Acton Institute Powerblog

Why I Am a Classical Liberal

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Social and political theory is widely and, quite often, grossly misunderstood. What we call conservatism today, at least in several very important ways, was once called federalism, or classical liberalism. A central idea of this federalism was that the state should be built from below, not from above. Numerous orthodox Christian thinkers, both Catholic and Protestant, have explained and defended classical liberalism over the course of the past two or three centuries.

It is in this sense that Pope Benedict XVI is also a classical liberal, as was the Dutch giant Abraham Kuyper, when it comes to the philosophy of the state (See also my March 31 blog post on Deus Caritas Est).

Emil Brunner (1889–1966)

One of the leading twentieth-century Protestant defenders of classical liberalism was Emil Brunner (1889–1966), the Swiss Reformed theologian. Drawn to religious socialism as a young man, Emil Brunner had a profound change of mind after seeing the damage of World War I. In his book Justice and the Social Order he argued that the modern state—with its totalitarian, atheistic and collectivist tendencies—should be opposed by a rigorous social ethic that grows out of Reformed, biblical and personalistic commitments. To hear Brunner’s arguments now makes him sound like an intellectual proponent of major portions of the modern conservative movement, at least on the academic side.

Brunner further argued that “the state [must be] built up from below.” And since God has ordained certain “orders of creation” these orders are part of his preserving (common) grace for organizing human life. Acton’s site further notes that Brunner wrote: “[that] these orders include human communities in the ‘economic, technical, purely social, and intellectual spheres.’” Brunner further argued that community does not equal state, a position in contrast to the arguments routinely advanced today by modern liberals like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton.

Brunner believed community existed apart from the state. As a noteworthy example, he argued that the family was the “primal community” whose “rights take absolute precedence” over every other institution. And between the family and the state, Brunner reasoned, there must be a number of “intermediate links” that God ordained for varying purposes. The state has two primary responsibilities to these “links.” First, it should never usurp them. Second, it should positively preserve and protect them. This approach severely limits the state’s legitimate authority. This, then, is why modern conservatives are actually closer to classical liberalism than are modern liberals, who promote the state as the primary means for solving social problems.

Next time you want to start after-dinner conversations about politics tell your guests that you have decided to become a “classical liberal.” Then watch what happens. Maybe everyone would learn something valuable if we actually considered the real meaning of some very old, and very noble, terms that we assume we understand.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

John Armstrong John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."


  • Thank you for your post.

    I have been mulling over in my mind a disconnect I sensed in my thinking from either liberal or conservative thinkers who, like myself are Catholics.

    My background studies were grounded in Thomism and Aristotelian philosophy, yet I found myself defending some basic tenets from many who appeared to have forfeited classical Catholic thinking for current political trends.

    Your article allows me to begin a clearer tract toward better defining and articulating my own political philosophy.

  • Might I recommend to you Philip S. Gorski’s “The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe” (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 2003). This work is a fine dialectical analysis of the rise of the modern state in Europe during 1500-1700 a.d., focusing mainly on the Dutch and German experiences. What he does remarkably well is place religion within this context of state-building, pointing out how Calvinism influenced social discipline and framed forms of social control to strengthen both the ecclesiastical polity and the political realm. Gorski fills in the gaps and integrates ecclesiastical effects on political society in a much clearer manner.

    Brunner may have separated out (and quite properly, to my mind) state and community, it is not necessarily part of the Reformed or Lutheran tradition to do so.

    That being said, it is also true that one can see such experiences within the American experience, as I have noted on some comments (and elsewhere on my website) on [url=]Rev. J.H. Boggs[/url].

    Best to you.
    Just Ken