JamesMadison.jpg

Religious Freedom, Limited Government, and Political Liberty

Do atheists and agnostics have a stake in religious liberty? At first glance, it is hard to see why. But I think otherwise, and I addressed this question (among others) in a public lecture entitled “Obamacare’s Assault on Religious Liberty,” now available on YouTube, that I delivered a month ago today at the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship established not long ago by Hillsdale College in Washington, DC:

Here I propose to return to one of my lecture’s themes – the connection between religious freedom, limited government, and political liberty. To begin to come to grips with what I have in mind, you need only consult and ruminate on the First Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I would submit that James Madison knew what he was doing when he linked in this document the three participial phrases that define its scope. I would submit that, while barring religious establishments and protecting the free exercise of religion are theoretically distinct, they tend in practice to be unsustainable where both are not in place. I would suggest that political liberty tends to be meaningless where freedom of speech and of the press and the right peaceably to assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances is not guaranteed. And I would argue that only where there is disestablishment and a free exercise of religion can one hope in the long run to have these political rights safeguarded. In other words, it is not an accident that JohnLocke2.jpgJohn Locke, the Englishman who penned the Letter Concerning Toleration, was the man who, in his guise as a civil servant under William III, was responsible for England’s quiet abandonment of the licensing of the press. In modern times, intellectual freedom, political freedom, and religious liberty have always been inseparable.

There is another, perhaps a better, way to make the same point. Limited government is a modern phenomenon. It was crafted in the late-seventeenth century to solve an otherwise apparently insuperable problem: the catastrophic political consequences of the fact – as visible in late antiquity (especially in the Christian East) as it would be in the Christian West during and after the Reformation – that the Christian faith tends to give rise to doctrinal disputes and sectarian divisions. Only if these can somehow be quarantined, John Locke and others thought, only if doctrinal disputes can be kept out of the political arena, only if political authority can be made neutral with regard to sectarian divisions, can there be domestic tranquility within Christendom.

GeorgeMason.jpgTo this end, Locke proposed that government be reconceived, that it be re-founded on the basis of an imaginary social contract, that it be limited to the protection of the rights accorded human beings by nature, to the rights that no one in his right mind would even think of alienating – first and foremost, the right to life, liberty, and property – which is the formulation that you will find echoed in the declarations of rights that George Mason wrote for the Virginia Constitution and that John Adams penned for the Massachusetts Constitution, which is the formulation that Thomas Jefferson rephrased when he spoke of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in 1776 in the American Declaration of Independence.

ThomasJefferson1.jpgIt is not fortuitous that this same Thomas Jefferson asserted the existence of religious liberty as a natural right in his Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty. Nor should it seem odd that James Madison defended it in precisely those terms in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. When he substituted pursuit of happiness for John Locke’s property, Jefferson did not mean to deny that we have a natural right to the fruits of our own labor. Nor did he mean to make property rights dependent on positive law (as some suppose). In the Revisal of the Laws of the State of Virginia that he penned in 1779, he restates John Locke’s trilogy – life, liberty, and property – verbatim. When he substituted pursuit of happiness for property Jefferson had in mind something more extensive than property – something for which the acquisition of property might be a means, something that included religious faith. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as Jefferson well knew, the free exercise of religion is part and parcel of the pursuit of happiness. It is how happiness is most effectually to be pursued.

BarackObama1.jpgI belabor this point for a reason. I belabor it because I believe that, when Barack Obama stated in 2008 that he wanted to “fundamentally change” the United States and when he called his administration The New Foundation, he meant precisely what he said. He meant to reverse what Locke and the American Founders had achieved. He intended to establish in this country a political regime unlimited in its scope and power. That is the meaning of the Hosanna-Tabor Case pursued by Attorney General Erich Holder, and it is the meaning of the individual mandate. It has rightly been said that Obamacare changes the relationship between the citizen and the government radically. The HHS Mandate has made that fact manifest, and I have made it clear in earlier posts, linked below, that I hope that its issuance serves as a warning to the American Catholic Church.

I say this because that Church has contributed mightily to placing in the hands of Barack Obama the power he is now wielding against the Catholic Church in the United States. For decades now the American Church has been allied with the Left in domestic affairs – pressing with vigor for ever-more extensive and ever-more expensive social programs. For decades the American Church has been pushing for one form or another of universal healthcare, demanding as its first priority that the federal government enact a health care policy that “ensures access to quality, affordable, life giving health care for all.” In the process, the American bishops asserted on 27 January 2010 that “health care is a basic human right” and claimed that “there are nearly 50 million Americans who do not have access to health care.”

Leave aside the fact that the numbers the bishops provided on this occasion were grotesquely inflated. Their propensity to descend into demagogy is by no means the worst of it. The real problem lies with their theoretical claim concerning the extent of “basic human rights” conceived of as legitimate claims on the political community and with the larger implications of such claims.

I would submit that one cannot make good on such claims without concentrating tyrannical power in the hands of the government. I would submit that the social teaching of the Catholic Church, as it has been applied in the United States by the American Catholic Bishops, is inconsistent with the principles of limited government and that in rejecting the principles of limited government the American Catholic Church has rejected the foundations of religious liberty. The bishops have been hoist with their own petard. They contributed mightily to fashioning the weapon now being wielded against them.

Let me be more precise. Consider the Declaration of Independence and the inalienable natural rights mentioned therein. Consider the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and its defense of religious liberty as a natural right. The rights specified in these two documents – both drafted by the same man – have this in common: They are negative rights. In each case, it is the task of government to defend us against those who would interfere with our exercise of those rights – who would deprive us of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as we conceive of that happiness (which is where both the acquisition and preservation of property and religious liberty come into it). We are to be constrained by this government only to the extent that we deprive our fellow citizens of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and it is our duty to cooperate with this government in protecting those rights. That is what constitutes justice under a limited government.

FranklinDelanoRoosevelt.jpgThere is another conception of rights. It asserts that it is the responsibility of government to guarantee to all Americans a set of positive rights – rights that it will exercise on their behalf. On 11 January 1944, in his State of the Union message, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delineated what he called an “economic bill of rights.” Here is what he said:

We cannot be content, no matter how high [our] general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth- is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. . . .

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

Here is the problem. Accepting this “economic bill of rights” requires a massive shift of responsibility from the individual, the family, and the local community to the central government.  No government can “assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” To do so it would have to systematically discriminate against those with natural talents. To do so, it would have to provide compensation to those whose parents have been irresponsible in their rearing. Any government that tries to assure for its citizens equality in the pursuit of happiness will quickly become unlimited in scope and power. In rewriting the Declaration of Independence — merely by adding a single word — Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned it upside down and inside out.

Under the old dispensation, it was the responsibility of the individual citizens to provide for themselves – to find jobs; to negotiate adequate salaries; to find markets for what they produce, to locate niches where their work will be rewarded; to find decent housing and pay for it; to arrange for medical care; to lay money aside for old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; and to seek an education suited to their abilities and their needs – and this they did with the help of their families, their friends, and their local communities.

Under the new dispensation, this was to be the job of the federal government – and to fulfill this responsibility that government was to take from those inclined to provide for themselves in order to provide for those not so inclined. It is no accident that, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke favorably of “certain inalienable political rights,” he left property off the list. Nowhere does he assert that a man has a right to the fruits of his own labors. He wants to confer on others a right to the fruits of our labor.

Herein lies an insuperable problem. In the absence of secure property rights, none of the other natural rights mentioned in the Virginia and Massachusetts Declarations of Rights, in the Declaration of Independence, and in the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and none of our “inalienable political rights” can be secure – for property is power. It is by means of the fruits of our labor that we exercise our right to life and liberty. It is by this means that we provide for our livelihood and secure our freedom from domination. It is, moreover, by means of the property we have earned that we are able to pursue happiness insofar as it can be pursued in this world. A government that provides jobs; specifies salaries; guarantees markets; provides niches wherein one can work; guarantees housing; arranges for medical care; provides for our old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; and pays for our education cannot but be a government in control of every aspect of our lives. Such a government will be sorely tempted to decide how long we shall live and when we shall die. Such a government will be sorely tempted to commandeer our lives and subject us to its regimen. Such a government will be sorely tempted to define for us how we are to pursue happiness – and woe be it unto any secular organization, synagogue, temple, or church that stands in its way!

When the bishops of the American Catholic Church embraced FDR’s “economic bill of rights,” as they did long ago, when they demanded that the government “ensure access to quality, affordable, life giving health care for all,” they put the Church’s welfare, its liberties, and ours in the hands of men who will be and are sorely tempted to do it and us harm.

In 1936, at the Democratic National Convention, as I have often pointed out, Franklin Delano Roosevelt charged that American liberty was in danger – that “a small group” of “economic royalists” was intent on concentrating “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.” What he said was a demagogic lie. No such concentration had taken place, and none was in prospect.

But today something of the sort is really true. As the American Catholic bishops are in the process of learning the hard way, “a small group” of technocratic royalists is now not only intent on concentrating “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.” Thanks in part to the concentration of power fostered by those same bishops, this small group of technocratic royalists has largely achieved this end.

If you find this post of interest, you may also wish to consult its predecessors: American Catholicism’s Pact With the Devil, American Catholicism: A Call to ArmsMore Than a Touch of Malice, and The Church Flatulent.

  1. tabula rasa

    Neither Theodore Dalrymple nor Melanie Phillips claim to be people of faith, but you’re unlikely to find two people who will defend religion or Judeo-Christian civilization than them. 

    Here’s a good quote from Dalrymple:

    “The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.”

    It’s not specifically a defense of religious liberty, but the inference is there.

  2. Peter Robinson
    C

    “I would submit that one cannot make good on such claims without concentrating tyrannical power in the hands of the government. I would submit that the social teaching of the Catholic Church, as it has been applied in the United States by the American Catholic Bishops, is inconsistent with the principles of limited government and that in rejecting the principles of limited government the American Catholic Church has rejected the foundations of religious liberty. The bishops have been hoist with their own petard.”

    Oh, but this is beautiful–beautiful because compellingly-written, deeply-felt…and true.

    Now, how do we get the bishops to read it?

  3. Republic of Texas

    As an atheist who sends my boy to a Catholic grade school (because the school reflect my underlying values while the public schools do not) I certainly can claim a personal stake in religous liberty.  But my macro concern is that religious liberty is at the same risk as other fundamental liberties.  We must protect ALL fundamental liberties from government encroachment, or we will find that we cannot protect liberty at all.

  4. Michael Hanby

    Professor Rahe,

    You have given us much to digest and not a little to dispute, not least the idea that ‘limited government’, whatever its virtues, is the ‘foundation of religious liberty’–at least as Dignitatis Humanae understands it.  Since I have only 2oo words with which to disagree, let me simply suggest that there is a tragic irony in the primacy accorded by classical liberals to ’negative rights’ for the very reasons you suggest:   ” it is the task of government to defend us against those who would interfere with our exercise of those rights…”  This effectively makes the state the mediator of all relationships in civil society insofar as they potentially threaten that exercise, and so it increases rather than decreases the scope of state power. 

    Obviously much more must be said to make good on this, but if it’s true, then the contemporary trend toward absolutism isn’t simply the result of a fall from a ‘golden age’ or even the nefarious Obama, but belongs to the DNA of classical liberalism.  It is rather that great deeds, as Nietzsche says, take time.

    We desperately need a much more rigorous discussion of religious liberty.  Thank you for initiating one.

  5. Bryan G. Stephens

    I agree that people are ready to listen. God put in us the need for limits, for structure for our spirit.

  6. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Michael Hanby:

    You have given us much to digest and not a little to dispute, not least the idea that ‘limited government’, whatever its virtues, is the ‘foundation of religious liberty’–at least asDignitatis Humanaeunderstands it.   , , , let me simply suggest that there is a tragic irony in the primacy accorded by classical liberals to ’negative rights’ for the very reasons you suggest:   ” it is the task of government to defend us against those who would interfere with our exercise of those rights…”  This effectively makes the state the mediator of all relationships in civil society insofar as they potentially threaten that exercise, and so it increasesrather than decreases the scope of state power. 

    . . . if it’s true, then the contemporary trend toward absolutism isn’t simply the result of a fall from a ‘golden age’ or even the nefarious Obama, but belongs to the DNA of classical liberalism.  It is rather that great deeds, as Nietzsche says, take time.

    We desperately need a much more rigorous discussion of religious liberty.  Thank you for initiating one. · 1 hour ago

    You should write a post on this so that we can see the whole argument.

  7. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Republic of Texas: As an atheist who sends my boy to a Catholic grade school (because the school reflect my underlying values while the public schools do not) I certainly can claim a personal stake in religous liberty.  But my macro concern is that religious liberty is at the same risk as other fundamental liberties.  We must protect ALL fundamental liberties from government encroachment, or we will find that we cannot protect liberty at all. · 2 hours ago

    I agree wholeheartedly. Part of my point is that the churchmen do not understand the relationship between protecting religious rights and protecting property rights. I am of the view that libertarians and social conservatives have a lot to teach one another.

  8. Aaron Miller
    Paul A. Rahe:

    To begin to come to grips with what I have in mind, you need only consult and ruminate on the First Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    I would submit that James Madison knew what he was doing when he linked in this document the three participial phrases that define its scope.

    Of course, you are correct.

    Yet, in every government course I ever took in public schools or college, these were discussed as if they were completely separate Amendments. No relation between them. And my schools were rated among the best in the nation.

    That’s what we are up against.

  9. r r

    It’s a good thing Jews, Muslims and Evangelicals were so busy defending limited government since FDR or this country would really be up a creek wouldn’t we…..

    Peter Robinson: Oh, but this is beautiful–beautiful because compellingly-written, deeply-felt…and true.

    Really?  You really think this was a beautiful bit of prose, Peter?  I know Prof. Rahe really enjoys the irony of the situation… “ha ha!  The Church is receiving her just deserts for years of Catholic liberals supporting liberal policy.  Isn’t this just soooo ironic.” 

    To me it comes off more like a college freshman sitting in his dorm room watching the Daily Show – whose only delight is irony, who likes to jab his finger in the Church’s eye and who fails to grasp the fact that the Catholic Church, who has been the last bastion against the progressive onslaught on issues like abortion, euthanasia and protecting the family, is now the last bastion for religious liberty as well.

  10. r r

    If irony be our delight, perhaps we can take delight in the fact that if religious liberty is to be maintained in the US, it will be the Catholic Church that will protect it. 

    If the Church fails or is defeated in this battle then religious liberty will be forever compromised in our nation.

    There’s a fight going on here and if you be a person who values religious liberty, you had better get on the side of the Catholic Church.  Even though we all love irony because it proves how smart, hip, and cool we are, we had better get on the side of the Church.

    Or maybe we could have a 54th post on just how many Catholics voted democrat since the 60′s.  That would be totally boss, man.

  11. Michael Hanby
    Paul A. Rahe

     

    You should write a post on this so that we can see the whole argument. · 14 hours ago

    It will take some time that I do not have at the moment to do this with the thoughtfulness and care that your original post merits.  Plus I want to read and think about your post more carefully.  I’ll try to get to it in the next week or so…if I can figure out how to post a free-standing post.  Please be patient. 

  12. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    James Gawron: (cont. from #11)

    My pure intuition is to find the solution by reversing this century long process through a counter attack. First, by using the Exercise Clause to directly smash the abuses of power such as the HSS policy. It is the only way to directly challenge the power of Establishment.

    Second, by reasserting the Kantian Deontological Ethical perspective which forces the most abstract intellectual mind to admit of the need of Gd & Freedom & Soul if morality is to exist at all. This would reverse the poisonous effects of a century of agnosticism and retake the cultural heights.

    Third, I would use the Monotheistic substructure of the Declaration to justify viewing the American Constitution itself and thus the American Government itself as supporting a Generic Monotheism. This would make America’s religious character more than just a tradition but a fundamental of Constitutional Law. Stated another way total victory.

    All of this would seem much more possible with a clear decisive win in the November 2012 election. In all honesty, sometimes there is no substitute for Victory! · 10 hours ago

    I agree.

  13. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Michael Hanby

    Paul A. Rahe

     

    You should write a post on this so that we can see the whole argument. · 14 hours ago

    It will take some time that I do not have at the moment to do this with the thoughtfulness and care that your original post merits.  Plus I want to read and think about your post more carefully.  I’ll try to get to it in the next week or so…if I can figure out how to post a free-standing post.  Please be patient.  · 6 minutes ago

    Take your time. These subjects are evergreen.

  14. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Samwise Gamgee, I have often noticed that when religion comes up, people tend to be so partisan and to get so angry that they refuse to think. The point of my post was not to savor the irony. There is nothing to savor. It was to instruct Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and unbelievers with regard to the foundations of limited government and the role played within that scheme by religious liberty and property rights. Nonbelievers and some believers need instruction with regard to the central importance of religious liberty. Roman Catholics — the American bishops above all — need instruction with regard to the central importance of property rights. If they want to defend religious liberty, they will have to embrace limited government in all of its ramifications. It is high time that they did some serious thinking. One can support the Church and rue the folly of the churchmen. Indeed, these days, in my opinion, one cannot support the Church effectively without publicly ruing their foolishness. Samwise, it is time to get your head out the sand.

  15. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Samwise Gamgee:

    To me it comes off more like a college freshman sitting in his dorm room watching the Daily Show – whose only delight is irony, who likes to jab his finger in the Church’s eye and who fails to grasp the fact that the Catholic Church, who has been the last bastion against the progressive onslaught on issues like abortion, euthanasia and protecting the family, is now the last bastion for religious liberty as well. · 2 hours ago

    Edited 2 hours ago

    If, Samwise, you mean that Pope Paul VI took a firm stand with Humanae Vitae, you are right. If you mean that he and his successors have spelled out with clarity the teaching of the Church with regard to abortion, euthanasia, and the centrality of the family, you are also correct. I never — in any of my posts — suggested the contrary. My quarrel has been with clergymen and nuns in the United States who have soft-pedaled these questions for forty years when they have not been utterly silent and who have passionately, fiercely embraced the administrative entitlements state at the same time. I do not savor the irony. I condemn their conduct. So should you.

  16. Aaron Miller
    Paul A. Rahe

    I do not savor the irony. I condemn their conduct. So should you.

    Paul, I think this…

    Paul A. Rahe:

    If you find this post of interest, you may also wish to consult its predecessors: American Catholicism’s Pact With the Devil, American Catholicism: A Call to Arms,  More Than a Touch of Malice, and The Church Flatulent.

    … is Sam’s point.

  17. Donald Todd

    Thank you Dr Rahe.

    Now if my local priests stand up and are counted…

  18. Guruforhire

    I am always struck at the lack of coherent logical distinction between a theological doctrine and a moral doctrine.  When one seperates the state from the church, you seperate a theological doctrine from the state.  There is no rational case that people cannot vote based upon moral doctrine that may be religiously inspired.  When one makes the case that a religiously inspired moral doctrine is ill legitimate you engage in a kind of ad hominem arguement; loosely paraphrased, “your arguement is invalid because you are religious.”

    Nowhere does god say who and what a person is.  It is not in my bible.  to say that a fetus is a person is not a theological point, I would dare say it is not even a moral point it is a metaphysical point which is broadly held by religious people.  The theological point is that either the boyfriend of doctor would pay the father of the young lady in question a fine.

    I think that a rigorous assault on the broadly held sloppy reasoning to rationalize away and delegitimze disagreements is (one of) the necessity(s) of the day.

  19. James Gawron

    Dr. Rahe,

    You are correct about the linkage of the rights in the first amendment.  Madison knew what he was doing certainly.  However, I must take you to the point in History where things went majorly wrong.

    At the turn of the 20th century, by employing the Establishment Clause as a battering ram the left began it’s full assault on Religious Faith.  Bolstered by the new wave of agnosticism at the intellectual summit, the positivists and existentialists, with their social agnostic operatives Freud & Jung, the left was now free to destroy America’s Moral Compass.  Employing it’s favorite political tactic of first raising false ecnomic expectations then profiting by the resulting chaos, the left has taken us through the ringer of Wilson, Roosevelt-Truman, Kennedy-Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and now Obama.  A second term of Obama may be more than America can survive. (cont.)

  20. James Gawron

    (cont. from #11)

    My pure intuition is to find the solution by reversing this century long process through a counter attack. First, by using the Exercise Clause to directly smash the abuses of power such as the HSS policy. It is the only way to directly challenge the power of Establishment.

    Second, by reasserting the Kantian Deontological Ethical perspective which forces the most abstract intellectual mind to admit of the need of Gd & Freedom & Soul if morality is to exist at all. This would reverse the poisonous effects of a century of agnosticism and retake the cultural heights.

    Third, I would use the Monotheistic substructure of the Declaration to justify viewing the American Constitution itself and thus the American Government itself as supporting a Generic Monotheism. This would make America’s religious character more than just a tradition but a fundamental of Constitutional Law. Stated another way total victory.

    All of this would seem much more possible with a clear decisive win in the November 2012 election. In all honesty, sometimes there is no substitute for Victory!

Want to comment on stories like these? Become a member today!

You'll have access to:

  • All Ricochet articles, posts and podcasts.
  • The conversation amongst our members.
  • The opportunity share your Ricochet experiences.

Join Today!

Already a Member? Sign In