Where Freedom Comes From

Religion comes first.

Whatever faith each of us has, consciously or otherwise, doesn’t so much define how we see ourselves as encapsulate it. We may or may not believe in God as described by one of the major religions, or even have our own clear conceptions of what He is, but we live our lives by one or another of various possible frameworks of understanding that enable us to get out of bed in the morning. Some of those frameworks help us set better patterns of living than others. We judge ourselves by these yardsticks.

We also accord others rights, and expect them ourselves, based on the same frameworks. Other people are either to be treated as being of equal moral worth in our eyes and those of God, or they are not. If they are, baseline rules of behavior like the Ten Commandments make sense, as do systems like capitalism and democracy that accord agency to each individual. How can I justify systematically depriving others of their property, or of the right to a voice in decisions that affect all, if they are of the same worth in the eyes of God as I am? I can’t.

On the other hand, if we deny the existence of God in favor of a jerry-built set of impromptu rationalizations or take a solipsistic perspective that the only thing that matters – the only thing that I know is real – is me, right here, right now, anything goes and chaos comes.

Between complete devotion to one of the traditional conceptions of God, and outright solipsism (which, to be sure, is wholly unsustainable), the ranges of faith to which people adhere are all over the map – and they matter because wherever each of us comes out on the spectrum of beliefs determines how we see right and wrong.


Our culture is, or has been, broadly Judeo-Christian (if not in any officially professed faith, in derived ethical culture), capitalist and democratic. These are the three essential strands of one rope that was braided around 350 years ago in the Reformation/Enlightenment. Each of these strands depends on and supports the others.

The advent of Protestantism changed Christianity, and the way that virtually all Christians – and eventually a great many non-Christians – see the world. Whereas medieval Catholicism had stressed the permanence and justice in God’s then-apparent plan for hierarchical, feudal systems, wherein each person’s reward for good behavior/obedience to the church’s and the local lord’s dictates was to come in the afterlife, the Reformation changed Christianity’s focus to the individual as decision-maker.

As a result of the Reformation, it became every Christian’s job to understand scripture and to behave according to his or her own conscience in light of that understanding. Religion wasn’t something to be handed down by one’s betters, where salvation could be bought with indulgences, it was a universal personal responsibility.

In other words, the Reformation stressed individual agency – your salvation, your rightness with God, will depend not on the intercession of the priesthood, but on you and on God’s mysterious grace. It’s all about the choices you make.

One may certainly argue that this way of looking at the world was always present in Jesus’s message, and therefore a big part of Christianity – as it had been, and is, in the Jewish soil from which Christianity grew – but that wasn’t the way that Christianity had been practiced in the medieval period. The medieval Catholic church had an explicitly top-down perspective not only on the church hierarchy but also of proper governmental authority (with the king in the place of the pope for secular matters). Economic activity was mostly a case, too, of: you’ll do what you’re told; if your father was a shoemaker, you’ll be one too.

The Reformation upended these caste-like hierarchies. If every individual is responsible for his or her own soul, we all need to have direct relationships with God and Man, not mediated by hierarchies, probably inherited (in the case of the aristocracy) or bought (in the case of the bishops’ seats), both of which were necessarily suffused with human error.


“The movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract.” – Henry Maine, 1861

Property rights are at the heart of economic liberty.

Once each individual had been freed by Renaissance society and the post-Reformation religious perspective, to care for his or her own soul it stood to reason that he or she should also be allowed to make decisions about property – to create and own or buy and sell things at will.

In other words, property rights – and, implicitly, the right to contract – empower individuals to move beyond their inherited or assigned status in life; by creating, buying and selling at will they can improve (or degrade) their lots. Empowering people in this manner – in the context of a reasonably fair, rules-based society (which goes back to the Ten Commandments and a fundamental, religion-inspired respect for the rights of others) has proven to be the greatest engine for broad-based economic enrichment the world has ever known, as each individual helps to move society forward by figuring out how to maximize the value to others, and thereby, in trade, to himself or herself, of what he or she can do. Capitalism is all about decisions made among individuals – voluntarily and therefore presumably in their mutual best interest. (Socialism, in contrast, is a system that attempts through governmental coercion to create a society characterized by equality of results).


The demand for democratic rights arose out of the same religious framework and mindset that supported individual property rights. Once people became accustomed to exercising individual agency with regard to their souls and property, they quite naturally demanded a voice in governance – setting the rules of the game, if you will. The divine right of kings made no sense to those who were accustomed to making their own decisions. Since others’ rights had to be respected (“We hold these truths…”) the triumph of equal voting rights became inevitable.

So again, post-Reformation Christianity, capitalism and democracy are all strands of the same rope – and that rope can be described as a mentality or a religiously-inspired framework of individual empowerment. It’s all about your freedom and mine to make decisions for ourselves in the all too brief time we have.


Most of the intellectual impetus for Civil Horizon comes from my worry that American culture is reversing course – moving, slowly but surely from contract – a mentality of individual agency in a rules-based context – back toward to status as the defining framework of human interaction. The great rope is fraying.

In politics, at least half the country now thinks more in in terms of groups (“identity politics”) competing for spoils, with the outcomes often based on alleged victimhood. To “social justice warriors” we are not individuals, empowered to make our own decisions and responsible for their outcomes, we are representatives of oppressed or oppressing groups, doomed to restrictions if the former, rewards if the latter. Needless to say, they will be the judges of which camps we fall in. The notion that “All men are created equal” – and are entitled to be treated as such but not to equality of results – is a dead letter for such people.

In the economic sphere, too, our rights are being curtailed. I may want to sell my labor to you for $10 an hour, and you may want to buy it at that price – but if we live in a place where there’s a $15 minimum wage, I will be unemployed and your work won’t get done. Our personal freedoms to bargain over the value of my labor and your money have been limited.

On a much grander scale, whether I am entitled (nice word, that, redolent of its feudal origins) to a particular benefit will generally depend on my status, something over which I have no control and that signifies no merit or absence thereof – my age, perhaps, or my sex or skin color.

And finally, at least among the elites, belief in the Judeo-Christian moral framework that is the foundation of our society has been rotting for a long time. Most of our political and cultural leaders no longer adhere to the same fundamental premises that prevailed between the Enlightenment and, say, World War I; they have been replaced by an ad-hoc combination of materialism and cultural relativism – a soul-destroying mixture that gives little, and inconsistent, moral guidance, and under which any action can be rationalized as being, in the mind of the actor, for the greater good.

Others have adopted patently false new Gods – like Socialism or a kind of pagan-revival environmentalism. These frameworks cast people as either agency-free pawns to be molded into a New Man, or as the enemies of Gaia – neither one a recipe for a free and happy society.


The Reformation gave us the cultural, economic and political world in which we live. It freed people to create – and create they did. By focusing on the individual – and empowering each of us to take control of life’s most important decisions – it created an environment in which the world has made tremendous progress.

We make a terrible mistake if we allow ourselves to revert from contract to status.


M.H. Johnston

One comment to Where Freedom Comes From

  • Anonymous  says:

    Good post, thought-provoking. I agree with you that the religious frame is “where freedom comes from”. It is also where responsibility comes from, personal (as you address well) and societal (which I think is the missing piece).

    One element that you don’t address is that the system isn’t working for a great many people. And unfraying a rope that is increasingly tightening as a noose around one’s neck is not a senseless reaction. That’s not to say we should throw the baby out with the bathwater…there are winners and losers in every system…and a time-tested values-driven system seems outright sensible and more sensible than a great many reactionary utopian visions.

    I wonder how much the attitudes and (in)actions of those who have been the big winners from that 3-strand system has prompted a necessary and sensible counter-reaction from those who have been the losers. How many people who have been extremely successful in 20th century America attribute it to their own hard work / talents rather than to a system enabling it? And as a result, where was the sense of American elite noblesse oblige and societal responsibility over the last 40y? Elite executives implicitly cooperated by not fighting the rise of short-term profitability, outsourcing, environmental exploitation, materialism and consumerism while reaping the benefits of limited liability and intellectual property protection; wealth inequality has expanded massively (e.g. CEO pay relative to workers); professors at elite universities took advantage of freedoms of speech to promote the intellectual critiques of religion, market and government that now represent the backbone of the threat; two-party politicians and the media drove civic discourse into a trashcan sideshow; and the government ran up massive debts.

    Of course, it’s easy to make enormous demands on leaders and sympathize with the plight of the powerless victims. But Ayn Rand-ian libertarianism is limited by the collective action problem, the tragedy of the commons, the prisoner’s dilemma, negative externalities. So I think it is reasonable to demand thoughtful and moral governance of systems as creative/destructive as capitalism and democracy given the risks of not doing so. And to hold particularly high ethical standards to those with the most power/wealth/time/freedom to be responsible stewards for (1) the system that provided for those benefits and (2) those who have gotten the short end of the stick.

    Andrew Carnegie offers some quality thoughts in this broader conversation as well, c. 1899: https://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/rbannis1/AIH19th/Carnegie.html

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