Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1
institutions. Understanding such attitudes is primarily the focus of empirical
political science, using quantitative methods such as surveys. Although we do
not discuss it here, the work of political scientists provides a useful perspective
on liberalism – if people find it difficult to endorse liberal values then it should
force liberals to reconsider how they defend liberal institutions.
Keeping these distinctions in mind, we can now attempt a rough definition of
liberalism. As the etymology of the word implies, liberals emphasise liberty
(freedom). As we will argue, a less obvious aspect of liberal thought is its emphasis
on equality – not necessarily material equality, but a basic moral equality. A more
precise definition of liberalism carries the risk of excluding from the liberal tradition
important strands of thought. The best approach then is to look at a number of
liberalisms. Although there may be more, four important ones can be identified:
liberalism as toleration (or modus vivendi liberalism), contractarianism, rights-based
liberalism (and, relatedly, libertarianism) and utilitarianism. If we look at ideas in
their social context we will find these strands coexist. Much of the debate within
liberalism is generated by the tensions between these different forms of liberalism,
such that separating them out and clarifying each one is essential to understanding
the values that underlie liberal democratic society.

Liberalism as toleration

The Reformation and Wars of Religion

Many historians of political thought locate the origins of liberal discourse in the
struggle for religious toleration generated by the Reformation and subsequent Wars
of Religion. Although the term ‘Wars of Religion’ is sometimes reserved for a series
of civil wars fought in France between 1562 and 1598, the term can be used more
widely to include the struggle of the Protestant Netherlands (United Provinces) to
free themselves from Catholic Spain, and the Thirty Years War (1618–48) in
Germany. That the motivations of the protagonists were not necessarily theological
in character does not detract from the fact that these wars produced a philosophical
discoursein which toleration of difference became a central concern. It is this
discourse, rather than the details of the wars, that concerns us.
To understand the development of the concept of toleration we need a basic
understanding of the theological core of the Reformation. The causes of the
Reformation are many and varied, and as suggested a moment ago it is possible to
explain it in social and economic, rather than theological, terms. However, we will
take seriously the Reformation as a theological dispute. It is important to recognise
that what is termed the Reformation had a number of distinct streams.
The two theological issues central to the Reformation were how doctrine is
established and how human beings achieve salvation. Let us consider doctrine.
Christianity is a bibliocentric religion – its teachings, or doctrine, are determined
by a body of scripture (call this ‘tradition 1’). However, there has always been a
debate over the correct interpretation of scripture and, relatedly, whether the Bible
is a sufficient source of truth – the Catholic Church (Church of Rome) maintained

174 Part 2 Classical ideologies

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