In 1960, a group of young conservatives issued the so-called Sharon Statement. It began “In this time of moral and political crises, it is the responsibility of the youth of America to affirm certain eternal truths.” Foremost among the “transcendent values” it wished to affirm was the “individual’s use of his God-given free will,” which it deemed foundational to the “right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force.” The Sharon Statement became a kind of charter for the postwar conservative movement that culminated with the Reagan presidency.
More recently, in response to rising “authoritarianism” at “home and abroad” the Freedom Conservative Statement of Principles has sought to re-affirm the Sharon declaration “that individual liberty is essential to the moral and physical strength of the nation.” Unlike its predecessor, however, the Freedom Conservative statement does not speak of “eternal truths” or “transcendent values” or mention God as the source of those truths and values. Some might criticize the statement for a more secular orientation than its precursor, suggesting that it represents surrender in the struggle to uphold traditional American beliefs and institutions. But the Statement represents an important current of thinking, dating back to the Founding, that understands the danger that imposed religious orthodoxy presents to religious liberty.
That danger can be seen in the more religiously explicit statement recently issued by so-called National Conservatives. According to the statement, “No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition.” On the surface, this seems consistent with the Sharon Statement, as well as many other pronouncements by intellectuals, activists, and politicians.
The problem lies in the definition, not in the sentiment. What is meant by “authentic religious tradition”? Do the authors include Mormons—an important American religious community whose authenticity has been challenged for centuries? What about charismatic Christians, whose belief in continuing prophecy is regarded with suspicion by the traditional denominations? What about Islam, whose authenticity as a religious tradition is widely accepted, but which played little role in American society until recently?
Under a broad definition, then, the statement is plausible but anodyne. On a narrow one, it is contentious and risks excluding even active members of the conservative coalition, as well as relative newcomers to public discourse. The statement tries to clear things up by asserting that “the Bible should be read as the first among the sources of a shared Western civilization” and that “where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.” But this does not help very much. Which Biblical texts—and, for almost all Americans, which translation—should be read? What happens if Christians disagree about their moral vision and how to honor it?
Rather than a consequence of recent secularization, the difficulty—and danger— of trying to publicly determine what constitutes “authentic religious tradition” is an old problem. It recalls James Madison’s notes composed in preparation for his speech against Patrick Henry’s assessment bill, the defeat of which would set the stage for religious disestablishment in the state of Virginia.
Madison’s worry was that the bill, which provided public funds for teachers of the Christian religion, would force the judiciary to define what constitutes true Christianity. To answer that question a series of preliminary questions concerning Scripture would first have to be taken up...4. What edition: Hebrew, Septuagint, or Vulgate? What copy, what translation? 5. What books canonical, what apocryphal? …6. In what light are they to be viewed, as dictated [by] every letter by inspiration, or the essential parts only? Or the matter in general not the words? 7. What senses the true one for if some doctrines be essential to Xnty those who reject these, whatever name they take are no Xn society? 8. Is it Trinitarianism, Arianism, Socinianism?"
According to Madison, answering these questions would finally demand the court determines “what is orthodoxy, what heresy.” The conclusion that introducing this question into political life was fraught with risk was shared by several of America’s most prominent Founders.
This is not to deny that the Founder’s saw religion and the Bible as an important source of the virtues necessary to maintain our experiment in self-government. As George Washington famously noted in his Farewell Address, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Washington, however, also understood that when religious faith was transformed into religious zeal it was a threat to liberty. The kind of religion Washington thought an “indispensable source” of civic virtue can be glimpsed in his favorite biblical passage from the Book of Micah, employed in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport Rhode Island. Washington tells the congregation that the “enlarged and liberal policy” of the United States concerning religious freedom follows upon the fact that “it is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” The United States only requires “that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens...” All who so comport themselves, quoting the Book of Micah, “shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
The connection Washington draws between religious devotion and good citizenship was shared by Benjamin Franklin. In his Autobiography Franklin relates that after having absented himself from church services for some time he was convinced by Presbyterian minister Jedidiah Andrews to return. Franklin attended Andrews’s sermons on five consecutive Sundays and found them not only uninteresting but unedifying. Franklin complains as “Not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforced,” the sermons served only “to make men good Presbyterians not good citizens.”
Franklin later tells of the arrival from Ireland of Presbyterian minister Samuel Hemphill, who was very popular both among Presbyterians and people of “different persuasions.” Intrigued, Franklin comes out again on Sunday and pleasantly finds that where Andrews’s sermons were all doctrine and dogma, Hemphill touched on nothing besides morals. For this very reason Hemphill was brought by Andrews before the Philadelphia Synod for heterodoxy. Franklin lent Hemphill his pen, albeit unsuccessfully, publishing four separate pieces in his defense.
In April of 1735 Franklin published his first piece in defense of Hemphill, the “Dialogue between Two Presbyterians” in his Pennsylvania Gazette. The conversation begins with a chance meeting between T and S, with S asking why he hadn’t seen him in church lately. T explains his absence is due to Hemphill’s preaching which, he complains, “talks of nothing but the duties of morality.” S enquiringly responds didn’t morality constitute “the principal part” of the preaching of Christ and the Apostles. Even if that were so, T asks, “why does not Mr. H. preach up faith as well as Morality?” The reason, S answers, is that while the people of Philadelphia “abound in faith” they are “evidently deficient” in morality. The faith of Philadelphia’s Presbyterians is not much of an inducement to morality. Given “our late want of Charity to each other” and “notorious bickering,” S. asks, what harm is there in “being exhorted to good works?” His question implies that a fondness for has infected Presbyterianism with a persecuting spirit.
That such is the case is revealed by the fact that T is looking forward to being rid of Hemphill when the Commission of the Synod renders judgement on his sort of preaching. S hopes the Synod will not give in to the “few uneasy” people within the congregation who would, “persecute, silence and condemn a good preacher.” T’s frustrated response is that Presbyterian ministers who do not conform to the Westminster Confession ought to be “condemned and silenced by our church authority.” The Westminster Confession, S counters, in corrupting the “primitive Simplicity of the Gospel” with doctrinal additions to Christ’s moral teaching have unnecessarily introduced the idea of heresy into the Church. In his final exhortation S remarks that “Peace, Unity and Virtue in any Church are more to be guarded than Orthodoxy.” As only God knows what constitutes orthodoxy, “a virtuous heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian.”
Orthodoxy, Franklin’s dialogue teaches, in being elevated above morality unnecessarily divides Christians, inclines them to persecution, and undermines Christian charity. The orthodox idea that belief in a particular set of dogmas is incontrovertibly necessary to be saved, was regarded by other American founders as the seedbed of sectarianism and intolerance. As I have argued in Everyone Orthodox to Themselves: John Locke and his American Students on Religion and Liberal Society, they sought to reform religious opinion so that moral virtue would not be subverted by sectarian demands for doctrinal orthodoxy. Citizens would be free to believe what their consciences dictated, but those beliefs should not be the basis for participation in civil life.
Locke’s best-known effort in this regard is his Letter Concerning Toleration. While Locke begins by asserting that the “chief Characteristical Mark of the True Church” is toleration, we are later told the Letter is “not a proper place to enquire into the marks of the true Church.” The Letter, therefore, points to a theological argument it does not provide. That argument is found in The Reasonableness of Christianity, As Delivered in the Scriptures which argues that the name of Christian belongs to all who accept Christ as Messiah. Taking Christ as Messiah, as Franklin had argued in defense of Hemphill, only requires a sincere endeavor to live in accord with Christ’s moral teaching, repenting of one’s failures to do so. As to “believing right,” nothing is required but to “submit” our mind to what we judge God has deemed necessary for us to believe. The result being that “every particular man” will have a “distinct catalogue of fundamentals, each whereof it is necessary for him explicitly to believe…” In this way, Locke argues, “everyone is orthodox to themselves.”
Freedom of conscience is, therefore, inseparable from liberty of mind. The Freedom Conservative statement importantly emphasizes that such liberty is the “freedom to say and think what one believes to be true.” That understanding was particularly important to Thomas Jefferson. In January of 1813 Jefferson received a letter from one Regnault de Bécourt announcing his forthcoming book, La Création du Monde.Intrigued, Jefferson asked his Philadelphia book dealer, Nicolas Dufief, to purchase a copy. A few months later Jefferson received a panicked letter from Dufief saying that having procured the book on his behalf he is now being accused of being a peddler of blasphemy. Aware his letter will be presented to the Philadelphia authorities to clear Dufief’s name, Jefferson responds that he is “mortified” that purchasing a book is deemed “an offense against religion.” He then angrily asks, “Is this then our freedom of religion? And are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens?” Jefferson demands that would be censors be more forthcoming so that all can “ascertain the code of dogmas” which “should domineer over the opinions of all others.” All would then be aware that they aim to make “our boasted freedom of religion a thing of theory only and not of practice” to reduce all to a kind of “theoretic thralldom.”
The episode must have reminded Jefferson of James Madison’s insight that the rights of conscience needed more than protection at the federal level. The Freedom Conservative statement emphasizes that state governments also “have a legal obligation to uphold and protect” freedom of conscience. Madison had worried to Jefferson about the insecurity of rights at the state level after having sought but failed to secure a federal negative on state laws at the Constitutional Convention. In a letter following the Convention, Madison argued that without the veto the Constitution would be ineffective in "secur[ing] individuals against encroachments on their rights.” Those who might expect religion to serve as a restrain fail to see that when “kindled into enthusiasm” it has not stopped men from infringing upon the rights of others. In fact, “Even in its coolest state,” Madison warns, religion “has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it.” For this reason “parchment barriers” offered little protection to natural rights are “violated in every instance” when “opposed to a popular current.”
For Madison, what was required was the cultivation of the kind of theological humility on display in a short but revealing letter he wrote in reply to the Reverend Frederick Beasley in November of 1825. The letter illuminates what Madison thought are the limits to what can be known of God, and more importantly, the dangers of going beyond those limits. Beasley had sent Madison his pamphlet intended to counter the materialist and deist threats to the Christianity that he regarded as central to American civic life. Madison explains in reply that the limits of human understanding are especially discovered when men attempt to contemplate the infinite. Confounded by such notions, Madison explains, “the mind prefers at once the idea of a self-existing cause to that of an infinite series of causes & effects.” Faced with this difficulty the mind finds repose in “the self-existence of an invisible cause possessing infinite power, wisdom & goodness,” as opposed to “the self-existence of the universe, visibly destitute of those attributes.” Despite what the mind prefers, Madison concludes, “In this comparative facility of conception & belief, all philosophical Reasoning on the subject must perhaps terminate.” Men like Beasley must reconcile themselves to the limits of human understanding, as unless they do, there will be little end to religious intolerance, and with it threats to religious liberty.
Given renewed threats to our liberties by a rising tide of illiberalism and incivility, overtly Christian culture may appear to some as a much-needed remedy. But despite that attraction, the attempt to secure religious consensus is an expression of what James Madison referred to as the “ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.” This is most notable in calsl for the national government to “energetically” intervene at the state and local level where “immorality, and dissolution reign.” Putting aside the important, but unanswered, question as to who is to determine what constitutes immorality and dissolution, one wonders how it could be combatted without significant expansion of federal authority over the lives and minds of citizens. Freedom Conservatism’s understanding of freedom of conscience as the right to “say and think what one believes to be true,” is a stand in defense of what Madison call the most “sacred of all property” we possess - the free use of our mind, the choice of objects upon which to employ it, in our opinions, and the free communication of them.
John Colman is a professor of politics and director of the Honors Program at Ave Maria University.