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Religion and Freedom


It never ceases to amaze me to discover the number of people who see a blatant contradiction between the notions of religion and those of liberty. Nor is this, in my estimation, an inconsequential dichotomy. The late F.A. Hayek, on the occasion of the founding of the Mont Pelerin Society, warned in his presidential lecture that the failure of religion to come to grips with the moral foundations of the liberal (in the classical meaning of the term) society would imperil civilization.

Yet one frequently hears the objection that in order to believe in God and morality, almost all means, including the mechanism of the state, are justified to promote and advance these worthy ideals. Likewise there is often, among the friends of liberty, a certain confusion, and even an inflation in the importance of liberty in human life. It is my intention, in this brief essay, to explore a number of these confusions and offer a perspective that I hope will bring some clarity of thought.

Any meditation on the interrelationship between religion and liberty best begins by probing what liberty and morality are.

It is unfortunate that morality is very often seen as the observance of and conformity to rules rather than an internalized system of values. This kind of confusion leads people to think that if they can create a situation whereby people are forced to conform to a particular set of moral standards, somehow virtue has been achieved.

And frequently, when people speak of liberty, they seem to mean a freedom from all law — antinomianism. Liberty, to some, is seen as an end in itself; and there is an additional confusion between authority and authoritarianism.

Morality and Coercion

Yet just a few moments’ reflection will reveal how sterile such ideas end up being. The impossibility of legislating morality and the higher virtues can merely result in conformity, at best. In civil society, we ask for conformity where the issue at stake is the use of violence and force in social relationships.

But morality and virtue call for something much deeper, and can only result from conversion, not coercion. Because politics is essentially about the insurance of justice — not virtue — in society, whether or not a person is reasonable, bigoted, saintly, or a sinner is not of prime importance in a political sense.

These things are, of course, important to me as a believer, and indeed, in the light of faith they are eternally important. But salvation is precisely something which cannot be achieved by enforced conformity. A person’s internal state, morality, reasonableness, and sanctification are important to me on a spiritual plane, and it is precisely due to this transcendent dimension that makes me resist the idea that the state, or other means of force, can achieve such a critically important ideal.

The Gospel commands us to love all people. Admittedly, this is an awesome vocation, but it is one that can only be embraced freely, and one in which we are assured to be provided with the grace necessary for its accomplishment. Believers are called to will the best for all people, and even to pray for those who do evil.

Liberty as a Means

None of this, however, can be the expected result from a system which is meager in its intention — to insure liberty. This brings us to the other matter in need of some clarification. Let us be honest: Liberty, once obtained, is itself a rather meager concept when you think about it, the value of which has been far too inflated. Of course, when people do not have liberty, it is the one thing they most desperately seek and are often willing to die to achieve. This is the case because it is something without which civil society could not be maintained.

Certainly, we ought to value liberty; but the idea that we should somehow worship it and make it the end toward which the whole of our lives are to be oriented is absurd. Once people obtain liberty, the more fundamental questions of how to order our lives, what values to seek, and which virtues to practice take on greater significance. Indeed, liberty is the only context within which these questions of the higher order can be addressed; it is the means toward another and higher end, but must not be confused with the end itself.

The fact that a person should have the political right to ingest various kinds of drugs into his or her body or to engage in consensual sexual activity with another adult does not answer the question, “But should we?” or “Is it right to do so?” Those are questions of value and morality, not politics, and it is both a shame and a danger that the two orders have become so sadly confused. Nor is it the case that these two spheres are radically separate — merely that they are distinct.

Karl Marx criticized religion as having no earthly or positive social impact, and he argued that religion, in effect, medicated suffering humanity into a stupor, rendering people incapable of rectifying the misery and injustice in which they exist. For Marx, religion impeded the revolutionary impulse of suffering people who would otherwise overthrow the harmful structures of capitalism.

Marx was wrong on this, and, as recent history has borne out, on many other things as well. He was wrong in his analysis of religion because he failed to see how radically religion questions temporal power by its appeal to a transcendent authority and to what the Christian tradition has called the “supremacy of conscience.”

Church and State

In a fascinating study of the early relationship between church and state, Hugo Rahner, brother of the renowned Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, makes the following observation in Church and State in Early Christianity:

“. . . most frequently it has been the state which picked the quarrel with the Church, and as a result it was the Church that had to defend herself in a life and death struggle to maintain her freedom to fulfill her calling.”

Rahner goes on to observe that part of what led to the confusion of the relationship between church and state was “the ancient Italic concept of the head of state as the ‘supreme Priest,’ ‘king of the sacrifices,’ . . . . [The Roman state] stubbornly insisted on treating religion as an exclusively political factor.”

Further, “Constantine, and his successors even more, still harboring the pagan idea of caesar as priest, attempted to fit the church into their political programs.”

It was the pre-Christian Roman state which drew its concept of its relationship to religion from the ancient Italic peoples and Hellenism, causing its priests to view themselves as “spiritual servants of the state,” with the emperor as the supreme priest.

All of this tells us that notion of a church amalgamated with the state was not initially or intrinsically a Christian one, but a pagan one that pre-dated Christianity. In fact, the very assertion of a supreme power distinct from the state is what Christianity asserts about the individual’s conscience from its inception.

Defiance and Docility

Moreover, the church always claimed that there was a higher law or a natural law, which is the locus of ultimate authority of right and wrong, placing it well beyond the temporal and political realm. The earthly power is qualified and limited to its authentic peacekeeping jurisdiction. To violate those boundaries set by the transcendent law (I prescind here from a discussion of what specifically those legitimate boundaries are) is to employ power for an illegitimate end.

It was this Christian view of their God as supreme emperor that qualified earthly authority, and that, in the second and third centuries, led to martyrdom.

One early martyr, Lucius, exemplifies this Christian defiance when, in the face of execution, he says to his persecutors, “For this I thank you, for you free me from the hands of an earthly tyrant and allow me to return to the house of my Father, who is emperor in heaven.”

The Christian view of the state was an acceptance of legitimate authority, which it saw as qualified and non-absolute. Thus, Jesus’ words in the Gospel on rendering Caesar his due, and God his due (and in St. Paul’s words, which subordinates temporal power to a higher law) would preclude, as far as I can tell, either a Christian absolutism (theocracy or socialism) as well as Christian anarchism.

It is important to see that this “yes” and “no” to the state, as Hugo Rahner phrases it, finds its inception in the context of the great trials for the Christian church, when its leaders, members, and even children were undergoing unspeakable persecutions and brutal martyrdoms.

From within this milieu, it would have been easy, indeed understandable, had the church developed a doctrine of rejecting all earthly power. That it does not is seen in the prayer written by Clement I, third bishop of Rome, who personally knew the apostles.

By deriving the ruler’s authority from God in the first place, the very nature of political authority is limited in its inception. The ruler who is corrupted by the perennial temptations of power, about which Lord Acton spoke so superbly, will undoubtedly chaff under such limits.

There is in Christianity a submissive bent — yet to say this is not to exhaust the meaning of Christianity, but merely to attempt to grasp one aspect of it. (We must always guard against the heretical temptation of taking truth to an extreme.) As tyrants throughout the ages have known, in addition to this submissive bent, there is also a stubborn bent, indeed, if need be, a defiant bent, the origin of which can be found in the example of the apostles who said, “We would rather obey God as ruler rather than men.”

So, to understand the relationship between the Christian community and the state, we must confront the paradox of the docility and the defiance of Christianity.

In a certain sense, Christianity is sublimely (I use the word decidedly here) cautious in its approach to the affairs of the commonweal, and we do well to consider anew Newman’s warning that “to touch politics is to touch pitch.”

In conclusion, the Christian attitude toward temporal authority was formed in the crucible of persecution, which makes it all the more remarkable that it emerged with such balance and nuance (racks not usually being the place of considered repose for dispassionate reflection), and continues as such to the present day.

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    Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.