and the medieval European states were partners in the defence of Christendom, the Church called upon kings and princes to counter any threats to its authority by troublesome freethinking individuals and ensure compliance with its doctrines. The secular authorities usually complied with the wishes of the Church in enforcing religious conformity.

Secular oppression resulted from the peculiar European social structure. European society was divided into nobles, feudal lords, free commoners and serfs. Mercantilism and industrialisation that would iron out much of these social inequities and give rise to a vibrant middle class were still in the future. The European mediaeval social system was, in reality, an informal caste system of sorts, less rigid than the Indian caste system, but as demoralising to those at the raw end of the deal. One’s social status was more or less ascribed at birth and there was little hope for those from the lower rungs of the social ladder to advance up the ladder. The Church preached equality but the social reality was far from the egalitarian ideal.

The liberal struggle originally started against these two oppressive features of mediaeval European society, namely ascribed status and religious conformity. Liberals saw themselves as champions of individual freedom. The terms liberal and liberalism did not come into widespread use until the late 18th and early 19th centuries but liberalism as a struggle against arbitrary authority started with the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. The liberal quest was for an open, tolerant and more equitable society in which individuals could pursue their goals and interests free from religious (Catholic) control and as little interference as possible from the secular authorities. The liberal struggle started to take took form with the weakening of the mediaeval social order. The European Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution contributed to the transformation of European culture to a less rigid and more tolerant form but the Protestant Reformation was, perhaps, the most influential event in the rise of liberalism.

Martin Luther, the German priest who started the Protestant Reformation, was no liberal for sure but his teachings challenged ‘correct belief’ as taught by the Catholic Church. The Church taught that faith and good deeds were both essential for salvation. That forgiveness for bad deeds could be purchased by making a payment to the Catholic Church — an indulgence — was also an article of faith and a widespread practice in the Catholic world. Martin Luther and his dissident followers opposed indulgences and held that salvation came through faith alone. Whatever the theological merits of the reformers’ dissenting arguments, their challenge, nonetheless, was to Church orthodoxy and was the first step in combating the authority of the Church. Religious conformity demanded compliance regardless of individual conscience. Reformist priests, on the other hand, encouraged people to hold views contrary to Catholic doctrine. Freedom of thought, eventually, led to the idea that all people, including laymen, priests, nobles and commoners are equal and have inalienable rights such as the right to life, liberty and property. However, in keeping with the secular bias, the rights were defined as natural rather than God-given. The right to be free from rule without one’s consent and to overthrow any government that did not protect life, liberty, and property were enunciated as individual rights by liberal philosophers. Liberals argue that western progress was primarily the result of liberal thinking. Whether this model is applicable to the Muslim world is another story.

The writer is a freelance columnist. He can be reached at

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