Kevin Vallier on Social Trust and Religious Toleration in Classical Liberalism

Growing up in a widely Christian, conservative community in southern Alabama, Kevin Vallier was faced with declining social trust amid rising tensions between faith, science, and politics. Vallier began questioning belief systems and policies from a young age, even to the point of challenging his high school’s updated dress code policy that he believed stifled free expression.

Despite his intuition that top-down regulation is ineffective at its best and detrimental at its worst, Vallier did not believe in the free market. During his high school years, Vallier listened to Noam Chomsky, whose arguments convinced him that the free market could not support spontaneous order. The power of spontaneous order — which Vallier first recognized while playing Conway’s Game of Life — seemingly diminished in light of anti-liberal arguments.

Kevin Vallier

My interests in the dispersal of power combined with my learning more about how markets work were harmonized in a pretty big way.

– Kevin Vallier

By the time Vallier went to Washington University in St. Louis in 2000 as an undergraduate, he had lost faith in God and the free market. Once he began engaging with others on campus, however, he discovered classical liberal ideas and began reading liberal works, starting with Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. Before long, he co-founded a libertarian group on campus. Eventually, Vallier returned to the Christian faith and found a political and philosophical home in the classical liberal tradition.

At the end of his undergraduate studies in 2004, Vallier attended his first IHS event: Summer Seminars. “I started off with this vibrant liberty movement where everyone could discuss lots of different ideas,” Vallier recalls. It was around that time that he realized that his two abiding interests were classical liberalism and Christianity. “I’ve had this enduring question about whether these two systems of thought are compatible,” Vallier says. “And that’s been an ongoing philosophical concern of mine until this very moment.”

Vallier continued developing his research while participating in IHS programs as a graduate student, including a variety of career development opportunities, multiple Humane Studies Fellowships, and the Summer Graduate Research Fellowship.

When he went to graduate school at the University of Arizona, Vallier became one of the late Jerry Gaus‘s first students. Gaus opened the world of philosophy, politics, and economics to Vallier and helped him grasp the ideas of John Rawls and Friedrich Hayek. “He’s probably done more than anybody to push Hayek’s social philosophy forward — not just his economic thought,” Vallier says. They worked together on what they called “moral relations between diverse persons.” This idea continues to inform Vallier’s research on social trust.

That was something [Jerry Gaus] always stressed: not getting caught up in an ideology, and always asking tough questions, and trying not to worship anybody’s system of thought.

– Kevin Vallier

Today Vallier is an associate professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University, where he also directs the Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law (PPEL) program. “In Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, what you’re essentially doing is applying the formal and empirical methods of the social sciences to make advances in value theory,” Vallier explains.

As a professor, Vallier has been involved in a variety of IHS programs, including Discussion Colloquia, Academic Research Symposia, and Research Workshops. He says his favorite experience with IHS has been “working with committed, fascinated grad students.” One of his fondest memories of IHS was returning as a faculty speaker to Summer Seminars, where he spent the week discussing ideas with graduate students. “Being faculty and working with good grad students — that was my favorite thing.”

His research and career have also benefited from a variety of IHS faculty programs, including Research Workshops, where participants review a scholar’s manuscript, edited volume, or special journal issue. In 2020 IHS hosted a workshop on Vallier’s manuscript,  which became his book, Trust in a Polarized Age. “It was very helpful,” he says. “And I like being helpful to other people’s manuscripts.”

Vallier was one of the first IHS sabbatical research fellows, and today he is an IHS senior fellow. IHS supports Vallier’s research on social trust, which intersects with the classical liberal values of human dignity, free speech, and toleration. Vallier has published three books and edited others, and his current research aims to create a positive case for religious toleration. “Very broadly, I’m interested in all the kinds of questions that are at the intersection of classical liberalism and Christianity,” he says.

One of the questions Vallier hopes to answer is why Christians should support, on principle, religious toleration, and reconciliation. “A lot of it has to do with our ability to sustain relations of trust across diverse perspectives,” Vallier argues. “And the way in which insights from libertarianism and the way in which Christian commitments lead us to care about establishing trust between people with diverse perspectives.” Coercion and control undermine the values of both Christianity and classical liberalism.

I think when we focus on the great value of things like trust in other people in society, we’ll see there’s a case for a free society. We’ll see that the Christian ideals of peace, and love, and reconciliation, and forgiveness are fairly well realized in such an order. And that if we push further towards pure libertarianism or some sort of a Christian theocratic arrangement, we’re going to undermine our capacity for trust and reconciliation with others.

– Kevin Vallier

One of Vallier’s goals is to combine Christian theology and classical liberal ideas in a positive project. His first book, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation, focused on reconciling liberal political thought with religion. Previously, Vallier had not been satisfied with the practical arguments regarding rights and faith. “There was never any attempt that I thought was very rigorous to have libertarian thought engage theology,” Vallier says.

His next two books ventured into the topic of social trust, addressing the increasing polarization between people in both social and institutional contexts. In 2019 Vallier published his second book, Must Politics Be War? Restoring Our Trust in the Open Society, which offers a social trust defense of public reason liberalism. To expand his argument with an empirical case for promoting social trust through liberal institutions, Vallier published the sequel, Trust in a Polarized Age. “There’s reason to think empirically that they produce trust between diverse perspectives,” Vallier says. “Both at the societal level and at the institutional level.”

Vallier believes that social trust can replace government regulations, but he admits there is little data to support the idea since it is a new area of research. Recent data from Joseph Henrik and others shows a correlation between deregulation and a rise in social trust within the business sector, but Vallier wants to expand the idea into a free market society. He says that since Elinor Ostrom died, classical liberals have made little progress on the topic of trust. “What I’ve been trying to do is kind of revive it as a concern for classical liberals,” Vallier says.

Right now I think is a real opportunity for growth and renewal, because we’re under severe threat that the younger generation does not seem to find liberal principles attractive.

– Kevin Vallier

Vallier’s work intersects with the IHS Discourse Initiative and the classical liberal vision of a society where toleration and pluralism as well as social trust empower individuals and strengthen communities.

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more spotlights on scholars, faculty partners, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.

60 Years Advancing the Ideas of the Good Society

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