Our Mischievous Founding Fathers?

October 1999By J. A. Gray

J. A. Gray is Deputy Editor of the NOR.

The American Myth of Religious Freedom.  By Kenneth R. Craycraft Jr. Spence. 202 pages. $27.95.



Here is a substantial but compact essay in American political theory by an author who is nothing if not forthright. He offers this blunt double dictum as the title of the book’s concluding chapter: “There’s No Such Thing as Religious Freedom, and It’s No Big Deal.” After seeing that in the table of contents, I commenced my reading with two worries: As to the first clause of that conclusion — is Craycraft merely flippant? As to the second clause — has Craycraft simply flipped? These worries were soon assuaged by abundant evidence of Craycraft’s seriousness and scholarship. (The book has 32 pages of notes and is clearly the result of deep and wide reading, but it is easily accessible to the nonscholar.)

On page one Craycraft declares: “At the American founding, a young nation composed principally of strongly religious people came to believe erroneously that its nascent political and legal traditions were instituted in order to secure, protect, and even promote the tenets of Christianity.” By and large, religiously inclined Americans still hold that erroneous belief, and Craycraft sets out to correct our error. He notes that the word “myth” has a double meaning. A myth can be a formative story and a thing to live by; it can also be a delusion or a lie, a thing to be exposed and exploded; and “the American myth of religious freedom” is both.

We believe that our system of government secures freedom of religion for us. But, says Craycraft, we are deluded. Religious freedom is available only to those Americans who will conform themselves to the demands of the American regime, which are the demands of “modern liberalism.” The first demand is that we must regard the individual, the “self,” as “radically autonomous, forming associations freely, rather than being formed by any natural or supernatural community.” But, says Craycraft, there is no such self. “There is no mythical ‘me’ apart from the encumbrances that have made me who I am.”

The second demand is that we must regard a religion as a voluntary association of autonomous individuals making an unencumbered choice. Again, says Craycraft, no religion worthy of the name has such a self-understanding. “Jews and Christians, for instance, believe that God chooses us; we do not choose God.” The result must follow that “any community which antecedes and forms the self, rather than being spontaneously formed by radically free selves, is illegitimate in liberal theory.” In a liberal regime, “such a community has no legal or constitutional standing.”

The conflict — built in from the beginning — between “popular sentiment” (pro-religion) and “political theory” (anti-religion) is now becoming starkly evident in U.S. Supreme Court rulings on freedom of religion. “The liberal idea of religious liberty does not afford the same protection to the religious believer as to the non-believer.” But why has this conflict not been evident since the Founding? Craycraft says it was never meant to be evident. Even critics as sharp as Michael Sandel may think that “the modern Supreme Court has departed from the Founders’ understanding of religious liberty,” but Craycraft argues that there has been no departure, only fulfillment. “A closer look” at the Founders’ understanding — “at how Madison and Jefferson treat religion” — is what Craycraft goes on to offer us.

He begins, quite properly, by studying John Locke, “the intellectual giant behind these American myths,” and continues by examining the writings of Jefferson and Madison. These close readings by Craycraft make up the bulk of his book. The goal of all these men, he believes, was not merely to separate religion and state, and certainly not to promote religion, but positively to protect the state from any influence by religion and ultimately to diminish the power of religion across the board. They are his representative liberal theorists, and he shows them confronting religion (though often circumspectly) in their writings and working, both in theory and in practice, to contain it.

Craycraft then jumps to the 1960s and examines the major modern attempt to address — from the religious side — religion’s relations with the American-style liberal state. Here he gives us close readings of Fr. John Courtney Murray’s writings and of the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty” (Dignitatis Humanae), of which, says Craycraft, Murray was “one of the chief authors.”

Craycraft connects the 18th-century statesmen and the 20th-century Catholics with the following ingenious argument: Madison and Jefferson do not sound as if they are opposed to religion, but in truth they are. The purpose of the First Amendment’s clauses on religion (which seem on their face to mandate governmental neutrality toward religion) was not so much to leave religion unmolested in some neutral zone as to diminish religion — indeed, to neuter it. America’s foundational public language seems to accept and even to welcome religion as a legitimate part of a self-governing society established under the laws of Nature and Nature’s God. But this irenic language is ironic: The Founding Fathers didn’t really mean it.

Skipping quickly up to our day, Craycraft presents Fr. Murray, who preaches that Catholicism and the American system are compatible, yet seems sometimes to contradict himself: Craycraft finds a suggestive “tension” in Murray’s varied analyses. In Craycraft’s opinion Murray was neither muddled in his thinking nor deceived by the Founders’ dissembling. Murray, he says, was shrewd enough to know that Madison & Jefferson & Co. had intended to dilute the influence of religion, and Murray could see that the American system inevitably works to redefine religion according to liberal standards. So Murray became ironic in his turn. He decided to hold the Founders to their word — to the surface meaning of their public language. Though they had meant no good toward religion, he read them as if they had. Murray’s ironic reading was meant to trump Madison’s ironic writing: “Murray…understood that this misreading [of the Founders] is the only way Christianity can survive in America.” (One now sees, perhaps, why Craycraft in his Preface warns his reader that there are “strange ideas in this book.”)

In the final chapter he credits the Emperor Constantine with inventing the clever policy of disarming Christianity by “tolerating it into irrelevance.” Such a “Constantinianism” was also at the root of the American Founding, Craycraft says. So well has this strategy worked to denature our religious life that even those Americans who claim to be elucidating the importance of “religion” or “belief” in America can be complicit in the liberal project of redefining religion so as to marginalize it. His chief example is Stephen Carter’s 1993 book The Culture of Disbelief, which he dissects briskly and amusingly: In “Carter’s Lockean religion,” says Craycraft, “God is the Ultimate Pluralist.”

But a committed, orthodox Christian (or other believer) who gets this far in the book may feel very disturbed. If Craycraft is right, then we are all living a lie. Shouldn’t something cataclysmic ensue — revolution or alienation or capitulation? Craycraft, however, does not seem overly distressed. In his estimation the situation is dismal (“there’s no such thing as religious freedom”) but not fatal (“it’s no big deal”). In bringing the book to a close, he explains why it’s no big deal. “Liberalism claims to be a tolerant, procedural system in which all worldviews are afforded equal protection and respect.” But (and here Craycraft quotes Stanley Fish extensively) liberalism’s “reasons and truth-claims are as embedded and exclusive as anyone else’s.” Religious freedom as defined by liberalism doesn’t exist, because liberalism (as defined by liberalism) doesn’t exist.

This is a pert and suggestive ending to the book, though not an ending that satisfies. After all this parsing of definitions, the reader is ready for some instances, for concrete examples from American history and law that would support Craycraft’s repeated claim that the American regime denies both “the freedom of the church to name itself and to act accordingly” and religion’s “most fundamental and authentic freedom — that of a church which would presume to judge and, when necessary, condemn the regime as immoral.” The book offers no such instances, apart from brief mentions (back in Chapter One) of a handful of Supreme Court opinions and one op-ed page dispute. Evidently, the essay is a study of documents, not of history.

Nor is it in any sense a prescriptive essay. Craycraft seems content to diagnose the pathology of our theory of religious freedom without prescribing a cure: “Is this a call, then, for a new confessional state? No…. Mine is the more modest call for Christians and other religious believers to have a more cautious and circumspect reading of the First Amendment in particular and liberalism in general than many today have.”

This is an intriguing and vigorously argued book that raises fundamental questions, and Craycraft’s close readings of Locke, Madison, Jefferson, and Murray could be examined profitably by Americans of all persuasions, whether they think that the American public square should be — religiously speaking — stark naked, unobtrusively draped in nondenominational homespun, or splendidly clothed in rich vestments.

To groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Craycraft’s book might even prove to be terminally reassuring. They may decide, once they’ve read it, to disband and to fret no more, for if Craycraft is right our liberal state was designed to be fundamentally dismissive of religion, and the design has worked out in practice. If Craycraft is right, we have not — as many think — fallen away from our original character as one nation under God; we have simply become what our Founders intended us to be.



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