A Most Puzzling Puzzler
I invite the reader to think through an
interesting and very serious conundrum. Many of us are rightly alarmed at
ever-bolder attempts by our increasingly secular state to violate the religious
liberty of its citizens.
To ward off such violations, we embrace the
relevant part of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” We therefore invoke the so-called “Free
Exercise Clause” as a shield to impede attempts by the state to control or
prohibit the free exercise of our religious convictions (and implicitly, the
“Establishment Clause,” as we’ll see).
We do not tend to regard this shield as
something merely man-made, a rule that happened to be adopted in a game and now
we must stick to (“Collect $200 if you pass Go”), but a rule written, somehow,
into our very natureindeed, a kind of sacred, inviolable right.
That is certainly the way the American Catholic
bishops wielded the First Amendment last summer when the Obama Administration
attempted to use an HHS mandate to force Catholic institutions to provide
insurance coverage for contraception, abortifacients, and sterilizations. The
bishops cried out, “Religious Liberty.”
The embrace of religious liberty as a right was
memorably expressed by James Madison in his “Memorial and Remonstrance” (1785).
Madison, one of the great Founders, is considered to be the father of the Bill
of Rights, so it would seem we’d want his opinion about the First Amendment.
“The Religion…of every man,” Madison proclaimed, “must be left to the
conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to
exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable
In fact, Madison declared that this right was
rooted in a duty, “the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage
and such only as he [i.e., every man] believes acceptable to him [presumably,
but not unambiguously, God].”
Here comes the puzzler, which I’ll set out in
semi-syllogistic enumerated steps.
(1) Today we passionately hold that we each have a
right to believe, to worship, as we see fiteach of us individually. But that
means everyone else has that same right.
(2) The claim and practice of that right creates
a diversity of beliefs, as many as there are different convictions about what
homage is acceptable to the divine.
(3) In order for each individual to protect
himself from some other believer using government power to dictate his beliefs,
he must not allow his own or anyone else’s belief, anyone else’s faith, to
define or inform the state as the established state religion (so that the Free
Exercise Clause is inextricably linked to the Establishment Clause).
(4) But the result is a state defined by no
a state defined by the subtraction of all religious beliefs, that is to say, a
state defined by the establishment of unbelief, a secular state.
But, it is precisely this state, as secular,
that ever more forcefully infringes on religious liberty by actively imposing a
secular worldview upon the citizenry as the default, established worldview.
This view is gotten by the subtraction of all beliefs, including the
subtraction of the particular moral beliefs in Christianity that stem from its
doctrinal beliefs, but not merely that. It also entails the addition of its own moral
beliefs. The HHS mandate is just that: an attempt at forced subtraction of
Christian moral beliefs, and the imposition of secular sexual beliefs in their
And so, the puzzler. Like Chinese handcuffs, the
harder we pull on Religious Liberty to extract ourselves from the increasingly
more insistent impositions of the secular state, the more we encourage
religious diversity. The more religious diversity, the greater the need for a
secular state which protects us from having someone else’s religious beliefs
imposed upon us. The more we empower a secular state defined by the subtraction
of all particular religious beliefs, the more powerfully does the secular state
establish its own
secular worldview by federal force, including secular morality. Hence, the HHS
trying to mandate that the Catholic Church provide coverage for contraception,
abortifacients, and sterilization.
To put the puzzler in a nutshell, the hearty and
unambiguous affirmation of religious liberty leads to the secular destruction
of religion and the imposition of secularism as the default worldview.
This destruction is even more complete than
we’ve implied, a point that can be made clear with our example of the Catholic
Church. If it is an “unalienable right” for every man to define his religion
according to his “conviction and conscience,” then the Catholic Church above
all violates Religious Liberty by imposing very specific theological and moral
doctrines on its flock.
And so if we truly want the secular state to
protect this “unalienable right” of each individual to define his religion
according to his personal conviction and conscience, then the state can rightly
be called in to protect the rights of individual Catholics from violations by
the Catholic Churchincluding the Church’s intransigence in not providing
contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization in its insurance packets.
At this point in the argument, if I were in the
public square or even more a public university, I would no doubt be treated to
shouts of “Fascist!” and, among the more historically-minded, “Torquemada!” In
other words, my “freedom of speech” would be pummeled in the name of what
appears to be freedom of religion because I seem to be implying, by calling
into question the unalienable right to believe whatever one wants, that I
intend to impose upon everyone else what I happen to believe.
That is so unspeakably bad, a kind of blasphemy, that
he who dares even imply it, thereby forfeits one First Amendment guarantee
(freedom of speech), for the protection of another more sacred (everyone else’s
free exercise of religion).
That is precisely why we need a secular state to
protect us, so that one man’s religious beliefs aren’t allowed to lord it over
everyone or anyone else’s.
And that ends us back at the puzzler: the
affirmation of religious liberty leads to the suppression of religion by a
secular state. The secular state is thereby empowered to impose unbelief,
including the particular moral beliefs held dearly by secularism. The
affirmation of religious liberty leads to its extinction at the hands of the
Religious Liberty and the Strategy of
Secularization: “Divided We Stand”
This seems to work so well for the cause of
secularization, landing us right back under the thumb of a secular and secularizing
government, that we have warrant to ask a more-than-interesting question: Is
that the way it’s
been designed to work? More provocatively, was it designed to work that way by
secularists, i.e., those who wished to subtract Christianity from public
dominance and replace it with secularism?
It’s worth exploring, beginning with Thomas
Jefferson’s provocative words, written in a letter to Jacob De La Motta (1820),
that seem to imply that maximizing the diversity of religious beliefs keeps any
one of them from gaining control of political power. For Jefferson, “religious
freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissension: the maxim
of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where its true form is
‘divided we stand, united, we fall.’” The greater the diversity of beliefs, the
less likely any of them will have enough strength to gain political power. And
so, as far as religious beliefs go, “divided we stand.”
This same approach would appear to be spelled
out more directly in James Madison’s famous Federalist 10, dealing with the
danger of factions. The problem with factions is, for Madison, that there are
generally too few
of them. With a mere handful of factions, each “united and actuated by some
common impulse of passion,” it is all too easy for one of these factions to
swell to a majority and gain political ascendancy. Once having gained its
position of power, it can then steer the republic in its own particular
direction. The cure is to continually stir up more factions, especially
from the national level. And Madison makes clear this principle applies to
religion. While “in particular states…a religious sect may degenerate into a
political faction in a part of the confederacy…the variety of sects dispersed
over the entire face of it [i.e., the nation], must secure the national
councils against any danger from that source…” In strategic sum, the more
sects, the better, and so wise leaders will encourage religious faction.
This raises an almost impossibly delicate
question about James Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights, and hence the
First Amendment. Is the affirmation of the right of every man to belief
whatever he wantsreligious liberty understood in the way that Madison
expresses it in his “Memorial and Remonstrance”a way to promote a greater
number of Christian sectarian factions, so that none of them will, by majority
rule, be able to gain control of the national government?
I am not just asking the relatively benign
question, “Does the free exercise clause help to keep any one Christian sect
from attempting to establish itself as the national church?” The obvious answer
would have to be “yes.”
I am asking the more delicate, even explosive
question: Did Jefferson and Madison believe that maximum religious plurality was
something the national government should actively promote?
Or, put more pointedly: Is Christian
unityprayed for by Jesus Christ, “for those who believe in me…that they may be
one” (John 17:20-21)precisely the thing that the state must both fear and seek
to undermine at every turn?
Is, then, the affirmation of religious liberty,
defined as the right to believe whatever one wants, a kind of “divide and
conquer” strategy, one that continually and quite purposefully undermines the
essential Christian goal of unity?
I think there is reason to answer both “Yes” and
“No,” and both answers will help Christians defend themselves from current
attempts by the secular state to extinguish the church and its public
YesIt’s a Trick! Spinoza’s Subterfuge
To understand more fully how the affirmation of
religious liberty, or more exactly, the right to believe whatever one wants,
was designed as a strategy of divide and conquer we’d have to go back beyond
Jefferson and Madison to Benedict Spinoza, the great 17th century
radical Enlightenment thinker.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to delve
deeply into Spinoza, but as an overview we can say the following. Spinoza was
one of the first great modern freethinkers, an atheist or a pantheist
(depending on how one cashes out his assertion that “God is nature, and nature
is God”). In either case, he was a devout enemy of Christianity and his own
Judaism, devoted to his own reason against the dictates of any revealed
religion because the latter (so he believed) was derived from the foolishness
of irrational superstition.
The great problem for Spinoza was what has been
called the theological-political problem: tersely put, in all societies the
many religious fools lord it over few enlightened philosophers. This was the
problem he set himself out to solve in his famous Theological-Political
His solution, as you may have guessed, was to
assert the absolute right by nature of everyone to believe anything he wants.
Or to put it in its proper political settingand here we note that Spinoza is
rightly held to be the father of modern political liberalismeach person has
the natural right to believe whatever he wants as long as he is publicly
law-abiding. Belief is private; morality is public. One has the right to
believe anything one wants about God, as long as one behaves (and especially
ceases to bother others about their beliefs).
Spinoza’s solution had a two-fold, intended
effect. First, it flattered the “fools” by ascribing to each one of them the
extraordinary right to define God as they each saw fit. Second, it shielded
Spinoza himself, an atheist or pantheist, from public persecution by
Christians. In the liberal state as he defined and designed it, Spinoza, too,
had the absolute right to define his own beliefs.
But to return to our previous point, the
affirmation of this right would effectively multiply the number of different
beliefs accordingly. The more deeply each person affirmed his own right to
define his own religion, the more religions there would be. The more
individually-constructed religions, the more each would consider it essential
to protect this right, thereby empowering the liberal state to ensure that each
person’s private beliefs were protected from assault by others’ beliefs. The
ultimate result, after some churning, would be a secular, liberal state, one
defined by no one’s beliefs and hence by unbelief.
Played out in this way, Spinoza’s atheism
becomes the default “belief” of the liberal state. Or, we might say, unbelief
has become the established belief, the established religion.
Jefferson and Madison are, arguably, heirs to
that strategy, although as Deists their established belief was gotten as the
result of the subtraction of Trinitarianism leaving the remainder of
Unitarianism. Not as radical as Spinoza, but leaning in that direction.
Historically, our liberal state has now gone beyond the wan Deism of these
founders, and is pushing toward the complete secularist unbelief that has
already been firmly established in Europe’s liberal democracies. Spinoza won
NoReligious Liberty is Good! That’s Why the
Church Invented It
Here, too, we’ve got a much longer story that
would have to be conveyed to fully understand the point, but in overview we can
recover an older sense of religious liberty which actually affirms the unity of
the church, rather than dismantling it by dividing it into ever smaller
It will surprise readers, perhaps, to find out
that what we call the “separation of church and state” was actually invented by
And not recently, either. The principled distinction between the church and
political power was something hammered out by the church between the 5th
and 12th centuries.
Ecclesiastical and political poweror priestly
and royal, as they called itmust be kept distinct because each has its own
specific function, and each becomes corrupted by trying to usurp the function
of the other. The church deals with the eternal fate of the soul, and state
with the temporal cares of this world. When the church usurps political power,
it becomes worldly and corrupt, using its spiritual resources for mere
political ends. When the state usurps the domain of the church, it uses
spiritual power as an instrument for political gain, bending doctrines to suit
its worldly goals and engaging in endless political simony and nepotism. For
the good of each, the church and state must keep to their own proper domains.
The reforming popes during this period pushed
this distinction between church and state largely because they were combating
the various attempts by Christian kings, emperors, dukes, and other land lords
to subordinate the church to their political aims, as in, for example, the
widespread custom of kings and lesser land holders appointing priests and
abbots of their own choosing, or of treating the churches on their lands as a
ready source of tithe revenue, or even of meddling in doctrine. The church must
be independent offree fromsuch manipulation.
And that is the proper, original declaration of
religious liberty: the right of the church to be free from manipulations by the
Note that this is a very different thing from
the notion that each of us has a right to define our belief in God any way we
fancy. It is a freedom from state interference or control so that the
churchthe unified churchcan go about its work, the care of souls.
In a secondary, but very important sense, it is
the freedom of the state as well The freedom of the state not to be turned into
a theocracy with priests ruling as kings, the freedom of the state not to be
turned into a monastery with the most stringent demands for holiness imposed on
everyone by political force, the freedom of the state to govern the things of
this world according to the best dictates of the virtue of prudence, the
freedom of the state from having to settle doctrines and doctrinal
But doesn’t this last freedomthe freedom of the
state from having to settle doctrines and doctrinal disagreementssomehow land
us back in the puzzler, with the secular liberal state imposing non-belief?
No, there is a very big difference, all the
difference, in declaring that the state should keep out of doctrinal quarrels
(a prohibition of state power), and declaring that the state should impose
unbelief by actively removing all vestiges of Christianity from our
civilization (a positive mandate, of which the HHS mandate is a living
Or, more deeply, there is all the difference,
between defining religious liberty as the right of the unified church to be
free from manipulations by the state, and defining religious liberty as the
right of every individual to believe whatever he wants, which destroys the
unity of the church and leaves the individual powerless before the
manipulations of the state.