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Just now, as Islamic nations wrestle both with new theoretical ideas and new public policies concerning religious liberty, there may be an opportune moment for reviewing how crucial religious liberty is for democracy. There are rival theories about this. Atheists in Europe have their own approach to religious liberty. In personal life, they do not take religion seriously, naturally, but they do recognize it as a social reality that needs to be dealt with. Politically, however, their aim since the French Revolution of 1789 has been to expel religion from public life and confine it to the private sphere. They have attempted to place the state firmly over religion so the state dominates all spheres of public life. By such “secularization” and “laicization,” the secularists hope to speed the inexorable decline of religion, for they are certain that the future will be less religious than the past—and that this will be a good thing.

In the English-speaking world, the pattern has been different. Some Anglo-Americans share the sentiments of the French. But most have recognized that religion has a serious place in both public and private life. The Anglo-Americans developed two different defenses of liberty of conscience. One is based on non-religious premises, open to atheists as well as believers in God who value philosophical argument for its own sake. The other is based on religious conceptions, particularly the Abrahamic vision of the Creator and Sovereign over all things.

The nonreligious view is that, by nature, each human person is responsible for accepting or rejecting evidence presented to the individual consciousness, and thus each person is responsible for choosing a way of life. This responsibility gives rise to a human right to make such choices—and the right is inalienable, for no one can make those choices for another. In this sense, the conscience of all must be respected as inviolable.

The religious defense of religious liberty is somewhat different. In thinking about these questions at the time of the American Founding, such figures as Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and James Madison expressed the belief of most Americans that the world was made by a benevolent Creator and Governor Who wished to extend His friendship to all human beings and Who wished to be thanked and worshiped in spirit and truth and purity of conscience. In other words, this God could not be deceived by mere outward acts, but saw directly into the human heart. Here is how they expressed it in the Virginia Declaration of Religious Liberty of 1776: “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.”

The argument contains four affirmations: the greatness of the Creator; the duty of the creature to recognize, be grateful to, and adore that Creator; the freedom of soul that the Creator endowed in humans for such acts; and the friendship with humans that God desired. With these affirmations as its base, The Virginia Declaration—like the famous Remonstrance against the Governor of Virginia circulated for signatures by James Madison some years later—made the following argument: Every rational creature, contemplating the great gifts bestowed by the Creator, is conscious of a duty to give due worship to that Creator, in spirit and in truth, in the pure light of conscience, under no coercion whatever. Since this duty is sacred, and prior to all other duties either to civil society or to the state, since it is a duty owed by the creature directly to the Creator without intermediary, this duty also implies a right. Since this duty goes beyond any earthly power, it must entail a right to exercise that duty, which may be abridged by no earthly power. It is an inalienable and an inviolable right. It is prior to every other duty. It must be exercised in conscience and without duplicity or coercion, in the direct sight of the Creator.

The religious foundation for religious liberty, therefore, begins with the nature of God. It also sketches out its conviction about the nature of human beings: that we are born free and equal to all others in freedom before God, and that, independent of the state, each of us owes duties to our Creator. Based on these convictions, the religious justification of religious liberty as expressed by the Virginians is founded on the natural rights of human beings, as these have been endowed in human beings by their Creator.

So thorough and profound are these rights, moreover, they are not limited to Jews or Christians, but possessed by all human creatures—Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists alike, together with atheists and agnostics. For all are given their liberty directly by the Creator, in the act of creating human beings. From before time was, the Creator knew each individual by name and called all to Himself—but allowed to all the right to accept or to reject that invitation, according to their own conscience.

I believe that this justification is particularly beautiful because those who first came to it, and proposed it for formal ratification, which it received, established it for all other human beings equally, far beyond their own immediate circle. They claimed nothing for themselves that they did not recognize also belonged to all other human beings. That is why they referred to natural rights. These are founded not in culture nor ethnicity nor tribe nor religious denomination, but in all human beings equally. Their historical root may have been discovered by one particular religious group in human history, but their philosophical and practical application (if they are true) is universal.

The early Americans were not only the Virginians, but also the Pennsylvanians, who in some ways solved some problems of religious liberty even more successfully, and the men of Massachusetts, who put in place yet another alternative. When, together, the Founders put together the Constitution of the United States in 1787, and when they added the Bill of Rights in 1792, they declared the federal Congress incompetent to make any law respecting the establishment of religion or inhibiting the free exercise thereof. This is the way in which they provided for the so-called “separation of church and state.” They did not want the federal Congress to impose any one religion on them. They took the government out of the business of religion.

In this way, too, they prevented any one religion from becoming the official “established” and in some way mandatory religion of the people as a whole. (An individual state could have an established religion, and some did, for a generation or so, but the practice soon proved to be impracticable and irksome to both the church and state.) Experience showed them that both the church and the state prospered more when the officials of the church did not make political decisions with the authority of the state and when the state did not make authoritative religious statements.

Certainly, the churches have prospered better under such a regime in America than the more or less established churches of Europe. The American solution, however, is not properly described as the “separation of church and state.” Its actual practice is more like an “accommodation,” each treating the other to public acts of mutual exposure and mutual respect. At many religious ceremonies, officials of the state are present in formal ways. At many state functions, ceremonies begin with a prayer and often conclude with a religious blessing. Quite often a sermon by a clergyman is written into the program. Above all, politicians in America speak often of God, and sometimes with observable seriousness and devotion—and also sometimes in a more or less perfunctory way. But speak of God they almost all do, especially on formal political occasions.

It has often been remarked, for instance, that President George W. Bush seems unusually serious about religion and speaks of God fairly openly. But close observers have also noted that President Bill Clinton used to speak about God even more often than Bush and was perhaps even rather more ostentatious in being in church each Sunday. In fact, every American president has felt the duty to speak of God, since that is what the American people want and expect of them.

Still, although the “separation of church and state” is in part a misnomer, it does point to an important difference of function and public role. But that “separation” is not the same thing as demanding an end to the interpenetration of religion and society. Church and state do not cover the same territory as religion and society. Church and state are narrower, institutional concepts. Citizens have a right to the free exercise of their religion in private and in the full range of the public activities of civil society. They also have a right to follow their religious conscience in public life, consistent with fidelity to their public duties and to the Constitution of the United States. And they have a right to argue in the public square, in accord with the rules of democratic give-and-take and the civic virtues of civility, for their own convictions, religious or secular, about the full range of issues of our common life, including laws concerning marriage, birth, and death. Civic life can be quite alive with religion, the more so for being uncoerced by the state.

To present a few samples of how the American accommodation of religion and society, church and state, have actually worked out in practice, let me mention that in the earliest days of Washington, D.C., beginning with the Jefferson Administration (1800-1808), the largest church service in the whole United States was held in the Capitol Building every Sunday, with music provided at government expense by the U.S. Marine Band. President Jefferson was often in attendance. Both before and after Jefferson, both the Congress and the presidents have often by decree urged Americans to pause for a Day of Thanksgiving, or Fasting and Humiliation in an hour of need.

Recently, Pope Benedict XVI and the president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera, have teamed up to write two books, Without Roots and The Europe of Benedict: In the Crisis of Cultures , concerning the moral crisis prompted in the West by the rise of secularism—and, along with it, a fresh revival of relativism and even nihilism. In its beginnings, secularism seems like a healthy advance, providing a path to peaceful pluralism at the end of a long historical series of religious wars—or at least wars in which religion played some part (for often quite worldly powers, rivalries, and interests were actually the cause of such strife). Similarly, atheism and agnosticism at first seem benign, for many who embrace them go on living almost as if they still were religious, according to civilized values of the religious past, with mercy, charity, compassion, and other high qualities. Sometimes they seem even more moral than religious people of their own generation.

Atheism, however, as Benedict points out, may be a position of passionate commitment, but it cannot be a position of reason. No man knows enough about the conditions of existence to know for certain that there is no God. For this reason, too, agnosticism seems like a far more tenable intellectual position, and a more plausibly and attractively moral position as well. It seems modest and humble, open and thoughtful. There seems to be much in agnosticism to admire.

Still, the pope goes on, theory is one thing and practice is another. Agnosticism may be attractive as a theory, because of its modesty, but in practice human beings cannot be so neutral. In practice, we must live either as though God exists or as though God does not exist . Which of these practical roads agnostics choose to follow makes a great difference in their actual conduct. A mind open to God tends to be open to many arguments, that to one who lives as if there is no God are likely to seem dim and obscure. Pope Benedict puts matters this way: A purely secular society living as if there is no God tends to value individual liberty before any other good. This preference is proposed as public policy on the ground that it is the most democratic principle, and on the grounds that all other policies are more dangerous threats against democracy. But this preference cannot be long maintained without falling into impossible contradictions.

For instance, the individual woman who chooses to have an abortion may seem to be exercising a fundamental human right of choice and thus, by reason of various complexities in her own life, even be entitled to our sympathies. Still, her choice necessarily demands the destruction of another individual life, that of the infant in formation in her womb, significantly different from hers. In this way, secularism ends up not treating all individuals as equal. Rather, it privileges some human individuals more than others.

In addition, secularism ends up destroying a fundamental principle of democracy, in the process of boasting that it alone protects democracy. For in granting the more powerful party (the individual woman) the right to exercise violence to destroy the weaker party (the infant in her womb), it privileges might over right. But it is the fundamental democratic principle, its very foundation, to privilege right over might. Secularism thus ends up, in its moral self-contradictions, destroying what it claims to love above all: democracy and pluralism. And abortion is not the only instance of this self-contradiction.

The greatest danger of secularism is that it steadily undercuts natural law, moral reason, and religion—in the name of privileging personal preference, taste, and selection. It tends first toward moral relativism and then begins sliding toward moral nihilism. There remains little or nothing in the moral arsenal of secularism to slow a cultural tendency toward decadence or to empower a wave of moral awakening. Mesmerized by the glowing attraction of the individual as the central unit of moral analysis—together with the elevation of personal preference over objective reason and the priority of will over intelligence—secularism tends to hold that moral truth cannot be grasped by the human mind. All there is to rely on is personal preference. In matters of social conflict, then, it is inexorable that power must become the ultimate adjudicating force. Power, stripped of appeal to objective reason.

Although this is the inner logic of secularism, we are saved for a time from its most dire effects by the slow drag of tradition and cultural inhibition. While the road of decline is slippery, total decadence takes time. But the logic does tend to rush onward, meeting ever less resistance, for secularism is no firm basis for democracy. It does not have any moral foundation on which to base democracy. Nor has it sufficient resources to inspire the virtues necessary for the practice of democracy. What Abraham Lincoln called “the silent artillery of time” wears down the strengths secularism has borrowed from the past.

Not to put too fine a point on it, there are few resources in secularism for justifying the claim that all men are born equal—which certainly flies in the face of empirical observation. Few resources for the appeal to fraternity. Few resources for the appeal to human liberty. Few resources for that crucial value of modern progressive liberalism, compassion for the poor and the weak. And on what precise basis does secularism determine the measure of progress, particularly moral progress? Mere preference does not really advance that argument.

What the West calls secularism is in fact in large measure a heavy draw on the religious heritage of Abrahamic religion. That is the deepest source of current liberal ideas of liberty, fraternity, equality, compassion, and progress. In fact, it is more owing to the specifically Christian values of the past that Communism was decisively defeated, bloodlessly, by Solidarity, the Polish labor union, and other dissidents who at last refused to be complicit in the Soviet regime of the lie. Both Fascism and Communism ran aground on the natural law of human existence, for they were based on false, inadequate, and stunted moral anthropologies. It proved impossible for humans to live under such false philosophies. And, thus, even contemporary secularism owes its current peaceful thriving to the recent victory over its deadly enemies, Fascism and Marxism, by the religions (and their morality of nature and reason) that it despises.

In order for democracy to thrive, it does not need to be based on secularism. In fact, secularism is a most unsure basis for democratic survival. The struggle of Islamic nations to move to democracy is placing considerable pressure upon our existing Western theories. The French solution is strongly rejected by many Muslims who are already rebelling against the total identification of religion and politics, mosque and state in traditional Muslim regimes. The differences between the American solution, with its positive evaluation of religion, and the non-religious or even anti-religious theories of secularism is not so widely known. But the American notion that the goal is an accommodation of religion and society, along with the separate functions of church and state, can open up a new vista for Muslim thinkers. This immense and epoch-making upheaval is bound to simulate fresh and original thinking by placing even the American solution within a new context.

Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.