Civics: Political Consequences of the Protestant Reformation, Part III

Frances Fukuyama:

The social contract establishing the state is an agreement on the part of citizens to give up their natural freedom to deprive others of their lives, in return for protection of their own rights. The horizon of politics was thereby lowered: instead of seeking the good life, as determined by religious doctrine, the modern state would seek merely to preserve life itself and relegate disputes over the good life to private life. Though Hobbes and Locke represented different sides in an enduring controversy between English liberals and conservatives, the conceptual distance separating them was not great. John Locke accepted Hobbes’ natural right framework, and argued that governments could also violate those rights, leading to a right on the part of citizens to resist governments that did not receive popular consent. Political legitimacy in liberal societies would henceforth be based on “consent of the governed.” Locke directly influenced Thomas Jefferson and the American Founding Fathers, who declared their independence from Britain on the basis of the protection of their rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Liberalism originated in a pragmatic compromise between religious factions that understood that they would be better off settling for religious tolerance than seeking their maximal goals of a religiously grounded polity. But the stability of this system depended also on the emergence of ideas that legitimated a regime preserving individual rights. Individualism was deeply ingrained in English culture from well before the Reformation, but the Reformation’s emphasis on inner faith cemented the view that all human beings were autonomous agents who were subject to God’s grace as individuals. In later years the religious component underlying notions of agency would erode, but the individualism would remain as a foundational principle of modern Western civilization.

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