Religion’s Role in the American Conception of Economic Freedom

Jan. 14 2021

In this excerpt from his forthcoming book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Benjamin M. Friedman seeks to find in American Christianity the roots of the economic ideas that have long prevailed in this country:

Even before the American Revolution, leading clergymen like John Witherspoon made clear that they saw robust religious institutions as a precondition underlying their belief in the argument for limited government that they took from political theorists like John Locke and Montesquieu. Witherspoon was himself an influential figure in the debate over the creation of the new United States—he signed the Declaration of Independence—and his influence was even greater through his student James Madison. . . . But he was also active in church affairs.

According to Witherspoon and others who shared his viewpoint, religious institutions were essential to a polity like the new democratic republic they were establishing. Strong religious institutions cultivated the civic virtue that made individual liberty possible, and they therefore filled the vacuum that limited government necessarily left as the counterpart to that liberty.

In Witherspoon’s thinking, religious institutions filled a dual role: circumscribing individual behavior so as to enable people to live together amicably, and providing for the material needs of those who for one reason or another failed to provide for themselves—in both cases, so that government would not have to do so.

The numerous religiously based voluntary societies that so struck Tocqueville in the 1830s—the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, the American Temperance Society, the American Anti-Slavery Society, to name just a few—grew out of attempts during the early federal period to fill just that vacuum.

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Read more at Harvard Magazine

More about: American Religion, Capitalism, James Madison, Political philosophy

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy