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January/February 2012

Discover more articles from this issue.

Say Nothing

The result of your fifty or sixty years of religious reading in the four words "Be just and good" is that in which all our inquiries must end. . . . My...

Faith in Works

Faith in Works

Religion and the Schools

In its 1952 Zorach v. Clauson ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said it is constitutionally permissible for public school children to participate in...

The Third Party Interest

With the rhetoric and rancor rising in the campaign for the White House, the election has increasingly become a call to the faithful, with candidates...

Freedom With a Catch

It has long been a societal proposition that public education is designed to provide peoples of all socioeconomic, racial, and religious backgrounds with...

Reflections on the First Freedom

You don't have to believe in American "exceptionalism" to recognize that in the way it handles church-state matters the United States of America has made a...

Liberty for All

The United States, a demographically Christian nation, grants non-Christians the right to worship as they please. Religious conservatives, who often assert...

Promises Kept

Early in 2011 Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that a reelected Conservative government would create an Office of Religious Freedom to ensure that...

A Duty to Defend

A key priority for our government [is] establishing an Office of Religious Freedom. We announced our intention to do so in the Speech from the Throne on...

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Published in the January/February 2012 Magazine
by John Rowe

The United States, a demographically Christian nation, grants non-Christians the right to worship as they please. Religious conservatives, who often assert that the United States is a "Christian" nation in a public-governmental sense, increasingly have begun to connect this highly questionable claim with the norm of religious tolerance that prevails in "Christian" nations. They argue that it is precisely because America is a "Christian nation" that non-Christians have the right to freely worship. As one conservative Christian author (John Chalfant, Christian Revival in U.S.—Can It Really Happen?" World Net Daily.com, Sept. 28, 2004) recently put it: "Every citizen who is a beneficiary of America's freedoms, especially the freedom to worship as he or she pleases, or not to worship at all, has a duty to defend the Judeo-Christian pillars and laws of our nation that make such freedom possible."

Protestant Origins of Religious Liberty
In truth, religious liberty does indeed have a Christian (Protestant) origin that in fact predates the Enlightenment. The irony is that the Religious Right, in positing the notion of a "Christian" nation, stands in stark contrast with the Christian tradition that was essential to securing religious liberty and separating church and state in America. It was only by rejecting that civil governments are properly "founded" as publicly "Christian" entities that Protestants in early America were able to conclude that non-Christians ought to be free to worship.

Protestants differed as to whether the Bible demanded religious toleration. Two distinct traditions emerged in Protestantism: The first, what I call the "Christian state" tradition, afforded virtually no protection to religious minorities. The "Christian state" tradition was composed primarily of the dominant sects—i.e., the ones in power. It was from reflecting on the experience of persecution that dissident Protestants formulated the notion that church and state should be separated and that people should be permitted to worship according to the dictates of individual conscience.

The "Christian State" Tradition
The early Protestants, like their Catholic predecessors, saw virtually no distinction between church and state. Although the first Protestants were persecuted by the Roman Church, when such Protestants became dominant in a nation state, they tended to be as intolerant as their Catholic predecessors. Indeed John Calvin, while a governor of Geneva, erected an ideal "Christian state" and went so far as to have one of his anti-Trinitarian critics put to death. In America the Puritans, led by John Winthrop, founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be a "New Israel," a perfect "Christian commonwealth" founded upon a covenant with God, in which biblical law, in its practical entirety, was incorporated into the civil law. Anne Hutchinson and others were prosecuted under this model.

The problem with this tradition wasn't so much its biblical inauthenticity—remember that Calvin and Winthrop knew the Bible as well as anybody—but rather the religious persecution that was its practical result. History teaches that if government is in the business of deciding what is religiously proper, dissenting individuals and competing sects invariably suffer for bucking dominant religious opinion. Indeed, the cases of Michael Servetus, the Unitarian whom Calvin had put to death, and the Baptists in America, who had to deal with "mobs, arrests, bonds, fines, and the whipping posts," attest to this.

The Dissident Protestant Tradition of Religious Liberty
It was out of this atmosphere of religious persecution that Roger Williams, himself an evangelical Christian, began to question the notion of a "Christian Commonwealth." Williams was one of the first Protestants to make the case for an essentially secular civil government. In 1644 Williams wrote that "all civil states with their officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations, are . . . essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual, or Christian, state and worship." The "permission" to worship rightly belonged not only to Christians, but also to "the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian consciences." Williams thought blasphemous the notion that any government—an institution comprised of fallen human beings—was "Christian". Indeed, Williams held that "no civil state or country can be truly called Christian, although true Christians be in it."

Moreover, Williams believed that the characteristics that make for effective public rulers are as likely to be found among non-Christians as Christians. He analogized the task of a civil magistrate to that of a captain, merchant, physician, or lawyer. Using a pilot of a ship as metaphor for a civil ruler, Williams stated that "a pagan or anti-Christian pilot may be as skillful to carry the ship to its desired port as any Christian mariner or pilot in the world, and may perform that work with as much safety and speed."

Williams, as a believer, claimed that the Bible vindicated his theory of secular government. Yet, the Bible-believing Puritans whose views Williams challenged didn't accept his understanding of the Scriptures. Indeed, Williams was banished from Puritan Massachusetts to Rhode Island, where he made his vision of religious liberty a reality.

Although Williams' influence on our framers is debatable, he founded a tradition of Protestant dissent in America that indeed was politically necessary in securing religious liberty and disestablishing religion first at the federal level, and then subsequently in each of the states.

The Enlightenment Case for Religious Liberty
The Enlightenment philosophers—most notably John Locke, who wrote his plea for religious liberty, A Letter Concerning Toleration, in 1689—transformed the Protestant concern for being able to worship according to the dictates of conscience into an "unalienable right." And it was Locke, not Roger Williams, who exerted the greatest influence on such founders as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Madison perfectly captured such Lockean sentiment when he wrote: "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. This right is in its nature an unalienable right."

Locke, and our founders following him, tied rights, ultimately, to God. Religious conservatives take this as evidence of a connection between our public rights and Judeo-Christian theology. There are a number of problems with this supposition. First, the liberal concept of "rights" was not a traditional Judeo-Christian concept. The common secular notion that God grants man unalienable natural rights is nowhere to be found within the Bible. Such a novel "truth" was "discovered" using wholly unassisted reason. As in Allan Bloom and Saul Bellow's best seller The Closing of the American Mind:, "The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights . . . is an invention of [Enlightenment] philosophy. Rights . . . are new in modernity, not a part of the commonsense language of politics or of classical political philosophy. Hobbes initiated the notion of rights, and it was given its greatest respectability by Locke."

More important, it is doubtful that the rights-granting God of whom the philosophers spoke was the biblical God, but rather a deistic, unorthodox God of nature. Take, for instance, the Declaration of Independence, which asserts that "nature's God" grants man "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In his book Making Patriots, Walter Berns, a social conservative whose scholarly credentials are beyond reproach, writes: "The God invoked there is 'nature's God,' not, or arguably not, the God of the Bible, not the God whom, today, 43 percent of Americans . . . claim regularly to worship on the Sabbath. Nature's God issues no commands. No one can fall from his grace, and, therefore, no one has reason to pray to him asking for his forgiveness. He makes no promises. On the contrary, he endowed us with 'certain inalienable rights,' then left us alone, and with the knowledge, or at least the confidence, that he will never interfere in our affairs. Moreover, he is not a jealous God; he allows us—in fact, he endows us with the right—to worship other gods or even no god at all."

Now, plenty of orthodox Christians populated America at the time of the founding, most of whom probably, like the evangelicals of today, supported the Declaration of Independence. And it is doubtful that they paid obeisance to what they thought was some nonbiblical God. As Berns writes: "Unlike Jefferson, Madison, and others, the majority of ordinary Americans at the time . . . probably . . . [took] it for granted that nature's God, who endowed them with unalienable rights, including liberty of conscience, was the providential God of the Bible. However wrong as a matter of doctrine—where does the Bible speak of unalienable or natural rights, or of the liberty to worship or not to worship as one pleases?—this made good political sense in America."

Freedom to Worship, the Ten Commandments, and Public Law
When our nation was founded as a liberal democracy, political necessity demanded that the majority of Americans, many of whom were orthodox Christians, accept that God grants individuals natural rights. And one reasonably could (and many did) make the case that Christianity, properly understood, is compatible with liberal rights theory. Certainly Roger Williams' understanding of Christianity could accept that the Christian God grants men an unalienable right to "worship other gods or even no god at all." So it should come as no surprise that dissident Protestants and Enlightenment rationalists acted together to disestablish religion and guarantee religious liberty in this nation.

However, the notion that civil governments are properly "founded" as "Christian" in a public sense conflicts with the doctrine of a God who grants non-Christians religious rights. Many American colonies, notably Winthrop's Puritan Massachusetts, were founded as "Christian states," incorporating biblical law, in its practical entirety, into the civil law. Indeed, David Barton, a favored scholar of many religious conservatives, in an affidavit submitted to a United States district court supporting the public display of the Ten Commandments, proudly proffered examples of such colonial civil ordinances based on the First Commandment and other parts of the Bible that prescribed the death penalty for openly worshipping "any other god but the Lord God."

In his document, Barton asserts that "the Ten Commandments . . . dramatically impacted American law and culture with a force similar only to that of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights." Curiously he notes that: "critics often point to the Rhode Island Colony under Roger Williams and its lack of civil laws on the first four commandments to 'prove' that American society was traditionally governed without the first 'tablet.' However, they fail to mention that the Rhode Island Colony was the only one of the 13 colonies that did not have civil laws derived from the first four divine laws—the so-called first 'tablet.' Significantly, every other early American colony incorporated the entire Decalogue into its own civil code of laws."

Barton apparently doesn't recognize the glaring inconsistency in embracing the Declaration of Independence and believing that the Ten Commandments are rightly incorporated into the civil law. For instance, Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, held that "nature's God" grants men the right to worship no God or 20 gods. Yet, the "jealous" biblical God, in His first commandment, expressly forbids the worship of false gods. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, God commands that those who urge others to worship "false gods" be stoned to death.

Here is a conundrum: if God grants us the right to worship no God or 20 gods, then the first four commandments, as well as many other parts of Scripture, can have nothing to do with our public laws. Moreover, if Jefferson's nature's God and the biblical God are one and the same, then God grants men an unalienable right to do what He expressly forbids in the Bible. And if this notion is applied to other areas of social life (for instance, extra­marital affairs, homosexual relations, or premarital sex), it could radically redefine how religious conservatives view what ought to be acceptable social policy.

I suppose that some religious conservatives, aware of this potential inconsistency, will simply deny that non-Christian worshippers have any constitutional religious rights (a fairly extreme position, for all but the Christian reconstructionists). But if that's the case, then what of the claim that it is because rights come from the biblical God that non-Christians have a right to worship in this nation? Figures such as D. James Kennedy, Roy Moore, and Jerry Falwell have advanced this claim while simultaneously asserting that the Ten Commandments are the basis of our public laws.

Now, religious conservatives may counter that Barton's views do not represent theirs. However, mainstream Religious Right organizations, such as James Dobson's Focus on the Family, D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, Pat Robertson's "700 Club", and others have all endorsed Barton's work. Even the Republican National Committee, under the Bush administration, employed Barton's services as a political consultant.

Barton's scary affidavit demonstrates, at the very least, that one cannot seriously believe both that the entire Decalogue serves as the basis of our civil laws and that non-Christians ought to be able to worship according to the dictates of conscience. Christians must choose one or the other of those visions of government. When some in the Religious Right thunder that they must "reclaim America" and return America's government back to its wholly "Judeo-Christian foundation," they sound much like John Winthrop. One wishes that they would operate in that "other" Christian tradition (Roger Williams'), the one that helped deliver true liberty to the United States.

John Rowe, with degrees in law and business, teaches at Philadelphia University.

Author: John Rowe

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