Is it wrong to speak as though favoring religious freedom and opposing slavery are basic Christian principles? Yes, says S.M. Hutchens of Touchstone , a signer of the Manhattan Declaration (henceforth ‘MD’). At the magazine’s blog Mere Comments , Hutchens criticizes MD for making what he sees as that mistake. Given that a major conference to be held next month in Albuquerque will center on the MD, it’s worth pondering Hutchen’s argument.
According to the MD, he says,
. . . modern democracy, (!) womens suffrage, and opposition to slavery (which the scriptures do not abolish, but regulate in such a way as to discourage most of its forms), are put in the same moral category as opposition to homosexualism, abortion, and euthanasia. This admixture appears based upon the conjunction of revealed religion with the natural law as set in creation by its Creator, at the head of which is the mind of man—law which defines nature’s constitution from the physical to the structure of human society, including the general moral precepts by which it must be governed. Clearly the Declaration was composed in such a way as to be acceptable to the largest possible number of professing American Christians, but in doing this I believe it has attempted to mix the oil of Christianity with the water of popular American religion . . .
Surely Hutchens’ point about “modern democracy” and “women’s suffrage” has merit. For one thing, there is no single form of goverment identifiable with the former. So it cannot be said that Christianity as such, which contributed to the American founding, entails any unqualified endorsement of modern democracy. Purists will be quick to point out, for example, that the U.S. is a republic not a democracy. Moreover, the American Christians most in favor of the Revolution were Protestant dissenters from Anglicanism; such forms of Protestantism cannot be identified tout court with Christianity. But MD just does give unqualified endorsement to something called modern democracy, as though the desirability of such a thing were obvious to Christians as such. And the same criticism goes a fortiori for women’s suffrage. The very idea of suffrage, women’s or otherwise, makes sense only in the context of representative government, which MD endorses by implication. Yet if no particular form of such government is entailed, logically or in some looser sense, by the revelation in Jesus Christ, then extending the franchise cannot be so entailed either.
But when it comes to more basic values such as religous freedom and the abolition of slavery, Hutchens’s argument isn’t as cogent. Here’s what he says about the former:
Freedom of religion is not a Christian principle. It is a secular constitutional principle which, as understood and enforced in the United States, has favored the majority of religious Americans, relieving them from the burden of establishment, and giving the Republic the manifest advantages of a free religious citizenry. There is, however, another distinctly unpopular but unquestionably Christian side to the matter: The Massachusetts Puritans regarded belief that a person should be allowed the public service of whatever religion he chooses as a radical failure of charity, a license for false doctrine and social anarchy. (The generality of American Christians, provoked by the activities of groups like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists, has shown similar impatience at the limits of its own tolerance.)
One might add that the Catholic Church once thought as the “Massachusetts Puritans” did; or perhaps one should say that the latter, along with other sorts of Protestants at the time, had inherited the former’s attitude. So there might seem to be some justice in Hutchen’s point, which is that however we may conceive and value religious freedom as Americans, the idea itself is not distinctively Christian.
Surely, though, Christians of most stripes have learned from history that they cannot reasonably claim religious freedom for people who share their theology while denying it to those who don’t, or who have no theology at all. Although that might appear to be a conclusion of mere practical reason, first reached by the so-called Enlightenment, there is also a case to be made for it in terms of biblical Christianity as well as “natural law” or secular utilitarianism. John Courtney Murray, the 20th-century Jesuit who so influenced the Second Vatican Council, comes to mind. Admittedly it took Americans, both before and after the Revolution, some time to learn the needed lesson; but learn it they eventually did. As evidenced in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty , even the Catholic Church has learned itand she had a lot more to unlearn than America’s Calvinist and Anglican colonists did. Of course there are limits to what people may do, morally as well as legally, in the name of religious liberty. And where to locate those limits is a legitimate subject of debate for loyal Christians and loyal Americanstwo human sets which amply intersect. But the notion that religious freedom is not a Christian principle is based a logical mistake. From the fact that Christians took a long time to come to favor religious freedom, it does not follow that a moral obligation to respect such freedom cannot be extracted from the sources of revelation, i.e. Scripture and Tradition. To suppose it does follow is to conflate the empirical with the normative.
The same sort of problem with Hutchens’ argument can be observed in the case of slavery. Until the 16th century, the only recorded instance of any churchman or theologian, anywhere, condemning all slavery was St. Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century. And even he, a powerful bishop, didnt order his flock to liberate their slaves. In response to the cruelties of New World slavery, which popes initially endorsed, some a few 16th-century Dominicans started questioning the morality of slavery. After that, there were a few instances when popes condemned the Atlantic slave trade for its cruelties; and in the 18th and 19th centuries, Protestant abolitionists in England and America produced theological arguments against slavery merely as such. But as late as the American Civil War, all ChristendomCatholic, Protestant, and Orthodoxwas divided on the question of the morality of involuntary servitude itself, as distinct from the cruelties associated with some forms of it. It wasnt until the 20th century that a consensus developed against slavery as such, which is reflected in the statements of Vatican II, Pope John Paul II, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church . All that is progress not just in American or secular terms, but in Christian terms.
Theologically, the issue Hutchen’s argument raises is the “development of doctrine.” Like the soon-to-be-beatified John Henry Newman, who coined the phrase and studied what it meant, there are Christians who want to steer safely between the Scylla of fundamentalism and the Charybdis of modernism. Most of MD’s signatories may be regarded as such Christians. If, as a body, they assume the intrinsic goodness of religious freedom and the intrinsic evil of slavery, perhaps that is because the development of Christian doctrine has rightly tended in that directionand thus steered between dangers that are theological as well as political.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?