Kyle Swan on Christianity and (Classical) Liberalism
Date: June 5th, 2016

Can a good Christian also be a good liberal?  Prof. Kyle Swan – an assistant professor of philosophy at Cal State University, Sacramento – examines this question and the tension between religion and freedom.  We begin the discussion by defining “liberalism,” which we do not use in the sense that it is used in U.S. politics today, but rather in its classical sense emanating from the English/Scottish Enlightenment.  Prof. Swan uses “liberalism” in the sense of the “right to be left alone,” which entails limits on the scope of government as well as a host of civil liberties such as the right to assemble.  He advances and explains a concept known as “the liberty principle” and argues from pragmatic and epistemic perspectives why individuals should favor this variant of liberalism.  Following this, we bring religion into the mix and note that although many people like liberty, they also tend to be “legal moralists” who wish to impose their sense of morality on others.  It is possible, then, to see how Christianity and many other religions that profess a strong ethical code for human behavior might clash with the liberty principle.  Kyle provides some historical examples where this clash has occurred including reading from documents such as the Scot’s and Belgic Confessions that sought to combat the rise liberal thought in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Prof. Swan then makes the argument for why Christianity can co-exist with a liberal political philosophy in society, and how one can retain religious orthodoxy within a liberal society.  He reviews a famous debate between Patrick Devlin and H.L.A. Hart over sexual ethics.  Our conversation also covers topics such as “nudging” and how early Christians in the first three centuries and religious minorities in colonial British America dealt with this supposed tension between orthodoxy and liberalism.  Recorded: May 24, 2016.


(Note: There is a bit of audio interference with our guest’s feed around the 7 minute mark and lasting a few minutes.  Due to this problem, a function of RoR’s phone lines, we edited out a small portion of the interview at that point.  We do not think this editing affects the flow of the discussion.  We thank you for your patience with this problem.)


Prof. Kyle Swan’s bio at Cal State Sacramento (with links to his academic papers).


Jason Jewell on John Locke and Religious Toleration.

Bob Subrick on Religion, Adam Smith, F.A. Hayek, and Vernon Smith.

Mark David Hall on Religious Minorities in the U.S. Founding.

Chris Beneke on Religion, Markets, and the Founding Era.

David Campbell & Quin Monson on Mormons in American Politics.

3 Responses to “Kyle Swan on Christianity and (Classical) Liberalism”

  1. Michael McBride says:

    Another good podcast. Thanks Kyle and Tony.

  2. polistra says:

    Don’t use liberal and conservative. Both words are hopelessly confused and conflated. If you mean the right to be left alone, just SAY the right to be left alone. Then you won’t have to spend five minutes explaining why you’re using stupid words in stupid ways, and you’ll be less stupid as a bonus.

    • tonygill says:

      Thanks for the comment. I do understand where you are coming from and sympathize. Alas, most of our contemporary rhetoric does make use of the word “liberal” in a variety of ways, so we do have to engage it on those terms at times. We did try to give it a more specific definition and contextualize the term. My goal is to be less stupid each day, but sometimes I just fall short!

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