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My colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Walter Berns, has written that the philosophy of John Locke was decisive in the American founding. According to Berns, Locke’s disguised but unmistakable aims were to break with the traditional Christian understanding of nature and to drive religion out of politics by confining it to the private sphere. Professor Berns invokes Jean-Jacques Rousseau to set the horizon and framework of this interpretation, and thus makes the European Enlightenment a hermeneutical key to the American founding. In doing so, he neglects the testimony of John Adams, Benjamin Rush, Alexander Hamilton, John Dickinson, and others of the founders, whose views on the source of natural rights are far more religious than those of Locke (narrowly interpreted). In addition, Berns largely ignores the practice of the founding generation, which accommodated a far more public role for the free exercise of religion than the American Civil Liberties Union now tolerates.

Nonetheless, the Berns thesis does throw some doubt upon the generous and affectionate thesis about the American founding propounded by the genial Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, one of the thinkers who prepared the way for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If Berns is right, Maritain cannot be. And vice versa. 

In a series of books, Maritain argued that modern democracy of the American type cannot be understood apart from the inspiration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which works in secular history as yeast in dough. In Man and the State, for example, Maritain introduced his thesis in these terms:

Far beyond the influences received either from Locke or the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the Constitution of this country is deep-rooted in the age-old heritage of Christian thought and civilization . . . . This Constitution can be described as an outstanding lay Christian document tinged with the philosophy of the day. The spirit and inspiration of this great political Christian document is basically repugnant to the idea of making human society stand aloof from God and from any religious faith. Thanksgiving and public prayer, the invocation of the name of God at the occasion of any major official gathering, are, in the practical behavior of the nation, a token of this very same spirit and inspiration.

Later, in Reflections on America, Maritain wrote: “The Founding Fathers were neither metaphysicians nor theologians, but their philosophy of life, and their political philosophy, their notion of natural law and of human rights, were permeated with concepts worked out by Christian reason and backed up by an unshakeable religious feeling.”

Coming from radically secular France, where the revolutionaries of 1789 seized, profaned, and closed Christian institutions throughout the republic in the name of “natural rights,” Maritain fears that Americans will not hold fast to their own originality:

Let me say, as the testimony of one who loves this country, that a European who comes to America is struck by the fact that the expression “separation between church and state,” which is in itself a misleading expression, does not have the same meaning here and in Europe. In Europe it means, or it meant, that complete isolation which derives from century-old misunderstandings and struggles, and which has produced most unfortunate results. Here it means, as a matter of fact, together with a refusal to grant any privilege to one religious denomination in preference to others and to have a state-established religion, a distinction between the state and the churches which is compatible with good feeling and mutual cooperation.

This difference between France and America stimulated Maritain’s philosophical reflections. Yet Maritain seldom cites a particular text of the founding period, such as the Declaration, the Constitution, The Federalist, or other classics. It is not apparent that he read much of Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, or other founders.

Therefore, one wonders whether Maritain’s thesis, lovely as it is, is borne out by a close reading of the essential documents. Prof. Berns, like other students of Leo Strauss, points out that interpreting apparently religious documents such as the Declaration of Independence requires a special kind of care, since the surface meaning of the words may mask a contrary and hidden subtext. One must grasp, for instance, the particular philosophical problem that John Locke faced, namely, how not to seem like a heretic while actually proposing a heretical solution to the “theological-political problem.” While seeming to cite religious arguments and to pay obeisance to traditional terms, Locke actually reduced religion to subordinate status. He intended to eliminate the centuries of competition between religious authority and political authority by subordinating religion to secular law.

In making this argument, Prof. Berns leans heavily upon James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance of 1785, a pamphlet that Madison circulated throughout Virginia in resistance to an initiative of Governor Patrick Henry. Henry had proposed a bill to raise taxes for salaries of clergymen in all those churches that would accept such aid. He hoped, in other words, to engineer a way around the recent disestablishment of the Anglican Church of Virginia. Madison feared that this ploy reintroduced the entanglement of church and state. So in a fuller way than anyone yet had, although building upon earlier works by George Mason and Thomas Jefferson, Madison spelled out the ground of his argument for the natural right of religious liberty. As a major test of the argument between Maritain and Berns, it seems useful to examine the reasoning of these three Virginians in some detail.

The way in which Virginia approached the question of religious liberty was very different from the path chosen by Massachusetts and other states, but the Virginia way has become the standard by which American liberals today measure the relations of church and state—and even of religion and society. “Church” and “state” refer to institutions, of course, whereas “religion” refers more broadly to the habits and actions of individuals, sometimes acting singly, sometimes acting together with others. For instance, citizens often act together through diverse associations, contexts, activities, and civic relationships in order to achieve their social ends and purposes independently of the state. The sphere of “society,” therefore, is much larger than that of “state.”

Massachusetts and others among the founding thirteen states, while protecting the full religious liberty of citizens under their new constitutions after Independence, maintained an established church and entrusted important moral and educational tasks to church communities with state support, direct or indirect. Virginia, too, agreed that the protection of morals and education in republican habits was indispensable to the survival and well-being of republican government. However, abuses of religious freedom led three leading Virginians to draw an exceedingly bright line between the state and not only the church but even religion more generally. This line was defined by four major documents: George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1779), James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785), and again his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1785).

Three features of this decade-long struggle deserve note. First, Virginia trod this path almost alone among the founding states. Second, the extraordinary passion of Jefferson and Madison on this point was bitterly resisted by many in Virginia, as well as in other states, and in practice it proved nearly impossible to observe completely. The dependence of the republic upon the concepts and habits inculcated by Jewish and Christian religions proved to be too conspicuous to ignore. As Presidents, for example, both Jefferson and Madison expended considerable effort to show their personal support for religious worship and to nurture religious activities. The actual practice of the early republic exhibited many accommodations between the state and religious citizens in multiple warm and friendly ways that sharply distinguished the American way from the rigorous hostility Maritain had known in France. While the American Republic had no established church, the American state took a positive and benign attitude toward the full, free, and quite visibly public exercise of religion, not least at major state functions and national celebrations. Moreover, the religion shown in such public exercises was not just “religion in general,” but quite distinctively Protestant Christianity, albeit, typically, in a fairly nondenominational form. And this public choice was not a matter of mere reflex, without argument on its behalf. Public figures and public documents widely asserted that this particular stream of religion was of decisive importance in the history of liberty, and indispensable to its survival.

But the third feature of these founding documents is even more striking and profound. For it is quite stunning that the four documents in question depend for their intelligibility and their credibility upon a distinctively Jewish and Christian view of man’s relation to God. The hinge of the argument in each document is a fact of Jewish and Christian faith: that each individual conscience stands in the presence of its Creator. Further, by virtue of having been created from nothing, each individual owes a primordial duty to her or his Creator. This duty is of so intimate a nature that no other person can perform it in that individual’s place. It is an inalienable duty, which can be taken up by no other.

This particular religious view is held by only two religions. It is not found in Buddhism nor in Hinduism; not in animism nor in pantheism; not in the religions of the ancient Greeks or Romans; nor in the religions of the Incas or the Mayans; and not even in that one other religion which also recognized a Creator separate from the created world, Islam.

These other world religions are satisfied by outward obeisance. Do your duty, and no one inquires into what your secret thoughts may be. Since only outward ritual acts were demanded, not even the great Greek or Roman philosophers worried over the assent of conscience to the worship of the gods. By contrast, Jews and Christians trembled if asked to make outward obeisance to idols, for they recognized in that act a terrible sin of idolatry. 

Only Judaism and Christianity among all world religions developed, and still nourish and celebrate, the three central concepts necessary to the American conception of rights. Only they hold to the doctrine that there is a Creator (and Governor of the universe); that each individual owes a personal accounting at the time of Judgment to this Creator, a Judgment that is prior to all claims of civil society or state; and that this inalienable relation between each individual and his Creator occurs in the depths of conscience and reason, and is not reached merely by external bows, bended knees, pilgrimages, or other ritual observances.

Take, for example, the paragraph of the Virginia Declaration of Rights dealing with religion, which is explicitly dependent on a distinctively Christian understanding of religion:

[We hold] that religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed by only reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other. 

Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1779), submitted but not passed by the legislature until 1785, likewise picks up an explicitly Christian motif:

Well aware that . . . Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested His supreme will that free it shall remain, by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint: That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone . . . . We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities. 

Then, since no Assembly can pass an irrevocable act that another Assembly, of equal powers, cannot rescind, Jefferson’s bill adds a deeper understanding of the ground of this act:

We are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right. 

Thus, in the acts put forth by Mason and Jefferson, the concept of natural right is argued for in the language of Jewish and Christian belief about the Creator, who wishes to be worshiped in spirit and truth. For this God, the arena of conscience is sacred, in such a way that the duty, and therefore the natural right, of the individual who stands in that arena is also sacred. In that sacred space that stands between the individual and the Creator, no state, society, or other human person dares to intervene.

William Penn of the Society of Friends first established religious liberty in the colonies and supplied the Christian rationale for it. In Penn’s vision, Almighty God conceived of this universe we inhabit and brought it into being so that somewhere in it there would be at least one creature with whom He could establish friendship. And since God wished the friendship of free women and men, not slaves, He constituted human beings free. For Penn, friendship is the purpose of the universe, and friendship’s necessary precondition is liberty:

There can be no friendship where there is no freedom. Friendship loves a free air, and will not be penned up in straight and narrow enclosures. It will speak freely, and act so too; and take nothing ill where no ill is meant. 

Religious liberty for all was the first natural right Penn recognized in his new colony. One can see this metaphysical scheme behind the words of Mason and Jefferson in the two acts of the Virginia Assembly quoted above: “that all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.”

Penn’s scheme also lies behind Madison’s eloquent Remonstrance, but Madison adds a deeper and more profound point—namely, that the relation of the intelligent creature and his Creator is not only inalienable in the sense that no one else may stand in for another, but also in the sense that this is a relation prior to all other relations, even those of civil society. Religious liberty, then, is not a natural right that comes into existence along with civil society. It is prior to civil society. It is rooted in nature itself, in the primordial relation of intelligent creature to Creator. In an astonishing tour de force, the young Madison goes beyond Locke and even deeper than Mason and Jefferson. His argument begins where the Virginia Declaration of Rights left off, and so he quotes directly from that text:

[W]e hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by 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. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the 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. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of civil society. Before any man can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered a subject of the Governor of the Universe.

It is important to pause here and take in Madison’s point. The relation of an individual to his Creator is precedent to his entering into civil society; it arises from nature itself. Yet this view of nature is in fact derivative from an expressly Christian view of the world expressed in philosophical rather than in exclusively theological or scriptural terms. In Madison’s view, by nature an individual is “a subject of the Governor of the Universe.” On that fact, deep and inviolable, his natural right is grounded.

Continuing to quote from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Madison attempts to ground the fundamental equality of all individuals, considered as subjects of the Governor of the Universe.

If “all men are by nature equally free and independent,” all men are to be considered as entering into society on equal conditions; as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, of their natural rights. Above all, are they to be considered as retaining an “equal title to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.” Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered. 

In the remainder of the Remonstrance, Madison gives several expressly Christian arguments for the natural right of religious liberty. He calls Governor Henry’s bill, against which he is remonstrating, “a contradiction of the Christian religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world.” Indeed the Christian Church survived centuries of direct opposition by the mighty Roman Empire. “Nay, it is a contradiction in terms, for a religion not invented by human policy must have pre-existed and been supported, before it was established by human policy.” Note well Madison’s description of Christianity: “a religion not invented by human policy.”

Madison goes on to declare that “the policy of the bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity. The first wish of those who enjoy this precious gift ought to be that it may be imparted to the whole race of mankind.” But attempts to enforce Christian conscience have the reverse effect, dispelling seekers after truth in aversion and fear. Which brings us to Madison’s ringing conclusion:

Earnestly [we pray], as we are in duty bound, that the Supreme Lawgiver of the Universe, by illuminating those to whom it is addressed, may on the one hand, turn their Councils from every act which would affront His holy prerogative, or violate the trust committed to them; and on the other, guide them into every measure which may be worthy of His blessing, may redound to their own praise, and may establish more firmly the liberties, the prosperity, and the happiness of the Commonwealth. 

In brief, Madison argues as a Christian, with the purest ideals of Christianity in mind, and with a view to his faith’s flourishing. He does not argue as an atheist, materialist, or apostate from Christianity.

Only Judaism and Christianity have a doctrine of God as Spirit and Truth, Who created the world in order to invite these creatures endowed with intelligence and conscience to enter into friendship with Him. Only the Jewish and Christian God made human beings free, halts the power of Caesar at the boundaries of the human soul, and has commissioned human beings to build civilizations worthy of the liberty He has endowed in them. So high is this God’s valuation of human liberty of conscience that, even though He has launched a divinely commissioned religion in history (in two Covenants, Jewish and Christian), He would not have either of these religions imposed by force on anyone. So devoted were the American founders to this understanding of religious liberty that, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Autobiography (1821), the authors of the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom refrained from mentioning the exact name of the “holy author of our religion.” Here is Jefferson’s explanation for the omission:

Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the words “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion”; the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.

Madison gives powerful Christian reasons for such forbearance. Alone among the religions of the world, Judaism and Christianity place so high a valuation upon religious liberty because of their own doctrine that the relation God seeks with humans is friendship.

The explicitly Christian language of Madison, and the background of divine-human relations on which it expressly draws, strongly suggest that Maritain, and not Walter Berns, is correct. While Madison’s use of the Christian tradition employs a restricted, even chaste use of theological language—the name Jesus Christ is never mentioned, only “divine Author of our religion”—there can be no doubt that his worldview is Christian. It is neither Kantian nor Hobbesian, Greek nor Roman nor Voltairean. Neither is it a full-blooded Thomist vision. Yet it embraces too many theological elements to be considered merely secular, philosophical, or unbelieving. It is neither rationalist nor relativist, and it is more than merely theist or, as the conventional jargon of historians puts it, “Deist.” In itself, while it does not affirm everything that orthodox Christian faith affirms, Madison’s vision is sufficiently impregnated with Christian faith to be not only unconvincing but even unintelligible without it.

Some may assert that although Madison’s formulations appear to be Christian, in reality they stand as typical Enlightenment philosophizing. But one has only to compare them to texts from Rousseau, Voltaire, and other secularist figures of the time to see how much Christian sentiment and metaphysics they embody in their simple, elegant statement of a man’s duties in spirit and truth to his Creator. Although to my knowledge Maritain did not consider these classic Virginia texts in detail, his judgment about the American founding nevertheless seems utterly accurate, affirming just enough and not a word more than the facts require.

The passage quoted above seems perfectly apt:

The Founding Fathers were neither metaphysicians nor theologians, but their philosophy of life, and their political philosophy, their notion of natural law and of human rights, were permeated with concepts worked out by Christian reason and backed up by an unshakeable religious feeling.

Apart from Christian conceptions of a Creator Who asks to be worshiped in spirit and truth, and a Christian conception of the inner forum of inalienable conscience, George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, and Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance would lose all cogency and sense. These documents owe their derivation to a Jewish and Christian worldview, and do not spring from any other.

Michael Novak teaches in the Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America.