Gertrude Himmelfarb and the Connection between Religion and Liberty

March 30, 2023 | Yuval Levin
About the author: Yuval Levin is the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he also holds the Beth and Ravenel Curry Chair in Public Policy. The founder and editor of National Affairs, he is also a senior editor at The New Atlantis, a contributing editor at National Review, and a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times.

Reflecting on the legacy of the late historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Yuval Levin explains her attraction to the Victorian historian and thinker Lord Acton, who was the subject of her first book:

[Himmelfarb] found Acton and other leading Victorians particularly instructive regarding what she termed “the paradox of liberalism”—the idea that, in prioritizing individual liberty above all other political goods, modern liberalism threatened to undermine the moral foundations of individual liberty, and therefore of its own strength.

Acton was a keen student of this problem, and he understood it to be rooted in an ideal of the individual that had its merits but was frequently taken too far. His answer was not to abandon liberalism but to insist that it be tethered to traditional religion, to the benefit of both. “The liberals wanted political freedom at the expense of the church,” Himmelfarb wrote, “and the traditional Catholics wanted the church at the expense of political freedom. Acton knew that in a non-Catholic state the church’s freedom could only be guaranteed by a free society so that people who wanted religious freedom needed to be friends of genuine liberal freedom.” But he also knew that they needed to insist that religious freedom was a fundamentally communal freedom, and therefore that liberal societies must be made aware of more than individual liberties and prerogatives.

Over more than 70 years of engaging and careful scholarship, Gertrude Himmelfarb not only enabled us to know the Victorians far better; she also made it possible for us to answer the ever-present fear of irrevocable decline with a model of the replenishment of moral capital—and so of the possibility of renewal. A historian with moral clarity and purpose, her influence will continue to reverberate for as long as liberalism’s future depends upon its friendly critics.

Read more on Religion and Liberty: