By: Chana B. Cox (Author)
Review by W. Collier: Liberty: God’s Gift to Humanity (Paperback) If you’re confused by the partisan wrangling between conservatives and liberals in the U.S.; if you wonder why you don’t agree with either party but you know in your heart you’re a patriot; or if you believe neither party is in touch with the essential ideas that have made America great, then you’ll probably get a lot out of this book. In “Liberty”, Chana Cox explains how the American experiment is based on a set of ideas about individual liberty that appeared as separatist religious concepts in the 1600s during the English Civil War and were then written down and explained by John Locke. She shows that while the idea of Liberty struggled in England in the face of a resurgent monarchy, it took root among early English settlers in America and strongly influenced the politics behind the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. She illustrates the same thread of thinking woven throughout Adam Smith’s work on free markets in the 1700s, and makes it clear (for the first time, for me) how three forms of liberty (economic, religious, and political) are facets of the same basic principles. Cox then goes on to provide a revealing analysis of how the concept of Liberty developed and was distorted throughout the 1800s and 1900s, both in Europe and the United States, until we ended up with modern welfare-state liberalism and its totalitarian cousins of national socialism and communism. This was the first time I have read an understandable and integrated review of the succession of thinkers from Thomas Hobbes through Hegel, Emerson, Marx, John Stuart Mill and Sartre–who all distorted the concept of individual liberty to support some form of totalitarianism–or the parallel ideas developed by Jefferson, Madison, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Camus and even Orwell, who in Cox’s telling all believed that a peaceful, stable and durable society is built on the liberty of the individual to make their own religious, political and/or economic choices. Besides her insights into the history of the idea of Liberty, some of Cox’s best points come when she explains how the classic form of Locke/Smith “liberalism” provides checks and balances that encourage peace and economic prosperity while keeping any one group from gaining too much control over economic, political, and religious spheres. I suppose most of us have heard these arguments in some form, but Cox turns over stones that I had not noticed. For example, I never realized that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy of individualism mirrors Socialist and Communist thinking of the mid- and late- 1800s. Emerson’s argument that individuals should be unfettered by social or religious constraints turns out to make it easier to justify totalitarian policies, since if no constraints are meaningful, then the behavior of the majority constitutes the truth; and if the majority possesses the truth it’s moral to stamp out any minority views, since minority views are probably held in place by some “irrational” constraint. So while unfettered individualism leads to totalitarianism, social and religious constraints have a track record of leading, perhaps paradoxically, to greater liberty. Cox illustrates this through what was to me an unexpected connection: it was the deep religious beliefs of many “classic liberal” Americans–not the philosophy or activism of Socialists–that tipped the scales in the United States toward eradicating slavery, delivering universal suffrage and encouraging greater rights for minorities and the poor. One of Cox’s best achievements in the book is to show that religious and social constraints made the United States more diverse and peaceful while simultaneously making it more free. The book has some weaknesses. At times the writing has the style of a transcribed speech (the author is a lecturer at Lewis & Clark College), with repetitions of the sort that make lectures easier to follow but become distracting in print. There’s not enough attention given to modern anti-Liberty conservatives like Leo Strauss, who had a significant influence on neoconservativism and by extension on U.S. strategy in Iraq. And while the book builds a convincing argument that it was religious movements and leaders who kept the original concept of Liberty intact in the United States–even as welfare state liberalism and radical individualism distorted the concept of personal liberty–when the time comes to discuss the views of these religious leaders and groups, she leaves the reader asking for more. The book is a mix of exposition and opinion; Cox is not afraid to tell you what she believes in or what she thinks about the ideas and thinkers she is analyzing, but she is also careful to be clear and accurate when documenting what those thinkers actually wrote or said. It’s not a traditional academic work, but it’s more thoughtful and serious than most political literature you’ll find. Despite its flaws and quirks the book will remain part of my intellectual toolkit, because for the first time I can point to one book and say “this captures what I think about religion, politics and economics on the national stage in America, and in America’s interactions with the world.”
5.0 out of 5 stars A defense of religious liberalism, February 12, 2006
This review is from Joseph J. Cox “Short Eddy”: Liberty: God’s Gift to Humanity (Paperback) This book is a powerful defense of Religious Liberalism as a political/social system. Many parts of the book, from the discussion of the strong historical ties between Liberal ideas and fundamentalist Christian ideas, are fascinating. Liberty offers an unusual perspective for understanding how fundamentalist religion of any sort can undergo a liberal change – and grow stronger as a result. It also unveils why even fair and free elections aren’t necessarily legitimate from a Liberal perspective. It sure makes what’s happening with Hamas and Iran and Egypt and Venezuela a whole lot clearer. Written by an Orthodox Jew, the book has an unusual and insightful perspective on these issues. The ideas in this book are fundamental and fundamentally important. For all the guns involved, we are basically in a war of ideas with certain fanatics within the Wahhabi and Shiite sects. Their main weapons are ideas. To defeat them, we need knowledge – we need to know what our way is, we need to know why our way is better and we need to be able to share that information with those around us. This book packs a powerful punch in that department and is a *very important* read.