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Liberty: Rethinking an Imperiled Ideal

Glenn Tinder
Published by Eerdman’s Publishing Group in 2007

Two key assumptions of political liberalism, individual rights and limited government, proceed logically from Christian premises. No political philosopher demonstrated this better than Glenn Tinder in The Political Meaning of Christianity. Each person is an “exalted individual,” one whose destiny is at the heart of the drama of creation and redemption. Respect for that status implies fundamental liberties. However, since each person is simultaneously a “fallen individual,” no human institution or political movement can be trusted with unchecked power.

In grounding constitutionalism in Christian anthropology, Tinder is at odds with most liberal thinkers. Nevertheless, he finds much common ground between faith and reason. Liberty: Rethinking an Imperiled Ideal is the culmination of a lifetime thinking about one of the primary concerns of liberalism: the role of the individual in political life. Discourse, community and destiny are key concepts in Tinder’s political philosophy. His most widely published book is Political Thinking, a textbook that has appeared in six editions. It is an engaging and open-ended discussion of perennial political issues. Its underlying assumption is that “questioning and reflecting enable one to realize one’s own being in its freedom and distinctiveness.”1 But this must not be merely an individualistic exercise. Self-realization comes only when one searches for truth through serious conversations about difficult questions. Tinder ’s books on community and tolerance connect both of these concepts to such discourse. Discourse defines community; the motivation for tolerance should not be to suppress truth claims, but to search for truth. In Against Fate and The Fabric of Hope, he argues that true community and genuine discourse depend on the realization that individuals have a divine destiny or transcendent meaning. The Political Meaning of Christianity draws on these ideas for its key concept, “the prophetic stance.” Christians, says Tinder, should be “hesitant radicals.” They should be willing to act to alleviate particular injustices, but they should be reflective, critical and modest in their expectations of what politics can do.

Liberty: Rethinking an Imperiled Ideal is an argument for social and political arrangements that are conducive to freedom, defined here as the power that individuals have within themselves to choose what is good. Tinder differs from other liberals in that he does not regard liberty (or freedom) as an end in itself. An unbounded community in which all truth shall be fully known is the final good. Although this is an eschatological hope, it inspires people to promote community through maximizing liberty. Since humans are encumbered by sin (or, in Immanuel Kant’s terms, “radical evil”), liberty is dangerous. Like Tocqueville, he acknowledges that liberty opens the door to behavior that is destructive or irresponsible. Therefore authorities, traditions and conscience are all desirable means of mitigating bad choices. However, limitations on liberty are justified only insofar as they protect or enhance freedom for all, and they must continually be re-examined.

Tinder ’s commitment to “personalism” leads him to identify liberty with individuals and not with states or societies. The “prophetic stance” that Tinder commends to Christians is the religious form of a more general position he calls “the liberal stance.” He defines this as an “inner community” of individuals who choose what is good and who engage with any willing partners in ongoing conversation about the good and its implications for how individuals and institutions act. Like Reinhold Niebuhr, he asserts that inevitably, collectivities dilute the moral integrity of individuals. Therefore the object of the liberal stance cannot be to promote either the transformation or preservation of society in order to advance a certain vision of the good. Political action by left or right requires power, and power tends to depersonalize or objectify individuals. Even though humans are flawed, “the best individuals attain a moral level higher than do the best societies” (180).

Motivated by a love of truth and a respect for persons, those who take the liberal or prophetic stance value both solitude and engagement. Solitude is necessary “to cultivate the sensitivity to truth and to persons that is the main condition of community but in danger of being stifled by society” (175). Privacy driven by alienation, security or comfort is immoral. The liberal stance is incompatible with “ontological individualism,” or anti-communal self-sufficiency. Properly understood, privacy permits freedom of speech and association, which are necessary if there is to be liberty in society. The reflection that solitude permits and the interactions that take place in private communities prepare individuals for engagement in public life. Engagement is meaningful to the degree that it is universal—open to all and imbued with significance that transcends time and place. Tinder shows how such universality grows out of a Christian perspective. Jesus’ definition of neighbor is the basis for involving everyone in communal discussion, not just intellectual or political elites. Every person can reflect on personal experience, and therefore his or her voice is worth hearing. If every person is involved in the cosmic drama of sin and redemption, present dialogue is linked necessarily with past and future generations. Says Tinder, “it is the universal that makes the particular significant. . . . History does not comprise, but is comprised within, personal destinies” (283, 298).

Tinder believes that Christians and humanists can find common ground in liberty, as he defines it. Socrates and Kant are key figures. Socrates epitomized the “liberal stance.” His mission was to engage individuals in deep conversations on all matters in public places. Unlike other philosophers in ancient Greece, Socrates was interested neither in winning rhetorical contests nor telling people what they wanted to hear. His dialogues were the focus of a relentless quest for truth, a quest for which he sacrificed his life willingly. In Political Vision sand Illusions, David Koyzis warns Christians against embracing political ideologies uncritically. The Socratic model of civic engagement characterized by genuine dialogue and a preference for truth over power is more faithful to the biblical principles of love and righteousness.Socrates’ devotion to community is evident in the communitarian criticism of liberalism that bases everything on self-interest. Socrates’ concern with metaphysical questions is reflected in post-modern criticism of liberalism that ignores questions of meaning and identity in order to focus on rules or procedures. Tinder also points to Kant’s “moral liberalism” as basis for dialogue between faith and reason.

Tinder’s faith in common ground between Christians and humanists is open to question, however. He assumes rightly that there is no inherent contradiction between faith and reason, that faith must be given freely, and that Christians are no more capable of perfect knowledge than other fallen individuals. He concludes therefore that Christians ought to subject all doctrines to “public dialogue with humanist reason.” He distinguishes between doctrine as that which defines belief, and dogma as that which closes the mind against God and neighbor. But Tinder ’s theologically liberal view of revelation and authority requires that orthodox Christian doctrine be regarded as nothing more than dogma. According to Tinder, revelation is “a powerful intuition” and doctrine is a “theory” that is to be discussed rather than confessed, a human construct that is “subject to question, doubt and revision”(204). Evangelism must be “dialogic.” Authority is defined by liberty.

It is one thing to affirm that religious commitment must be given freely and not coerced. It is another to suggest that no church that links authority to doctrine and that expects a modicum of conformity in belief and behavior can be a real community. In Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert Kraynak argues that there is a fundamental difference between the Kantian idea of human dignity and the Christian concept of the Imago Dei (the divine image). Kant defines human dignity in terms of free will apart from any relation to God. The Imago Dei portrays human dignity as a reflection of the eternal character of God. For an orthodox Christian community, maintaining such a distinction can be integral to its identity.

There are all too many past and present examples of abuse of power or suppression of honest inquiry in the name of defending the Christian faith. Tinder shows rightly how incompatible the denial of freedom is with biblical principles. In spite of the misgivings of Koyzis and Kraynak, there are good reasons for even orthodox Christians to embrace liberal democracy as a political philosophy, though critically, as with all such political commitments. In articulating the prophetic stance, Glenn Tinder has provided an invaluable guide to how this is to be done. May he be more hopeful about the possibility that orthodoxy can indeed be compatible with liberty.

Cite this article
Stephen Hoffmann, “Liberty: Rethinking an Imperiled Ideal”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:1 , 173-175


  1. Glenn E. Tinder, Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2004), 17.

Stephen Hoffmann

Taylor University
Stephen P. Hoffmann is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at Taylor University.