The Pilgrim’s Progress. The second is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
The Celestial Railroad.
Bunyan’s book, published in 1678, is one of history’s great religious allegories. It is also deeply Christian. It embodies the Puritan, Protestant hunger for God that animated
Bunyan and Hawthorne lived on different continents 200 years apart. But the two men did share one thing. Both men – the believer and the skeptic – lived in a world profoundly shaped by Christian thought, faith and language; the same moral space that incubated the
In his 2011 World Day of Peace message, Pope Benedict XVI voiced his concern over the worldwide prevalence of ‘persecution, discrimination, terrible acts of violence and religious intolerance’.
In reality, we now face a global crisis in religious liberty. As a Catholic bishop, I have a natural concern that Christian minorities often bear the brunt of today’s religious discrimination and violence. Benedict noted this same fact in his own remarks.
But Christians are not the only victims. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life are sobering. More than 70 percent of the world’s people now live in nations – regrettably, many of them Muslim-majority countries, as well as
Principles that Americans find self-evident – the dignity of the human person, the sanctity of conscience, the separation of political and sacred authority, the distinction between secular and religious law, the idea of a civil society pre-existing and distinct from the state – are not widely shared elsewhere. In fact, as Leszek Kolakowski once said, what seemed self-evident to the American Founders ‘would appear either patently false or meaningless and superstitious to most of the great men that keep shaping [the world’s] political imagination’.
We need to ask ourselves why this is the case.
We also need to ask ourselves why we Americans seem to be so complacent about our own freedoms. In fact, nothing guarantees that
Yet in government, media, academia, in the business community and in wider American culture, many of our leaders no longer seem to regard religious faith as a healthy or a positive social factor. We can see this unhappy trend in the Obama White House’s ambivalence toward the widespread violations of religious liberty across the globe. We can see it in the inadequacy or disinterest of many of our news media in reporting on religious freedom issues. And too often, we can see it in the indifference of many ordinary American citizens.
In that light, I have four points to share with Oasis readers. They emerge from my years as a Commissioner with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and I believe they’re true and need to be said. The first three deal with the American experience. The last one deals with whether and how the American experience can apply internationally.
The Christian Roots of
Here’s my first point: The American model of religious liberty is rooted in the thought-world and idea-architecture of the Christian humanist tradition. We cannot understand the framework of American institutions – or the values that these institutions are meant to promote and defend – if we don’t acknowledge that they grow out of a predominantly Christian worldview.
Obviously our laws and public institutions also reflect Jewish scripture, Roman republican thought and practice, and the Enlightenment’s rationalist traditions. But as the historian Crane Brinton once observed with some irony, even ‘the Enlightenment [itself] is a child of Christianity – which may explain for our Freudian times why the Enlightenment was so hostile to Christianity’.
Whatever it becomes in the future,
‘American democracy’, Bonhoeffer said, ‘is not founded upon the emancipated man but, quite on the contrary, upon the
As Bonhoeffer saw it, the American system of checks and balances, which emphasizes personal responsibility and limited government, reflects fundamental biblical truths about original sin, the appetite for power and human weakness.
Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic scholar who helped draft the U.N.’s charter on human rights, said much the same. He called
He also said: ‘The [American] Founding Fathers were neither metaphysicians nor theologians, but their philosophy of life, and their political philosophy, their notion of natural law and human rights, were permeated by concepts worked out by Christian reason and backed up by an unshakeable religious feeling’.
To put it another way: The success of the American model - a free, open and non-sectarian society marked by an astonishing variety of cultural and religious expressions - does not result from any “procedural” mechanisms our Founders put in place. Rather, our system works precisely because of the moral assumptions that undergird it. And those moral assumptions have a religious grounding.
The Sacred Destiny of Man
That brings me to my second point: At the heart of the American model of religious liberty is a religiously inspired vision of the sanctity and destiny of the human person.
This is confirmed by a vast array of scholarship, including Harold Berman’s outstanding work in the history of Western law, and his study of religious liberty and
The institutions and laws in what we call the ‘Western world’ presume a religious anthropology; a profoundly religious definition of the meaning of life. In the American model, the human person is not a product of nature or evolution. He is not a creature of the state or the economy. Nor, for that matter, is he the slave of an impersonal heaven. Man is first and fundamentally a religious being with intrinsic worth, a free will and inalienable rights. He is created in the image of God, by God and for God. Because we are born for God, we belong to God. And any claims that Caesar may make on us, while important, are secondary.
In the vision of
Nearly all the men who drew up
[Man’s duty of honoring God] is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation to the claims of civil society. Before any man can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the universe.
That is why religious freedom is humanity’s first and most important freedom. Our first governor is God, our Creator, the Governor of the universe. We are created for a religious purpose. We have a religious destiny. Our right to pursue this destiny precedes the state. Any attempt to suppress our right to worship, preach, teach, practice, organize and peacefully engage society because of our belief in God is an attack not only on the cornerstone of human dignity, but also on the identity of the American experiment.
More than a Private Question
This brings me to my third point: In the American model, religion is more than a private affair between the individual believer and God. Religion is essential to the virtues needed for a free people. Religious groups are expected to make vital contributions to the nation’s social fabric.
For all their differences,
When the Founders talked about religion, they meant something much more demanding and vigorous than the vague ‘spirituality’ in vogue in the
In other words, religion mattered – personally and socially. It was more than a private preference. It made people live differently. People’s faith was assumed to have broad implications, including the political kind.
From the beginning, religious believers – alone and in communities – have shaped American history simply by trying to live their faith in the world. As Nathaniel Hawthorne saw so well, too many of us do it badly, with ignorance and hypocrisy. But enough believers in every generation have done it well enough, long enough, to keep the animating spirit of our country’s experiment in ordered liberty alive.
In other words, the American experience of personal freedom and civil peace is inconceivable without a religious grounding. What we believe about God shapes what we believe about man. And what we believe about man shapes what we believe about the purpose and proper structure of human society.
The differences among Christian, atheist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim thought are not ‘insurmountable’. But they are also not ‘incidental’. Faith, sincerely believed or sincerely refused, has consequences. As a result, theology and anthropology have serious, long term, social and political implications. And papering those differences over with a veneer of secular pieties does not ensure civil peace. It ensures conflict - because religious faith touches on the most fundamental elements of human identity and destiny, and its expression demands a public space.
A Model for Others?
This brings me to my fourth and final point: I believe that the American model does work and that its principles can and should be adapted by other countries. But the religious roots of our ideals have implications. It's impossible to talk honestly about the American model of religious freedom without acknowledging that it is, to a significant degree, the product of Christian-influenced thought. Forcing this model on non-Christian cultures – as the
Nonetheless, I do believe that the values enshrined in the American model touch the human heart universally. The desire for freedom and human dignity lives in all human beings. These yearnings are not culturally conditioned, or the result of imposed American or Western ideals. They're inherent to all of us.
The modern world’s system of international law is founded on this assumption of universal values shared by people of all cultures, ethnicities and religions. The Spanish Dominican priest, Francisco de Vitoria, as early as the 16th century envisioned something like the United Nations. An international rule of law is possible, he said, because there is a ‘natural law’ inscribed in the heart of every person, a set of values that are universal, objective, and do not change. The natural law tradition presumes that men and women are religious by nature. It presumes that we are born with an innate desire for transcendence and truth.
These assumptions are at the core of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many of the people who worked on that Declaration, like Jacques Maritain, believed that this charter of international liberty reflected the American experience.
Article 18 of the Declaration famously says that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief; and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’.
In a sense, then, the American model has already been applied. What we see today is a repudiation of that model by atheist regimes and secular ideologies, and also unfortunately by militant versions of some religious traditions. The global situation is made worse by the inaction of
This is regrettable because we urgently need an honest interfaith discussion on the essential elements of the modern democratic state. As a Christian, I would welcome an Islamic public theology that is both faithful to Muslim traditions and also genuinely open to liberal norms. Christians living under sharia law uniformly experience it as offensive, discriminatory and a violation of their human dignity.
A healthy distinction between the sacred and the secular, between religious law and civil law, is foundational to free societies. Christians, and especially Catholics, have learned the hard way that the marriage of Church and state rarely works. For one thing, religion usually ends up the loser, an ornament or house chaplain for Caesar. For another, all theocracies are utopian – and every utopia ends up persecuting or murdering the dissenters who can’t or won’t pay allegiance to its claims of universal bliss.
I began this essay with John Bunyan for a reason. To this day his major work – The Pilgrim’s Progress – is the second most widely read book in the Western world, next only to the Bible. But the same Puritan spirit that created such beauty and genius in Bunyan also led to the authoritarianism of Oliver Cromwell, the Salem witch trials and the theocratic repression of other Protestants and, of course, Catholics.
Americans have learned from their own past. The genius of the American founding documents is the balance they achieved in creating a civic life that is non-sectarian and open to all; but also dependent for its survival on the mutual respect of secular and sacred authority. This is one of the historic contributions
eligious freedom – a person’s right to freely worship, preach, teach and practice what he or she believes, including the right to freely change or end one’s religious beliefs under the protection of the law – is a foundation stone of human dignity. No one, whether acting in the name of God or in the name of some political agenda or ideology, has the authority to interfere with that basic human right.
This is the promise of the American model. The American Founders, though most were Christian, sought no privileges for their kind. They would not force others to believe what they believed. Heretics would not be punished. They knew that the freedom to believe must include the freedom to change one’s beliefs or to stop believing altogether.
Right now in
And I think we may awake one day to see that as a tragedy for ourselves, and too many others to count.
This article is a revised version of a paper given at the
Benedict XVI, ‘Religious Freedom: The Path to Peace’, January 2011.
‘Global Restrictions on Religion’, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, December 2009.
Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial (Univesity of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997), p. 146
Clarence Crane Brinton, Ideas and Men: The Story of Western Thought
(Prentice-Hall, New York, 1963), p. 295
Dietrich Bonhoeffer-Eberhard Bethge, Ethics (Macmillan & Co, New York 1978), p. 104.
Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1951), pp. 183-184.
Harold Berman, Law And Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1983); Law and Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2006); ‘Religion and Liberty Under Law at the Founding of America’, Regent University Law Review 20 (2007), pp. 32-36; ‘Religious Freedom and the Modern State’, Emory Law Journal 39 (1990), pp. 149-164. Note that
Berman does not deny or diminish the role of Deism and the Enlightenment in the modern legal tradition, nor their influence on American institutions. As he acknowledges, Jefferson and Franklin were Deists, while Adams, Wilson and Madison were practicing Christians. What Berman does do is relocate the roots of Western law to their real origin in the Papal Revolution of the 11th and 12th Centuries, the Catholic Code of Canon Law, and the various Protestant Reformations. For Berman, the seminal role of Christian faith in the development of the Western legal tradition cannot be ignored. See also his essays, ‘Judaic-Christian versus Pagan Scholarship’, ‘The Crisis of Legal Education in
Berman, ‘Religion and
James Madison, ‘Memorial and Remonstrance’, 9.
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