2 December, 2012Issue 20.5EuropeHistoryReligion

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Religion of Liberty

Nicolas Stone Villani

As If God ExistedMaurizio Viroli
As If God Existed: Religion and Liberty in the History of Italy
Princeton University Press, 2012
360 pages
ISBN 978-0691142357


When Maurizio Viroli’s The Liberty of Servants: Berlusconi’s Italy (2011) was described as a pamphlet, he immediately rejected such a characterisation. There is no denying; however, that his books often carry a strong and somewhat explicit political message. It is a message rooted in a perception of Italy as “a country marked by fragile liberty” and corrupted by the regime of Silvio Berlusconi. As If God Existed tells the story of religion and liberty in Italy, and offers a clever analysis of what Viroli refers to as the religion of liberty. But its objective is altogether more ambitious and, Viroli admits, unrealizable: namely to resuscitate the religion of liberty in people’s hearts.

The tragedy of fascism and Nazism should have taught us that totalitarianism establishes itself through banal men, and that the true antidote is a religion that prevents one from adoring men who pretend to be gods, for it teaches us to love instead the inner God of moral conscience, and to defend liberty with absolute devotion. It’s a lesson of history to be pondered.

Thus Viroli sets out to trace the genealogy of the religion of liberty from the late Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century and, for the most part, succeeds in making a strong case for its presence and relevance in Italian history. Council meetings in eleventh and twelfth century communes were preceded by religious rituals; justice was sacred. The republican character of these new political orders was fully compatible with existing religious principles and the introduction of Aristotelian political theory helped further to reinforce a sense of religiosity. Caritas (charity) was believed to be the foundation of patriotism and a good Christian was a good citizen, both out of his own will and as a requirement of his faith.

But a good citizen need not be a good Christian. If religion may and ought to be understood solely as a pursuit followed with great devotion, there is a sense in which Viroli willingly puts little effort into convincing one that faith in liberty may be attained without Christianity: that is, in spite of the book’s title. This failure, that is, the failure clearly to reject the idea that liberty necessitates a religion other than its own in order to extricate man from servitude, is one which is difficult to digest. Of course, there is value in showing how Christian sentiments are compatible with absolute devotion to liberty. And the Renaissance struggle against the papacy in the name of liberty was less the sign of an explosion of heresy than the expression of true Christianity. But in this context, at that time, the recurrence to God in written and oral form was perhaps more likely to be the result of custom than belief–a point which Viroli rightly raises, but fails to underline.

Naturally, from the seventeenth century onwards, things changed. Rousseau’s civil religion was pivotal in shaping a republican religion “capable of educating good citizens”. Christian sentiment was not reduced to words, but embodied in the struggle for unity and liberty. The exaltation of the figure of Christ played a crucial pedagogical role and was employed to restore virtues in the heart of men. In the words of Manzoni:

the duty of a Christian is to impede evildoing. The consequence of this principle is the duty of uplifting the oppressed, suffering with them, and fighting for them, as long as certain or at least very probably mitigation of their suffering derives from our own suffering and fighting […] One shall point out and reprimand injustices […] and, when it is necessary and possible, one shall repress them. My sacred duty as a Christian is to attain public liberty, as an alleviator of sorrows and terminator of injustices.

This understanding of Christianity not only helped shape an entire country, but partly delivered it from the evil of fascism. It led to a re-evaluation of man and informed the writings of Leopardi, the poetry of Carducci, the music of Verdi, and, later on, the philosophy of Croce. If fascism was elevated to a religion through Gentile’s pensée, so was liberty through Croce’s words and Gramsci’s reinterpretation of “Crocean religion of liberty as a simple faith in modern civilization, which needs no transcendence and no revelation, but contains its own rationality and origin within itself.”

With the fall of fascism, the religion of liberty fell into oblivion, or so Viroli claims. And “without the moral nourishment of the religion of liberty, the liberal and democratic institutions that were birthed by it were doomed to become corrupt, empty forms masking the dominion of arrogant and cunning men, in a context of depressing banality and poverty of ideals.” But is that really the case? Is the religion of liberty really a sine qua non for the preservation of liberal and democratic institutions? And can Italy really be described as a context of depressing banality and poverty of ideals?

No doubt, for over a decade, the centre stage of Italian politics has been taken over by a man who described himself as “the Jesus Christ of politics” or, more modestly, “the best political leader in Europe and in the world.” A man who also rejected the atrocities committed during the fascist period: “Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini used to send people in vacation in internal exile.” No joke! And yes, Silvio Berlusconi was elected. But Viroli’s book seems to suggest that his dominion, couched in the above-mentioned context, has been marked by silent acquiescence, when the truth is quite the opposite: lest we forget the No Berlusconi Day of 2009, for example.

On 16 November 2011, Berlusconi resigned. On 26 October 2012, he was convicted of tax fraud. Perhaps Viroli’s book, however well-written and passionate it may be, is ill-timed. Yet, with the next Italian general election due in April, there is value in narrating a few moments of the history of the religion of liberty. Though it may not be desperately needed, its rebirth is certainly desirable.

Nicolas Stone Villani is reading for a DPhil in History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.