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
John 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.
To 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.
It 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.
I 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.
There 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 Arms, More Than a Touch of Malice, and The Church Flatulent.