Editor’s note: This article is the final part of a three-piece essay in response to Thomas Storck’s May article, “The Revenge of Religious Liberty“; parts one and two ran Friday and yesterday, respectively.
The First Amendment was enacted at the insistence of the states (some of which had and maintained established religions) because many Christians were concerned that in a society as diverse as 18th century America, the federal government would adopt the faith of the larger churches in an attempt to stamp out Catholics, Baptists, Quakers and other minorities.
Contrary to Storck’s assertions, however, this was only an institutional separation of church and state (as we have seen it was in the Letter). The federal government continued to play a role in promoting religion, and individual politicians continued to bring their beliefs to bear on the lawmaking process. It was not until much later that progressively-minded justices would twist this institutional separation into a separation of religious belief and state.
Supreme Court justice and Harvard professor Joseph Story (arguably the most important constitutional commentator of the early 19th century) stated that the First Amendment’s intention was likely that “Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship.” A South Carolina clergyman named Jasper Adams wrote an influential pamphlet arguing that the Constitution presupposed the Christian religion. Among those who wrote to him to express their agreement were Chief Justice John Marshall (perhaps the most significant expositor of the Constitution in our history) and Justice Joseph Story. The First Congress reenacted the Northwest Ordinance, which declared “[r]eligion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged,” and early customs and traditions associated with Congress and the Supreme Court are replete with religious references and symbolism.
It is also remarkable how many presidents throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries approved Thanksgiving Proclamations. The first one, issued by George Washington in 1789, proclaimed the nation’s duty “to obey [God’s] will…to implore his protection and favor.” It exhorted Americans to “unite in…offering our…supplications…to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions—to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people….”
Washington’s proclamation of 1795 says much the same, as do they all, including those authored by Madison, architect of the First Amendment. If there is any inconsistency between toleration and such policies, it would seem to be the result of recent perversions of religious toleration rather than of the doctrine itself.
Storck may contend, despite all this, that the First Amendment steadily eroded Americans’ conviction that religious beliefs are necessary to just government. He would have difficulty identifying the development of such a trend, however, before the mid-twentieth century. Even before the sanctimony of the Progressive Era, nothing in America struck foreigners (particularly Europeans) so much as the effect religion had on politics. In his 1835 classic, Democracy in America, the French Catholic Alexis de Tocqueville wrote with astonishment of the “great political consequences” resulting from the United States’ policy of toleration. Not only were churches more vibrant than anywhere else he had traveled, they exerted a far more powerful influence on government—this despite churches’ lack of direct involvement in the state. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men,” he observed. And yet, although “[r]eligion in America takes no direct part in the government of society… it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions.”
As de Tocqueville suggests, Storck may be right in a certain respect. The Church as an institution had very little direct influence on the federal government because of the First Amendment, but to conclude that this means Christians and Christianity also had little influence on it is to misread Locke, history and our political institutions entirely. Relatively speaking, Christianity has had a much greater effect on society and government in the United States than in South American or European countries with a recent history of established churches. The discrepancy de Tocqueville observed between America and the rest of the Christian world remains true today. Comparing church attendance rates between South America or Europe and the United States bears this out at the societal level (for one accessible, statistical treatment of this issue, see the Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark).
Politically, although the United States, like the rest of the western world, has sanctioned abortion and may be on the brink of sanctioning gay marriage, it has generally lagged far behind in those ways, until recently, other Western nations that had forms of established Christianity. Indeed, those nations that are most secularized today generally seem to be precisely those which had established religions. Why is this? De Tocqueville found an answer once again in the way that establishment subordinates the church: “[t]he Church cannot share the temporal power of the State,” he observed, “without being the object of a portion of that animosity which the latter excites.”
To sum up, one of the main purposes of John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration is defending the purity of the Church from the corruptions that come when it ties itself to the state. Far from rendering religious belief a passive ward of the all-powerful regime, toleration breaks the church’s shackles to temporal power. It frees churches to preach the Gospel for the sake of truth, rather than the perpetuation of the state. While the Lockean polity is restricted to legislating within the limits of the natural law, it is still profoundly concerned with belief. Not only are politicians enabled to support religion and bring their faith to bear on policy-making; great latitude is delegated to churches so that the faith can be preached, and society—the surest basis for a just state—continually renewed by the Gospel. Indeed, the natural law is best understood by both society and the state when Christians are engaged in rational and evangelical discourse without fear of reprisal.
Although the United States embodied this philosophy and, in many respects, vindicated it, there is no doubt that it now, like the rest of the Western world, stands in danger of an insidious and aggressive form of secular tyranny. This article has shown that Storck’s extremely counter-intuitive explanation of why this is so does not stand up to scrutiny. Religious toleration can certainly follow a peoples’ descent into godless relativism, but as a structure it is no more inherently flawed than monarchy, aristocracy, republicanism or separation of power—all of which become tyrannical when a people no longer governs itself.
The answer to the HHS mandate, gay marriage and other threats to our religion is religious and virtuous people. Only a Christian society and culture can guarantee a Christian government, whether that government separates church and state or not. The evidence suggests that Locke’s attempt to deal with relations between temporal and spiritual authorities by fostering a Christian society works better than any of the other imperfect alternatives; but, in the end, it is still only as good as its citizens.
As we continue to preach “the Faith in its fullness,” we would do well to heed the wisdom of our ancestors and maintain the inheritance left us by the founders of our nation. They were imperfect, but they recognized the power the Gospel has when it is left free to operate according to the principles of God’s kingdom rather than man’s.
“When a religion founds its empire upon the desire of immortality, which lives in every human heart,” de Tocqueville observed, “it may aspire to universal domination: but when it connects itself with a government, it must necessarily adopt maxims which are applicable only to certain nations. Thus, in forming an alliance with a political power, religion augments its authority over a few, and forfeits the hope of reigning over all.”