When the American people began their epic experiment in classical liberalism, they prepared foundational political documents that matter-of-factly referred to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God."
When the American people began their epic experiment in classical liberalism, they prepared foundational political documents that matter-of-factly referred to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” and said things like, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” and, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
But if America were declaring independence or framing a constitution today, it seems unlikely that we’d mention God or the natural moral law — and support for the principle of the free exercise of religion is perhaps at its lowest ebb in our nation’s history.
That trend toward a secularism is not unique to the U.S. The prevailing secularist mood of our civilization helps to explain the array of European reactions ranging from bemusement to worry that Hungary’s recently-adopted liberal constitution begins with the words, “God bless the Hungarians,” and avows, “We are proud that our king Saint Stephen built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe one thousand years ago.”
Political philosopher Thomas Storck traces the root of our culture’s secularizing tendency to certain perhaps unforeseen consequences of the ideas on religious toleration enunciated by seminal liberal thinker John Locke, whose influence on the Founding Fathers is well known (see Stork’s 2001 essay, “John Locke, Liberal Totalitarianism, and the Trivialization of Religion”).
Locke in turn was influenced by the social and religious upheaval that wracked Europe following the division of Christendom into Catholic and Protestant camps. Much of Europe then experienced a decisive triumph of the State in its age-old struggle to subjugate and subvert the Church to its own ends, leading to the rise of despots and wars of unprecedented violence, which discredited Christianity in the minds of many. Catholic societies resorted to inquisitions as they sought to salvage the ancient social and religious arrangement, while Protestant states also readily resorted to persecution. Weary of religious strife, many began to champion religious toleration, while others became openly hostile to Christianity.
Locke, quite unlike many French liberals, did not see Christianity as an enemy of the common good. Nevertheless, his solution to the problem of religious pluralism, Storck explains, leads to a political and public order that deliberately excludes religion, effectively treating questions or religious and moral truth as irrelevant to real life.
Locke’s philosophy decisively rejects the traditional Christian teaching on the nature and purpose of human government. Classical liberalism tends to treat religion with at best a benign indifference. In contrast, traditional Christianity, says Storck, proclaims “that governments are from God, that they therefore have duties toward God, that they rule in his name. They are not some human makeshift, some expedient devised when men (reluctantly) came together into society, and moreover their fundamental character has been fixed by God and is not subject to human will.”
A contemporary expression of the traditional teaching is found in the Irish Constitution, which begins, “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,” and continues, “Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ . . . And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations.”
The understanding that the State has duties to God, and like all things is subject to him, is the essential difference between traditional Christian political teaching and classical liberalism.
The essential difference isn’t that the one supposedly rejects religious freedom while the other embraces it. After all, traditional Christianity and toleration are not mutually exclusive, and certain strains of liberalism are viscerally hostile to religious freedom.
Next time we’ll look at the ways classical liberalism have attacked the nature and dignity of the human person.
Community editor Jared Olar may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Pekin Daily Times.