In his masterwork, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche’s mythic hero carries a message—“God is dead!”—throughout the earth, in a parody of the Gospels, calling it his “gift” to mankind. The book begins with an encounter between Zarathustra and a holy man who lives alone in a forest. Zarathustra asks the hermit what he does, and the hermit replies: “I make hymns and sing them; and in making hymns I laugh and weep and mumble: thus do I praise God.”
The hermit then asks Zarathustra what he has brought as a “gift.” Zarathustra, surprisingly, does not take up this invitation to tell the hermit the terrible truth of the death of God. Instead he says, “What should I have to give thee! Let me rather hurry hence lest I take aught away from thee!” And he leaves the old man to worship in peace.
This is the story of religious faith in the postmodern world.
The first thing we notice about the story is the gentleness with which Zarathustra treats the holy man. Gentleness seems out of character for a philosopher who celebrates strength and derides mercy, who tells unflinchingly the hard truths and has no respect for weakness, comfortable lies, and superstitions. Nowhere else in Thus Spake Zarathustra does the hero spare the sensibilities of his hearers. Nietzsche thus suggests that there is something different about the holy man. Whereas for most men, word of the death of God would be a gift, for the saint it would “take away” something precious.
In like manner, the postmodern world is willing to leave the believer in peace, at least while he remains in the forest. Religious belief, the secular world realizes, is precious to those who have it and interfering with it would be pointless and mean.
But what we notice next is that the hermit is quaint and wrong. He is behind the times. When Zarathustra is alone again, he marvels: “Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that God is dead!” Zarathustra’s forbearance was thus not based on any respect for the possible truth of the saint’s beliefs. Zarathustra did not entertain that possibility. His forbearance was an indulgence. God is dead.
The third point we notice is that the story involves a hermit living by himself in the forest. The hermit does not preach or proclaim the word of God. He does not go into the village. He sings, he laughs, he weeps, and—most revealingly—he “mumbles.” With these inarticulate sounds he does not communicate except to his God.
Zarathustra was indulging someone who neither participated in public life nor entered public discourse. If the hermit left the forest for the village and attempted to enter into public discussion and debate, he would be given the news of God’s death like everyone else.
We recognize in Zarathustra the enlightened attitude toward religious faith in our age. Religious freedom is to be protected, provided it is irrelevant to the life of the wider community. We may worship however we wish—in private. “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” as Jefferson would say.
But allow religion to affect the law governing, say, abortion or marriage; allow religion to affect the way we educate our children in our communities’ schools; even allow religion to affect the way we celebrate holidays in public, and there is trouble. To many Americans on the secular left, religion has become not just quaint and discredited, but a threat to justice and peace. When these quaint and discredited beliefs spill over into the life of the community, we have crossed the line. Religion, the Supreme Court has told us on more than one occasion, is “a private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice.” Religion in public is at best a breach of etiquette, at worst a violation of the law. Religion has nothing to offer the public sphere. The world will not interfere with religious hermits, but they must keep out of the village. That is the postmodern treaty of peace between religion and the powers and principalities of the secular world.
To talk about postmodernism requires us first to talk about modernism. And to talk about modernism is to talk about “liberalism,” which is modernism’s politics. Liberalism is the doctrine (or family of doctrines) that places individual freedom at the center of political aspiration. For the most part, the liberalism we see today is secular liberalism, and some religious intellectuals have grown skeptical of liberalism for that reason. We tend to forget that liberalism was born of concerns about the relations among God, Caesar, and the individual believer.
Liberalism came about when and where it did because the Protestant Reformation had made the individual believer the judge of religious truth. One of the rallying cries of the Reformation was: “God Alone is Lord of the Conscience.” The Protestant Reformers taught that we each have the duty—not just the right, but the duty before God—to search the Scriptures for ourselves, to reach our own conclusions, and to render unto God the homage that we conclude is acceptable to him. We are not to believe what we are told to believe—what is acceptable to the dominant voices in our culture.
Religion and religious freedom were therefore at the very heart of the liberal project. Liberalism meant many things, but above all it meant that every person was free to worship God in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience. This principle was key to the achievement of both freedom of the mind and civil peace.
Initially, liberalism was understood principally in terms of what we would now call “limited government”: government that is confined to certain ends, leaving the rest to private persons in the private sphere. As applied to religion, limited government meant that the magistrate had no power to superintend the spiritual health of the citizenry. As applied to the economic sphere, it entailed free markets. Free exercise and free enterprise were two pillars of the liberal state, both standing for limited government.
Liberalism was favorably received, especially on this side of the Atlantic, in part because of its consonance with two central teachings of Protestant Christianity. The first of these is the two kingdoms theology of Augustinian thought, a theology carried forward in different ways by Luther and by the Calvinist Reformed tradition to which our Puritan and Presbyterian forebears adhered. Two kingdoms theology conceived of man as owing allegiance to two different sets of authorities, the spiritual and the temporal. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Christ said, “and unto God the things that are God’s.” The separation of church and state is a modern and secular relic of this theological idea.
Though theological in its origin, the two kingdoms idea lent support to a general liberal theory of government, because if government could be limited in one respect, it could be limited in others. The state could no longer be understood as omnicompetent. Government does not pervade everything; politics does not pervade everything. There are different spheres.
This distinction of the spheres made possible a more peaceful and diverse society, because it established that we need not agree with one another about the most fundamental things in order to work and trade together. The lady at the next desk or the fellow trying to sell me a pizza may believe in transubstantiation, predestination, or reincarnation, and we are not prevented from collaborating on a law review article or transacting business.
A second theological notion that prepared the way for liberalism was the emerging concept of what Baptists called “soul liberty”: the belief that faith, to be valid and acceptable to God, must be uncoerced. Under this view, it is literally impossible as a theological matter for government power to improve a citizen’s spiritual state. The idea of soul liberty derives from the doctrine of salvation through grace: The only way for unregenerate man to come to faith and salvation is through the intervention of God. It is worse than useless, it is blasphemous, for an outside party such as the government to presume to supplant the free act of God.
Like two kingdoms theology, the doctrine of soul liberty made possible a broader conception of liberalism. Just as two kingdoms theology suggests limited government, soul liberty suggests and encourages liberty in general. Each person is left free to pursue the good life in the manner and season most agreeable to his or her conscience, which is the voice of God. If God did not exercise his omnipotent power to coerce Adam and Eve to live according to his precepts, he must have wanted mankind to be free. Surely no earthly authority has a better claim to rule than God himself. (I have just paraphrased the explicit logic of Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.)
It is no accident that peoples who subscribed to this kind of theology were the first to accept liberal political theory. No one would have said at the time of the Founding that liberalism was inconsistent with or hostile to religion or religious freedom, for religious freedom was both a religiously grounded idea and one of liberalism’s principal commitments and preoccupations.
But things changed. As liberalism developed, it departed from its religious roots. Three developments had especially important implications for religious freedom.
The first was the emergence of scientism and materialism. This variant of the Enlightenment retained the Christian notion of the objectivity and unity of truth, but secularized it. The European Christian worldview maintained that there was such a thing as truth, and that it could not be understood apart from God. The scientistic and materialistic view retained the belief in truth, but held that modern science left no room for belief in God or any other nonmaterial cause. Scientific and material explanation thus took the place of religion and became a dogma.
With the emergence of scientism and materialism, the humanities in general and religious thought in particular were pushed to the periphery of the world of the intellect. We may still believe, but our religious beliefs should not affect our work. They must have no connection with university curricula or the real world of intellectual endeavor.
Postmodernism, which abandons the notion of objective truth altogether, was the second development with important implications for religious freedom. Science as well as religion is deconstructed by postmodernism. All truth is relative. A proposition may be true for you or true for me, but nothing is objectively true.
The effect of postmodernism on religious thought is mixed. On the one hand, postmodernism celebrates diversity and promotes openness to non-scientistic views, including religion. But it also leads to a replacement of reason by power politics—the politics of identity, of resentment, and of a particular conception of liberation as grounded not in the primacy of conscience but in the unconstrained self, a liberation even from nature. Not only is God dead, but the truths of human nature are mere social constructs.
The belief in old-fashioned truth, especially moral truth, is a threat to the postmodern way of life. We may believe whatever we wish, except that our God is the true God, which would mean that other people might be wrong. We may say and do whatever we wish, except contradict other people’s self-conceptions.
Thus follows a third development with implications for religious freedom: what I call “selective multiculturalism.” Selective multiculturalism combines extraordinary tolerance of conduct and expression that once was condemned with extraordinary intolerance of conduct and expression that once held cultural sway. Just consider what can and cannot be said in a college classroom.
We must confront the most challenging question in the Bible: What then should we do? I have three bits of advice, inspired by Nietzsche’s hermit.
First: Don’t mumble. Laugh and weep and sing, but don’t mumble. Proclaim the truth boldly, but not stupidly. When speaking to the natives, speak their language. Don’t sound like a Bible-thumper or an arrogant prig. Take as your model Paul’s great speech at the Areopagus. It is difficult to speak clearly. But my experience over many decades in academic and public life suggests that mumbling does not buy you protection. It just puts a target on your back.
Second: Don’t stay in the forest. Don’t spend your life in bubbles, cocoons, and echo chambers. How good and pleasant it is to join together in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. But come out of the chapel from time to time and venture into the world. You have just as much a right to be who you are, believe what you believe, and act according to your conscience as anyone else in this free, diverse, and liberal republic.
Third: Don’t accept Zarathustra’s gift. He would leave the hermit alone so long as the hermit stayed in his forest. In this postmodern world, people are happy to let you worship in peace most of the time, and it is tempting to take them up on their offer. But it is an offer you cannot afford to accept. It will allow you to sing, laugh, weep, and mumble to your heart’s content. But it will not allow you to affirm the truth and call it that.
Michael W. McConnell is the Richard and Frances Mallery Professor and director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School. This piece was delivered at the 2023 Canterbury Medal Gala for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.