A Wall of Containment?
The American Myth of Religious Freedom
by Gerald J. Russello
The experience of reading Kenneth Craycraft’s The American Myth of Religious Freedom is much like that of the characters in the recent science-fiction movie The Matrix. In the film, a group of computer hackers discover that the “real” world in which they live is actually an artificially created construct, designed to deceive humanity into believing in a world that does not in fact exist so that humans do not revolt against the computers who have assumed control.
In this controversial book, political theorist Kenneth Craycraft outlines a world that he contends is also false and designed to enforce compliance with its masters. Craycraft’s argument, in a nutshell, is that the United States is living under a mythical belief called “religious freedom,” which is protected by a First Amendment drafted to protect that freedom. The truth, Craycraft contends, is far different—and far worse. Religious freedom is, in fact, a myth because “[r]ather than protect authentic freedom of religious thought and practice . . . [t]he American myth has given rise to a set of symbols, rites, and institutions which always subject religion to itself, and often positively hinder religious practice” (original emphasis). Rather than protect something called “religious freedom” from governmental power—as the myth has normally been understood by those under its spell—the First Amendment instead shields state power from interference from religious belief, and reduces religious faith to opinion.
To support this powerful critique of a bedrock of the American system, Craycraft examines the work of four figures, three of whom are of importance to the contemporary understanding of religious liberty: John Locke, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. The fourth figure is the Jesuit political theorist John Courtney Murray. Murray was largely responsible for the Roman Catholic Church’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, which was issued during the Second Vatican Council and which, it is thought, “modernized” the Catholic Church’s views concerning religious freedom. Craycraft argues instead that the views expressed by Murray and the Declaration, properly understood, provide a different and stronger basis for religious freedom than the American “myth.”
Through a close reading of several key texts, such as Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration and Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, as well as a discussion of the controversy surrounding Virginia’s adoption of its statute on religious freedom, Craycraft argues that Jefferson and Madison, following Locke, recast the understanding of religious faith in order to align it with an emerging secular liberalism derived from the Enlightenment. This altered understanding, by maintaining outward signs of adherence to the traditional understanding, was able to eliminate any possible opposition from religious believers to liberal thought, and it deprived religion of grounds on which to oppose it.
Locke, Jefferson, and Madison made the following two crucial alterations to the traditional Western understanding of religious faith. First, they shifted the focus of religious belief from the Church—understood as an institution ordained by God to spread the divine message—to the individual; and second, they advanced the view that toleration, not dogma or fidelity to God’s Word, was the defining feature of any “true religion.”
These two moves, especially the second, may not be all that harmful; who can argue against toleration? Yet, as Craycraft convincingly demonstrates, this toleration moves only one way, from religion toward liberalism, and not the other way around. That is, liberal thinking, such as that expressed by the First Amendment, will tolerate only those religions that already accept (or are made to accept) liberal premises about the meaning of toleration, the nature of faith, and the basis for individual rights. Those that do not are simply not acceptable within the liberal state.
The first shift, from church to individual, arises from Locke’s view of freedom of conscience as a “pre-political” right, i.e., a right that can be asserted against any other individual, and even against a church or God himself. This “freedom” in turn, has resulted in the intensely individualistic understanding characteristic of religion in America, especially in American forms of Christianity. “In the American religion, whatever grace is available is given in an inward experience of illumination, apart from community. Any sense of corporate identity is simply the serendipitous coming together of those who have had a similar individual experience.” Since there can be no “teaching authority” due to the individualistic nature of faith, churches are therefore accidental, and can serve no real doctrinal or corporate function. They are merely congeries of individuals who happen to believe the same way, and not institutions separate and apart from their members that are imbued with a sacred trust.
This secularized understanding of faith has a political complement. Churches can have no independent juridical or political existence apart from what the state wishes to grant them for its own purposes, such as moral education or helping to keep civic peace. Only individuals have freedom, and their freedom to believe has no connection whatsoever to churches as corporate entities. Therefore, no church can correct the beliefs of its members, because it has no separate right or ability to teach “truth.” While the state also cannot enforce particular beliefs, it can constrain or restrict the expression of beliefs, or the behaviors predicated on them. Thus, Craycraft argues, Locke allows the Church no power to influence the polity, while granting the state power over both churches (since they have no rights or independent existence) and individuals (insofar as their beliefs occasion conduct deemed injurious to the state).
Locke’s second innovation concerns the content of belief. Locke establishes tolerance as the central doctrine of Christianity, rather than doctrinal purity or clear theological teaching. Locke denies the possibility of there even being any such thing as a “true opinion” concerning matters of faith. Thus, freedom of conscience cannot be questioned by secular or ecclesiastical authority. “Locke removes the possibility of religious truth from the equation, and thus, of course, makes all religious belief irrational except religious belief which says that religious belief is irrelevant.” Toleration, therefore, becomes only a mask for a pronounced agnosticism about the existence of truth. The force of this attack against traditional Christian notions of church sovereignty and the importance of doctrine was hidden by Locke’s rhetoric, which seemed to present its argument along lines compatible with Christian orthodoxy.
Locke’s argument traveled across the ocean to the New World and strongly influenced certain members of the founding generation, particularly Jefferson and, to a lesser extent, Madison. Jefferson, of course, was widely known to be unsympathetic toward traditional Christianity. Jefferson carefully read Locke, as his heavily annotated copy of the Letter Concerning Toleration makes clear. Madison’s debt to Locke, however, is less obvious, as he has often been considered generally favorable to organized religion, both politically and in his own personal life.
Craycraft acknowledges the difficulty: “It cannot be shown that Madison was a student of Locke. But it can be shown that Madison’s thought is consistent with Locke’s.” Craycraft argues that Madison, even if he knew of Locke, was reticent to acknowledge his debt to him. Instead, Madison engaged in an “ironic” rhetoric that furthered religious liberty “out of fear of religion’s potentially subversive effect” on the new American nation and that only seemed to be friendly to religion. Craycraft does not dispute the historically close relationship between politics and religion in America, nor does he dispute that most of the founders, as well as the large majority of the founding generation of Americans, would not have agreed with the anti-religious attitude (as he argues) of Madison or Jefferson. However, despite this contrary evidence, Craycraft argues that a “hostility” toward religion is present in the constitutional order through the writings of Jefferson and Madison, and it is this attitude that has infected the American understanding of religious freedom.
Employing detailed readings of both the Remonstrance and the so-called Detached Memoranda, Craycraft argues that Madison in effect means the opposite of what he says, and does so deliberately. Like Locke, Madison sets the individual conscience in a pre-political stage, and states that churches are mere voluntary associations, subservient to the needs of their members and to political authority. But Madison states these propositions in a way that makes it seem as if he is removing boundaries to religious freedom, rather than subordinating religious activity to political activity, and indeed doubting the existence of religious truth. In adopting an “ironist” stance, the “aims and goals [of Locke and Madison] are not apparent from their public words; which in fact are other than the superficial meaning of their public words.”
Having established the tainted sources of the religious freedom “myth,” Craycraft proceeds to outline an alternative understanding of religious freedom, one grounded in the thought of Murray and the Declaration on Religious Liberty. Some of this argument will be of interest only to those who have followed the continuing disputes over the legacy of Murray, and whether his contention that Catholic thinking on individual dignity and the political order is compatible with American democratic liberalism remains viable. The general argument Craycraft outlines is that the Christian tradition founds human dignity not in pre-political “rights” but in the obligation of every individual to seek the truth. The political “right” to religious liberty arises only out of that obligation, and not out of a vague freedom to embrace any opinion at all.
Craycraft has written a stirring work that challenges the central ideas of the liberal project of tolerance. Moreover, he demonstrates that an alternative understanding of human rights, based in a commitment to truth, is not only compatible with individual freedom, but also in fact supplies a stronger grounding for that freedom and accords with the longer Christian tradition. It is a worthy contribution to the debate over the future of liberalism.
However, Craycraft’s argument is less successful in translating his largely accurate theoretical insights into the historical framework of the American understanding of religious freedom. For example, although Madison is usually credited with being the “Father of the Constitution,” it was not Madison, but Fisher Ames, the conservative Massachusetts polemicist, who drafted the First Amendment. Madison’s draft, which would have protected a much broader “freedom of conscience” and further supports Craycraft’s analysis of Madison’s ideas, was rejected. Craycraft acknowledges this, but opines that “Madison could rest assured that his case had been made, that the spirit was in the air, and that his compromise was a temporary tactical concession in an otherwise successful strategy.” This conclusory statement, even when supported by the authority of scholar and judge John T. Noonan, Jr., is insufficient to support Craycraft’s contention of Madison’s “ironic” influence over the subsequent interpretation of the First Amendment.
It should be remembered that the First Amendment provides that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof. There is no real doubt that at the time of the founding, the First Amendment was understood to apply only to the national government, to protect the states from a national church. For two generations after 1787, some states continued to have officially supported churches and for even longer, most states provided varied forms of support for religious institutions. Craycraft does not explain how Madison’s and Locke’s view of religion was able to trump that of the other founders and the large majority of Americans, especially when, as Craycraft contends, Locke and Madison seemed to be agreeing with the popular understanding.
Further, as scholars such as Donald Lutz and Barry Alan Shain have demonstrated, the constitutional traditions of the colonies were rooted in a localist, covenantal Protestant tradition as much as (if not more than) a Lockean one. The fading of this tradition from the national constitutional scheme is due to forces beyond that of Madison or Jefferson, though they surely played a part. The rise of Jacksonian democracy in the 1820s and 1830s represented in part a revolt against “high church” establishments; the Civil War introduced a much larger role for the national government into state affairs; and the dangers of fascism and Nazism in this century may, it has been plausibly argued, have persuaded the Supreme Court to become suspicious of officially sanctioned belief and to extend, despite its obvious language, the First Amendment to the states. It is perhaps not coincidental that the major early “secularizing” cases, such as Everson v. Board of Education, appeared at the close of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War.
As a political theorist, of course, Craycraft need not have mentioned these historical events. His analysis casts much-needed light on the intellectual background of the supposedly religion-friendly First Amendment. Once the Supreme Court began eroding the First Amendment’s protections of state-supported religious institutions, it readily turned to Madisonian and Lockean suppositions to support its decisions. Whether it was Madisonian “ironic” logic that caused those decisions in the first place is less clear. Much can be laid at Madison’s door, as Craycraft rightly points out, but not everything.
Gerald J. Russello is an attorney in New York City. He is the editor of Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson (Catholic University of America Press) and has published essays and reviews in American and British journals. He is presently working on a book on the thought of Russell Kirk.
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“A Wall of Containment?” first appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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