The Great Antidote – Samuel Gregg on Christianity and Liberalism

Dr. Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute, joins us this week to discuss culture, the origins of morality, and the intersectionality between liberalism and christianity.


Guest Bio

Dr. Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He has an MA from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.

Gregg oversees Acton’s research program and team of scholars and is responsible for oversight of research international programing, including budgeting, management, personnel, publishing, and program development and implementation.

He is the author of thirteen books, including Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded (2001), On Ordered Liberty (2003), his prize-winning The Commercial Society (2007), Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (2010), Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future (2013), For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016), and Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (2019). He has also co-edited books such as Profit, Prudence and Virtue: Essays in Ethics, Business and Management (2009), and Natural Law, Economics and the Common Good (2012). Two of his books have been short-listed for Conservative Book of the Year. Many of his books and articles have been translated into a variety of languages.

He publishes in journals such as the Harvard Journal of Law and Public PolicyJournal of Markets & MoralityEconomic AffairsLaw and Investment ManagementJournal des Economistes et des Etudes HumainesNotre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public PolicyAve Maria Law ReviewOxford AnalyticaCommunioJournal of Scottish PhilosophyUniversity BookmanForeign Affairs; and Policy. He is a regular writer of opinion-pieces which appear in publications such as the Wall Street Journal EuropeFirst ThingsInvestors Business DailyLaw and LibertyWashington Times; Revue Conflits; American BankerNational ReviewPublic DiscourseAmerican SpectatorEl Mercurio; Australian Financial ReviewJerusalem Post; La Nacion: and Business Review Weekly. He has served as an editorial consultant for the Italian journal, La Societa, and American correspondent for the German newspaper Die Tagespost.

He has also been cited in the New York Times, the Wall Street JournalForbes, the Weekly StandardTime MagazineChristian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and Holy See’s L’Osservatore Romano.

In 2001, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a Member of the Mont Pèlerin Society in 2004. In 2008, he was elected a member of the Philadelphia Society, and a member of the Royal Economic Society. In 2017, he was made a Fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. He served as President of the Philadelphia Society from 2019-2020.

He is the General Editor of Lexington Books’ Studies in Ethics and Economics Series. He also sits on the Academic Advisory Boards of Campion College, Sydney; the La Fundación Burke, Madrid; the Instituto Fe y Libertad; and the Institute of Economic Affairs, London; as well as the editorial boards of the Journal of Markets and Morality and Revista Valores en la sociedad industrial.


Episode Transcript

Juliette: Welcome back to my podcast. Today, I’m happy to be speaking to Dr. Samuel Gregg, the Research Director at the Acton Institute and a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He writes extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. Today, we’re going to be talking about the intersections between Christianity and liberalism and the tensions between the two and the way that these tensions manifest themselves. Welcome, Sam.

Samuel Gregg: Thank you, Juliette. It’s great to be with you.

Juliette: Before we jump in, what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don’t?

Samuel: Well, I think that every generation has gaps, right? It’s gaps.

But I think, in the case of your generation, maybe the most important thing is to know the civilization that you came from. In other words, to understand the roots, the character, and the development of Western civilization. That, it seems to me, is the most important thing for your generation to get your minds around. Because I think in many respects, you’ve either been denied knowledge of that history or you’ve been given a highly distorted, highly ideological view of that history.

I often say, you can’t really know where you’re going unless you know where you’re coming from. To that extent, I would argue that knowing the history of the West, knowing how Western civilization emerged, knowing how the world of faith on the one hand and the wealth of reason, how these integrated with each other, I think these are crucial for understanding for your generation as you move forward and try and shape the future in a way that’s consistent with the roots of this civilization which, of course, has its faults but nonetheless, I think, has led to far more flourishing than we can possibly realize.

Juliette: Thank you. That’s a very good response. Especially going into college and about to pick classes, that is a very good thing for me to keep in mind.

Okay. My first question is what is the Acton Institute?

Samuel: The Acton Institute is an organization which was set up thirty-one years ago with the objective of explaining to all sorts of audiences – in America and around the world – the nature of a free and virtuous society.

Now, notice that I said free and virtuous. Many people in the Liberty Movement talked a great deal about freedom, about liberty, about limited government, all of which I believe in, and the Acton Institute is committed to. But fewer talk about truth in the sense of the virtues, in the sense of the types of goods that make us more distinctly human. Our responsibility is to pursue the truth, to know the truth, and to live the truth in the context of a free society in which we can reject those truths if we want.

But nonetheless, Acton believes our liberty is essentially orientated towards knowledge of those truths, philosophical truths, economic truths, theological truths, and that those truths are where our freedom comes from. To those truths are to what our freedom is ultimately directed.

We do this by research programming which means the production of books, journals, written materials, et cetera. But we also do it through programming, through writing, through educational activities both in the United States and abroad.

We also have extensive media outreach. If you go on our website,, you will soon discover that there’s an enormous amount of material which is available in video form – be it short films or even five-part documentaries – in which we make our case for the free and virtuous society with a strong emphasis upon the importance of market economies and limited government and the type of moral culture that supports these types of things.

That, in a nutshell, is what Acton does.

Juliette: The institute was named after Lord Acton who has been quoted for saying that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. I’m sure, listeners, that you’ve heard this quote.

Can you give us the context of this quote and how it relates to the institute?

Samuel: Well, let me tell you something about Lord Acton. Lord Acton is a 19th-century historian. He’s English. But he was also raised essentially in Continental Europe. He was one of these figures who was at the intersection of some very powerful intellectual movements in 19th-century Europe one of which was Catholicism and the second of which was liberalism.

He was a very devout Catholic. He took his faith very seriously. But he also was very much a believer in liberty. This is a time of history in which the forces of faith – particularly Christianity and Catholic Christianity – were often portrayed as being at odds with the forces of liberty and liberalism.

That has a lot to do with the French Revolution and the way that the French Revolution treated or, more accurately, mistreated the Catholic church and background antagonism between some enlightenment, but not all, some enlightenment thinkers and particular religious claims made by Christianity.

That’s the background. He was very interested in trying to reconcile these two things. It was his faith but also his commitment to a type of liberalism which focused his mind upon questions of power and the problems of power.

He was very interested in exploring how is it that liberty gets diminished? He was very interested in the sources of freedom. He’d basically argue that you can’t understand Western history of liberty without Christianity. He was also very much concerned with what happens to people when they attain political office and are, therefore, in a position to start using power.

He wasn’t an anarchist. He wouldn’t be described as a sort of contemporary libertarian by any means. But he was very concerned with freedom and very worried that the emphasis upon the state and seeing the state as the solution to any number of problems run the risk of corrupting, first of all, the people who wielded state power but also the prospects of freedom in the societies over which those authorities exercised power.

That’s in the short way of describing sort of the background to his thought and the way he approached the issue of power.

Juliette: Many people think that liberalism and religion – whether that’s Christianity, in general Catholicism, any of it – are at odds, because liberalism is a political philosophy that came out of the Enlightenment. Reason, freedom, equality are all associated with it. It’s centered around individual rights. It’s a bottom-up system which allows a bunch of different beliefs and lifestyles to coexist in one.

But in contrast – or seemingly – the religious order of things is centered around faith and the acceptance of a top-down hierarchy, usually, with a God or a higher being. It seems less focused around freedom and tolerance.

Is there a really a contradiction between the two?

Samuel: Well, it depends upon which religion you’re talking about and what type of liberalism you’re talking about.

Now, there are some forms of liberalism that are deeply antagonistic towards religion per se: Christianity, in general, and Catholicism in particular. That arises out of something that you just mentioned which was certain forms of Enlightenment-thinking.

People like Rousseau, people like Voltaire were very antagonistic towards Christianity, particularly, Catholic Christianity. They saw it as stifling. They saw it as obstructing truth. They saw it as authoritarian. They saw it as essentially oppressive.

But there are plenty of other thinkers who would describe themselves as liberals, classical liberals, Whigs, W-H-I-G-S, who were deeply religious people, who were very much part of the different schools of Enlightenment thinking, who were not antagonistic towards religion, and in many cases, who saw religion and Christianity really as one of the major sources of freedom.

I think a lot depends upon which school of liberalism you’re talking about, which religion you’re talking about, which Enlightenment you’re talking about, because there’s more than one Enlightenment, right?

If you look, for example, at the late French Enlightenment, it’s deeply antagonistic towards religion, particularly Catholicism. If, however, you go back into the early French Enlightenment, there’s far less antagonism towards religion. In fact, there are many devout Catholics who saw themselves as enlighteners. There are many people who saw themselves as enlightened thinkers who are very devout Christians.

If you go to the Scottish Enlightenment – the enlightenment which clearly had the most effect upon the Anglo-American world – Scottish Enlightenment was mainly made up of people who were clerics, pastors of the Church of Scotland.

If you look at the way that the American Enlightenment unfolded, it was never antagonistic towards religion. If you look at the American Revolution – which is often seen as this great defense of liberty – it’s not antagonist towards religion. In fact, people invoked the claims of religion, specifically Christianity, in support of the revolution against what they perceive to be the tyranny coming from London.

If you look at some of 20th-century free-market liberals, someone like Wilhelm Röpke – who I think was maybe one of the most important of these people – was a very devout Christian and actually grounded his central case for freedom upon the Christian vision of the human person and the way that Christianity has always taken liberty very seriously.

If you look at Friedrich Hayek, who I suspect many of your listeners are very familiar with, he was an agnostic. At the end of his life, he returned to the Catholic Church. He received the last rites. But if you look at him and his writings and his thought, there’s not an in-principle objection to religion. He’s not hostile to religion. In fact, at the first Mont Pèlerin Society meeting that was held in 1948 in Switzerland, one of the major subjects he put on the table for discussion was the need to reconcile Christianity and liberalism, because he thought these two forces have torn each other apart for two hundred years.

Yet, this antagonism is not necessary. Yes, there are tensions. But antagonism is a completely different thing. I think it’s a very much more complicated, much more complicated subject when you start to drill down into the details.

Lord Acton, for example. Let me give you an example. He said that without Christianity, freedom, as we know it, would not have risen in the West. He said that the Greek world, the Roman world, took us in a certain direction. But it was incapable of making the decisive breakthroughs in the world of freedom and the institutions that uphold freedom.

He was often fond of pointing out– I often point this out in my writings. If you look at some of the basic foundations of institutional foundations of the free society whether it’s constitutionalism, whether it’s the idea of rights, whether it’s the idea of capitalism broadly construed, the fundamental foundations of all those three things I just mentioned – constitutionalism, capitalism, the idea of rights – they become most evident, clearest in their foundational form during the Medieval period. That’s where the period in which “liberalism” even exists. But it is a period in which ideas about freedom, political freedom, economic freedom, constitutionalism, et cetera was when they first emerged. They emerged in a Medieval world.

That is something I think that even a good number of agnostic liberals have acknowledged as being true.

Juliette: In terms of free markets, something that people often say is that free markets do not really uphold morals. Montesquieu, contrary to what a lot of people think, famously advanced the thesis of doux commerce, sweet commerce, the notion that commerce enhances morals and promotes peace. What is your opinion of this argument?

Samuel: Well, I think it has a lot to say for it, because it is true that in conditions of commerce, in the conditions of trade, lots of incentives are created for people to be more tolerant towards one another, to be more inclined to engage in peaceful relationships rather than warlike relationships. People tend to look at each other as people who they can enter into with commercial relationships. There’s no doubt that markets and commerce encourage certain types of virtues.

Now, to that I would add, however, that there are other virtues besides the virtues associated with commercial society. The person, I think, who explains this extremely well and does so in a way in which he’s talking about free society as a whole, not just commercial society, is Adam Smith. If you read his Theory of Moral Sentiments, you’ll find that part six of that book – which was written later in life, which was added on – that’s a whole section about the virtues. Basically, there’s three sets of virtues he talks about in which he sees as necessary for societies that are going to be free, liberal in the best sense of that word, and ordered.

He says one set of virtues are the commercial virtues which we just talked about. A second set of virtues are what he calls classical virtues, the classical virtues inherited from the world of Greece and Rome. Then he says there are what he describes as virtues associated with benevolence. What he’s talking about there are religious virtues.

He makes it very clear in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He’s really talking about the types of virtues that Christianity, in particular, conveys to the societies that we live in today. He talks about benevolence. He talks about the great commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself, et cetera.

Now, remember, Adam Smith, it’s hard to say that he was a Christian. I think it’s fair to say he was a deist. It’s much harder to claim that he was a Christian. But he recognized that these commercial virtues are extremely important. They lead to lots of very important things. But at the same time, it’s also the case that free societies also need other sets of virtues that come from different sources.

Juliette: When Tocqueville came to America – he wrote a lot about this – he was amazed by the vibrancy of associations that operated not only outside of government but outside of economic life, what we call civil society. He credited civil society for the uniqueness and energy found in America. Here, we see civil society is important but often overlooked when you think about liberalism.

What role does civil society play in the intersection of liberalism and religion? How do churches specifically play a role in that?

Samuel: Well, I’m glad you mentioned Alexis de Tocqueville, because he’s a crucial figure in this regard, in this whole discussion that we’re having about the relationship between liberalism and religion, specifically, Christianity.

The first thing to say is that Tocqueville comes from a devoutly Catholic family. But he also is someone who, like Lord Acton, aligns himself with the forces of liberty. Those two forces, as I’m sure you know, were very much in conflict leading up to the French Revolution and certainly after the French Revolution, I mean very violent conflict.

When he came to America in the early 1830s, he was astounded to see that the world of freedom, the world of liberty, the cause of liberty, and the world of religion – which at that time was overwhelmingly I guess you’d call it Protestant Christianity – were not intention. He also saw that he met many Catholic priests when he was in the United States. He was remarkably impressed by the fact that they saw no conflict between the American experiment in ordered liberty and Catholic faith. That’s a very important background factor I think when we talk about these things.

He looked at these things and said, “What’s going on here? Why is this the case?” One of the reasons he said, “Well, there’s a historical dimension to this.” But he also said it has something to do with the way that civil society or this habit of association – has manifested itself in this young republic. He said that what’s fascinating about all this is that the free society found in America, the type of civil society which is really these institutions and communities that exist outside the family and yet are not part of the state, these are the things that undertake all sorts of activities that the market doesn’t itself deal with and which you don’t want the state to deal with.

He noted, for example, that when there was a problem in a community or a town, he said people didn’t run off to Washington, DC to try and fix the problem. They came together in associations, this habit of association, to fix the problem without calling upon the state or government officials to try and deal with it. And he said what’s interesting about this is that most of these associations occurred through religious forms of association.

Now, this is very important, because, if you like, it’s the missing link in a lot of contemporary liberal discourse. A lot of liberals today think about the market, the market, the market and then the state. Not all. But they often neglect this sphere of intermediate associations that Tocqueville talked about.

It’s very important for us to rehabilitate that, I think, because it involves recognizing that there are problems that markets themselves can’t resolve. Markets can’t fix family breakdown. Markets can’t fix drug addiction. Markets can’t fix any number of problems. But you also don’t want the state trying to address some of these problems either.

So civil society is the way that people like Tocqueville and people like Wilhelm Röpke saw as incredibly important not just in the sense of fixing problems, very real social problems that markets themselves can’t fix. But it’s also a way of preventing the state from moving into this area and trying to fix problems that the state is notoriously bad at trying to fix.

Juliette: Do you think recently – take recently as you want; set whatever timeframe on it – that there has been a move away from reliance on civil society to solve these sorts of things and of movement towards the state and reliance on the state in these areas?

Samuel: There’s no doubt about that. It’s particularly advanced, as I’m sure you know, in Europe. Civil society is extremely weak in Europe. You have individuals. You have families. You have some civil associations, I guess. But overwhelmingly, when it comes to dealing with social problems, it’s the state, the state, the state, the state. The first’s the state, and the middle of the state, last. That’s why there’s such attachment to the welfare state in Continental Europe and even in Britain as well.

In the case of the United States, civil society is actually pretty healthy. Is it as healthy as it was, say, fifty years ago? Probably not. Sixty, seventy years ago? Probably not. Because in the meantime, we’ve seen the advance of New Deal programs that it started in the 1930s. Even more so, we saw the Great Society programs of the Johnson Administration and also the Nixon Administration, I might add, in the 1960s and the 1970s which basically reflected a distrust of civil society, American Civil Society, fixing any number of problems. It’s a much more compromised situation than it was, say, seventy or a hundred or a hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago.

That said, civil society is far more alive and well in the United States than it is in most other Western countries. I think a lot of that has to do with, first of all, the history of the United States and the way that this habit of association that Tocqueville talked about. But also, I think it has to do with the relative vibrancy of religion in the United States compared to a lot of other Western countries, because that’s where a lot of this associational behavior continues to happen.

Juliette: I read a piece in the Wall Street Journal about Acton Institute’s founder, Father Robert Sirico. The author wrote, “When the Acton Institute was founded in 1990, America was in a heyday of harmonious thinking about capitalism and Christian values.”

For instance, there was a fairly clear understanding among American Christians that the best way to help the poor was through free market and economic growth. Things have changed and many religious thinkers, including Pope Francis, for example, see the free market system with its focus on individuals and efficiency as weakening society and failing to promote the common good.

What is this change in not only the church but about the intersection between the two against free markets?

Samuel: Well, the first thing I would say is that if you look at the 1970s and 1980s, it’s very clear that many churches, maybe even a majority of the churches – by that, I mean church leadership – were, for the most part, quite skeptical about markets.

I don’t think anything particularly changed in 1990s. I think that you had things like liberation theology. It was very prominent among a certain type of Protestant or a certain type of Catholic, liberation theology being a type of Marxist understanding of gospels and the Bible. On the part of many religious leaders – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, capital, or orthodox – there was an assumption that the state should take responsibility for any number of social problems. That was the prevailing wisdom in a lot of religious circles.

People like Michael Novak – who I heavily recommend that people read his book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism – challenged a lot of that and I think relatively successfully so much so that by the 1990s, there was a greater awareness that markets were very good at reducing poverty and dealing with many of the economic challenges that the state had turned out not to be so good at.

There was more recognition by the 1990s. But there was this background, I think, of sort of I call the preferential option for the state that prevailed in many religious circles and many American religious leaders up until then.

Now, I think what we’ve seen since then, particularly since the mid-2000s, we’ve seen many people of faith in America moving in a more skeptical view when it comes to markets. But I think that tracks the general trend of opinion throughout the United States as a whole.

We see, for example, as I’m sure you’re aware, that people of your age, when they are polled about things like do you prefer socialism or capitalism, they say they prefer socialism. Now, that’s a significant development. I think that if you ask young Americans of faith your age and little bit older the same question, you’ll probably get the same answer.

I think the trend towards more skepticism about markets that we find in the United States today, among some religious leaders and some people of faith, basically reflects the overall trend that we see in the United States today.

Now, let me say something about Pope Francis. With John Paul II and Pope Benedict, there was a greater openness towards markets, because John Paul II had grown up in Communist Poland. Benedict XVI had grown up in the conditions of national socialism. They knew all about the problems of excessively big state. They knew all about the problems of trying to use the state to fix any number of economic problems. They understood all of that very very much.

Pope Francis comes from Argentina. Argentina, as I’m sure you know, is an economic and political basket case. The type of economy that prevails in a country like Argentina – and most countries, frankly, South of the Rio Grande – is a type of cronyism, a type of corporatism.

Many people in these countries think that this is what markets are. They think markets equal crony capitalism. Crony capitalism equals markets. There’s also an overlay of corporatism by which I mean this economic way of thinking that you have groups at the top organize things from the top down in sort of corporate groups. That’s a very prominent way of thinking in much of Latin America.

That’s the background which Pope Francis comes out of. We shouldn’t be surprised that he is more skeptical about markets.

The job of people like me – I think of myself as a pretty conventionally Orthodox Catholic – is to say, “Yes. I’m concerned about corruption. I’m concerned about cronyism. I’m concerned about poverty.” As a Christian, I have no choice. I must be concerned about poverty. That’s one of the commandments. I can’t be a faithful Christian and not be concerned about poverty.

But if we look at things like the economic record of markets versus– I mean properly functioning markets within which we have strong property rights, rule of law, constitutionally limited government, et cetera, and free enterprise and entrepreneurship, the economic record in terms of reducing poverty is overwhelming.

The other thing I think is that it’s always interesting to point out to people, whether they’re of faith or not of faith, the notion that markets produce radical individualism. Well, they can produce some negative consequences in terms of, say, things like consumerism and a temptation to think that one’s life is fulfilled by the possession of more and more stuff simply because there’s more and more stuff around in market economies.

But markets also depend upon competition as well as a fair amount of cooperation. Markets require us to enter into relationships with people we don’t know; we never will know particularly well. In other words, there’s forms of association. There’s forms of cooperation. There’s forms of people working together that markets foster. Many people of faith don’t necessarily understand that.

Part of my job, part of the job of the Acton Institute and others, is to bring these truths to bear so that, at least, we can say, “Okay. You’ve got your point of view on these subjects. But here’s some facts and some ways of thinking that you may not have thought about before.”

I have to say that I think that Acton has been pretty successful in persuading a large number of people of faith not just in the United States but in Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia that it is possible to be a faithful Christian and a supporter of free markets and limited government.

Juliette: I watched the debate a few months ago between two conservative Christians, David French of The Dispatch, who I talked to about the First Amendment and the Free Speech on this podcast, and Sohrab Ahmari of the New York Post.

Ahmari was arguing against liberalism in the First Amendment saying that the government should impose a particular cultural order and crackdown on stuff such as drag queen library reading hours.

You have observed these trends in your professional life. You’ve spoken against this illiberalism among conservatives. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Samuel: I’ve spent more of the past six years arguing with people on the right about economics and some of the questions you’re raising than I had with people on the left.

Now, I happen to be pretty conservative in my social views. But I also think that if you look at the tradition of Christianity, if you look at the tradition of what’s called natural law theory, Christianity and natural law theory outline principled limits upon what the state can do when it comes to these types of issues which is often where you find, as you know, flare-ups between some people of faith and some people who call themselves liberal.

But I think, for example, if you look at a great, maybe the greatest Christian thinker ever, except perhaps Augusto– and I’m talking really of Thomas Aquinas. If you look at his writings and the way that he talks about the role of government in shaping the moral order, it’s very clear. He believes that government and law does have a role to play. He’s right in the sense that there is no such thing as an amoral law. All law, all government ordinances have a moral dimension to them. Even the decision about what side of the road we drive on has a moral dimension in so far as you make that type of decision, because you’re concerned about protecting human life.

It’s why we have laws against murder and theft. It’s not just because theft and murder make life inconvenient for people and make it harder to have a market. It’s also because murder and theft are wrong in themselves. The law needs to play a role in conveying the truth that these things are wrong.

That said, it’s also the case that Christianity and natural law say there are limits to what the state can do in this area, because people do need to make free choices. They need to make free choices if they’re going to freely embrace truth that they need to make free choices if they’re going to embrace morality and virtue rather than immorality and vice.

Christianity and the natural law tradition have taken free choice very very seriously precisely for these reasons which means there are limits to what the state can do in these particular areas.

How that fleshes out in practice is often very prudential. A lot depends upon the type of society that you’re living in. It also depends upon, I think, in the case where you have a society in which the forces of civil society are weak or if you have religious voices that are either marginalized or have self-marginalized themselves in which this type of moral formation that we’re talking about is not going on, then the inclination will be for a lot of people to shift to the state to try and fix these problems.

To my mind, the state plays primarily a subsidiary role when it comes to these issues. There are some things that certainly should be prohibited for the reasons that I mentioned. But there’s also a lot of room for debate among Christians and people of goodwill, other people of goodwill, about where the parameters lie.

But there’s also a very strong case – I think Thomas Aquinas makes this point very well – about what the state can and cannot do in this particular area when it comes to the promotion of virtue and the diminishment of vice.

Juliette: Ahmari highlights some of the real tensions between religion and free market order. What are they?

Samuel: Well, it depends, right? Because I don’t think there are any in-principle tensions in the sense of irreconcilable differences between free markets and Christianity. Not least, because, as I mentioned, we talked about right at the beginning, the first capitalist societies emerged in Medieval Europe. That’s an overwhelmingly Christian and more specifically Catholic world.

If you go back to the history of the Medieval period, if you look at the emergence of commercial society, if you look at the emergence of trade, if you look and you see where some of the most basic ideas that underlie the workings of markets – things like free prices, things like mutually beneficial exchange, things like understanding the nature of capital – it’s all there in the Medieval period.

To that extent, I think that the type of remark that Sohrab Ahmari is making here is simply historically uninformed. It’s very clearly historically uninformed. That’s a problem.

Now, that said, a lot depends in the contemporary period about what type of market we’re talking about and what type of society that market existed. A market that exists in a society that’s highly materialistic – let’s call it deeply atheistic – that sees human fulfillment in the possession of more and more stuff is going to be a very different society to the society in which a market exists where there is an understanding that human life is not to be fulfilled in the possession of more and more stuff, in which there’s a recognition that there is truth – and we can know it – in which there is recognition that there is virtue and there is bias, in which we have a certain moral objectivity which people understand. A market that operates in that context is very very different in the type of results that it
produces compared to a society in which markets are operating. Let’s call it a highly secularist/ atheist /materialistic order.

I think the way that Sohrab Ahmari talks about these things is often historically uninformed. I also think he falls into the trap of not contextualizing these things sufficiently. I think that leads him to make these types of claims which I think are essentially unfounded.

Juliette: Thank you, Sam. To wrap up, what is one thing that you believed at one time in your life that you’ve later changed your position on and why?

Samuel: Well, I’m one of these people that hasn’t changed their mind about too many things. But I guess the one thing that I have changed my mind about is the death penalty,

Now, I took the view for a long time that the death penalty was something that was not just permissible but often necessary. By the way, that’s entirely consistent with Christian and Catholic thinking about this issue.

But in more recent times, I have come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t use the death penalty because, first of all, I worry about giving the state the scope to engage in that type of activity. But also, I think because we know there are many cases in which it turns out that the person executed was, in fact, innocent of the crime.

I’ve come to the conclusion that prudentially speaking, the death penalty is not something that we should be embracing and that we should try and reduce its use throughout society, because I really do believe some of the things I just said, but also because I think it reflects a commitment to a culture of life.

Now, I’m not saying that people who believe in the death penalty are evil. I’m not saying that people who believe in the death penalty are unreasonable. I’m not saying that people who believe in the death penalty are somehow acting in a way that’s completely contrary to the Christian tradition, because it’s clearly not.

But I am saying that in the conditions of free societies, this is something that we should look very carefully at in terms of diminishing its use as fast and as far as possible for the reasons that I mentioned.

Juliette: How does it fit along with Christian and Catholic values? I often find myself looking at that aspect and seeing how it’s possible in both directions. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

Samuel: Tell me what you mean by that.

Juliette: I see it as either, “Oh, you’re sending them to God. God will go and judge them if they’re–

Samuel: Oh–

Juliette: — dead.”

Samuel: — you mean–

Juliette: Right?

Samuel: — with the death penalty.

Juliette: Yes. Then the other direction, I see it as, “Well, if God wants them dead in heaven or hell, wherever they are going, He will do that when the time comes.”

In terms of pro-death penalty, how does that align with Christian Catholic value?

Samuel: Well, the traditional argument has always been that the death penalty is sometimes a case in which, first of all, if it’s the only way you can protect the wider community from a particular individual or a particular set of circumstances or a particular group or whatever it happens to be, the death penalty has been seen as permissible.

For example, in times of societal breakdown, it’s often been the case that governments have resorted to this as a way, because it’s the only way to maintain civil order. The second thing is that the death penalty was traditionally seen as just in the sense that if you had taken the life of another person, your life was the only way in which you could basically be held culpable for your guilt, right, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth. That’s often portrayed as being a sort of a very brutal thing.

But actually, all it is is simply an application of a basic principle of justice which is that when someone does something wrong, the punishment must be commensurate with the crime. If you kill someone, you murder someone, the tradition was that it’s commensurate with your punishment of that crime that you execute the person. It’s not murder. It’s a way of promoting civil order and justice.

That’s been the traditional position. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. That’s why the death penalty – at least in Christian thinking – is not viewed as being something that may never be done.

But at the same time, when it comes to today in modern societies, we don’t need to use the death penalty to protect ourselves from people who are just going to keep killing. We can lock them up forever. We know we can do that. That wasn’t the case two hundred, three hundred, four hundred years ago.

But also, I think if we’re going to be in the business of affirming that life is good, that even when someone has done terrible things, that their life in itself is something that is good in itself regardless of the actions of the person. There’s some value to affirming that.

When it comes to people who’ve done terribly wrong things, I have no problem with locking them up and throwing away the key. That’s fine. That I think is an appropriate retribution for what they have done that is wrong.

But when it comes to judgment, in the end, we’re all going to be judged. As a Christian, as a Catholic, I believe we’re all going to be judged. There’s no escaping judgment. That will happen whether it happens after someone is executed or someone just dies naturally.

Judgment is coming for all of us as individuals. To that extent, I think that’s going to happen regardless of whether the death penalty exists or whether it doesn’t.

Juliette: Thank you so much, Sam. I learned so much. I’m sure my listeners did as well. Thank you so much for being on my podcast.

Samuel: My pleasure, Juliette.


CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.

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