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In Tolstoy, The View That Liberty and Christianity Are One
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In Tolstoy, The View That Liberty and Christianity Are One

If you have strong Christian faith, the general assumption is that you desire the law to reflect Christian values. Various Christian organizations have pushed for censoring lewd entertainment, resisting efforts to legalize recreational marijuana, and prohibiting same-sex marriage. Evangelizing has become synonymous with legislating.

Many Christian conservatives find themselves stuck between their commitment to individual freedom and their religious beliefs because of this assumption. On certain issues, the dichotomy is deep. But what if these two principles could work together? Can a Christian support the idea of a “free society” without abandoning his or her values?

Enter Leo Tolstoy, the 19th-century Russian writer, and aristocrat famous for penning the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Among the most interesting aspects of his life was his religion. Tolstoy was an admitted Christian, but also found influence in the philosophy of other faiths. The world’s most famous writer rejected some fundamental Christian views, like the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, which made him as unorthodox in Tsarist Russia as he would be in modern America. Nevertheless, understanding how Tolstoy’s radical religious convictions shaped his political thought is significant to finding an answer to our questions.

In The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy’s treatise on the subject, he laid out his principle of absolute nonviolence by interpreting the Sermon on the Mount in a political context:

Did Christ really demand from his disciples that they should carry out what he taught them in the Sermon on the Mount? And can a Christian, then, or can he not, always remaining a Christian, go to law or make any use of the law, or seek his own protection in the law? And can the Christian, or can he not, remaining a Christian, take part in the administration of government, using compulsion against his neighbors?

Tolstoy saw the use of physical force against other human beings in contradiction to Jesus’s teachings to love your enemies and to turn the other cheek. Governments are granted a monopoly on violence in order to enforce its laws. Because of this, in his view, they represent the “universal tendency” of human beings to rob, oppress, and “exert violence against each other.” This interpretation led Tolstoy to become the first in a movement of what was later labeled “Christian anarchism.”

To Tolstoy, governments are incompatible with Jesus’s teachings of mercy and non-aggression. Christianity, as they believed it, was a lifestyle of peace and even the most perfect States will inevitably violate these principles. As such, the anarchists justified their calling for the abolition of bureaucracy, courts, and the laws. No man, they were inspired to think, could grant himself divine power over his fellow men.

In this way, Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism articulated a functional synergy between the demands of public policy and the Christian faith. These anarchists understood that the ethos of their shared faith was not meant to be instituted into the system but rather to be avoided by the system altogether. People should come to support Christian beliefs freely through persuasion, not coercively through force of law. Championing policies that force nonbelievers to accommodate for the church’s position on issues is not advocating in a peaceful, non-aggressive way.

The notions of a Christian society and a free society are, in fact, morally compatible. If you use the power of the State to extend your virtue, you lose the appeal of that virtue. A free society is where Christian virtue is both at its purest and most likely to flourish because it is not involved in the strong-arming of the State. Rather than being superseded by religious values, political philosophy should provide a structure for those views to be held and freely debated.

Conservatives are right in their commitment to individual freedom. This commitment does not have to be in conflict with Christian convictions because they are more compatible than many people believe. Christianity may not “destroy the State” as Leo Tolstoy would have wanted–but it just might call for a more peaceful and free society in which government is limited, and the natural rights of all are respected.  

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  • matthewliles

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