The War over Liberal Democracy
The Catholic medieval project, for all its achievements, ultimately failed to uphold one of the most transformative ideas of the Jewish and Christian traditions: the freedom and dignity of every human soul.
[I]t will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with Religion has produced among its several sects. Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world in consequence of vain attempts of the secular arm to extinguish Religious discord by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease.
Here was Madison’s “true remedy” for sectarian strife: freedom of conscience in matters of faith. Civic peace and political prosperity could be achieved, he argued—but only if the political authority ensured “equal and complete liberty” for all religious groups.
Following Luther and Locke, Madison describes conscience as the sacred realm of belief involving “the duty which we owe our Creator... It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.” Our religious commitments, he explained, must be carried out through reason and conviction, not force or violence. “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”
The conservative critics of liberalism insist that its emphasis on freedom was intended to release individuals from their moral obligations to God and community. The Framers’ commitment to religious liberty, writes Ferrara in Liberty: The God that Failed, was “a massive bait-and-switch operation,” one that “requires not just the subordination of Christianity by the State but also the triumph of Liberty over Christianity as a competing creed.” The original and fundamental aim of liberalism, according to Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, was “achieving supreme and complete freedom” by disabusing individuals of any concern for the common good. The Founders’ hidden agenda, he writes, was to “inculcate civic indifference and privatism among the citizenry.” This would allow the State to consolidate its power and marginalize religion from public life.
These conspiratorial tropes, oddly reminiscent of Marxist narratives, have no basis in the historical record. Locke was not content with “narrow measures of bare justice” in the pluralistic society he advanced. “Charity, bounty, and liberality must be added to it,” he wrote in A Letter Concerning Toleration. “This the Gospel enjoins, this reason directs, and this that natural fellowship we are born into requires of us.” Madison explicitly insists upon freedom of conscience not merely as a right, but as a religious obligation: “what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator... This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” This is why the Founders, avid readers of Locke, considered religious freedom a natural right: a pre-political right, superior to the ordinary claims of government or civil society. “[F]reedom of conscience and freedom of choice are not the same; where conscience dictates, choice decides,” writes political scientist Michael Sandel. “Where freedom of conscience is at stake, the relevant right is to exercise a duty, not make a choice. This was the issue for Madison…”
This view of religious conscience was reflected not only in all of the original state constitutions, but also in the pulpit oratory of the period. “The members of a civil state do retain their natural liberty or right of judging for themselves in matters of religion,” proclaimed Yale minister Elisha Williams. “Every man has an equal right to follow the dictates of his own conscience in the affairs of religion.” The unconcealed objective of the Founders—consistent with the cultural assumptions of most Americans—was not to render religion impotent, but to protect its independence from government meddling. Their common aim was to increase religion’s moral influence in civic and political life.
Madison’s Memorial helped to defeat the religious assessment bill, clearing the way for Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, a defense of the rights of conscience that shaped the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Herein lies the singular insight of their civic vision: liberty of conscience as the first freedom in the constitutional order, an inalienable right intended to anchor the other civil liberties in the Bill of Rights. To achieve this, there could be no national religion, no attempt to create a unified religious community—in short, no revival of Christendom.
This, in the end, appears to be the principal cause of the conservative antagonism toward liberal democracy. “The American model is, in sum, terminally flawed,” writes Christopher Ferrara, “by failing to allow the Church to guide the temporal powers according to the majestic demands of the divine and natural laws.” Patrick Deneen complains that modern liberalism “generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.” He seems strangely unaware that this was precisely the situation in medieval Europe on the eve of the Reformation. This was the condition of European society that reformers such as Erasmus, Luther and Locke sought to change. As they experienced it firsthand, the bond between faith and virtue had been shattered.
Yet the defenders of the medieval order disavow these unpleasant realities. Laments Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: “The West has lost the golden thread that binds us to God, Creation, and each other.” The golden thread, if it ever existed, was lost long before the arrival of liberal democracy. The point must not be missed: outrage over what Christendom had become—over its betrayal of Christian ideals—sent successive generations on a quest for a more just society.
The Founders took note. In a letter to F.L. Schaeffer, dated 1821, Madison explained that the American model of religious liberty
illustrates the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations.
Hence the profound significance of the American experiment: by establishing the principles of freedom and justice for people of all faiths—in law and in culture—the United States has avoided the sectarian hatreds that drenched the European continent in blood.
These lessons were lost on the French revolutionaries, by contrast, who looked to the secular theorists of the radical enlightenment for guidance. “Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Social Contract. “Its spirit is so favorable to tyranny that it always profits by such a régime.” The Founders unanimously rejected that view. In their republic, faith and freedom were made allies from the start, and the result has been the most stable and religiously diverse society in the history of Western Civilization. Despite its many shortcomings, the United States has established an ethos of inclusion, equality and social justice that is the envy of the world.
The architects of this new liberal order knew what they were doing; they knew their history and understood their debt to an earlier generation of reformers. In this, they looked to Locke, not to Voltaire.
Ironically, in their religious critique of secular materialism, Deneen and company have imbibed a thoroughly secular narrative of the American Founding. They fail to grasp the fundamental divide between the French and American Revolutions—between the radical enlightenment of the former and the moderate enlightenment of the latter, tempered as it was by evangelical Christianity and Lockean liberalism. Locke’s vision of freedom drew its energy from the Bible’s emphasis on authentic faith, a legacy of the Christian humanism of Erasmus. For these reformers, the scandal of Christendom was its obsession with rituals and orthodoxy over genuine belief, expressing itself in charity and love. “Jesus Christ, bringing by revelation from heaven the true religion to mankind,” Locke wrote, “reunited these two again, religion and morality, as the inseparable parts of the worship of God, which ought never to have been separated.”
It is here where liberalism’s critics descend into a swamp of intellectual confusion. “There is nothing in the liberal system that requires you, or even encourages you, to also adopt a commitment to God, the Bible, family, or nation,” writes Yoram Hazony in First Things. “A main goal of Locke’s philosophy,” Deneen writes, “is to expand the prospects of our liberty—defined as the capacity to satisfy our appetites—through the auspices of state.” Nonsense. As we have seen, none of these thinkers who broke from the medieval worldview imagined freedom as an end in itself. From both their published writings and private correspondence, this theme emerges like the morning star: the supreme objective in securing political and religious liberty was not the acquisition of property or the pursuit of pleasure. It was to make possible the pursuit of truth and the cultivation of virtue, framed by the moral precepts of the Bible.
Nevertheless, the rich and complex relationship between Christianity, freedom and virtue in the liberal project—culminating in the American Founding—is largely ignored by the critics. They are correct, of course, in decrying the recent distortions of the concept of liberty that have unleashed a raft of social and cultural ills. Their critique of the unrestrained self that seeks political power to pursue selfish ends is sobering.