A National Conservative Faith?

The new National Conservatism “Statement of Principles” has interesting and concerning things to say about religion in America. Aimed at Western nations, but drafted and signed mostly by Americans, it evinces a receding American consensus about Christianity’s traditional role in America. Secularists on the left often want to banish it; now some on the right want its establishment.

The statement’s “Public Religion” section is brief but potent. And its first section is manifestly true for nearly all religionists and religion-friendly traditionalists:

No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition. For millennia, the Bible has been our surest guide, nourishing a fitting orientation toward God, to the political traditions of the nation, to public morals, to the defense of the weak, and to the recognition of things rightly regarded as sacred. The Bible should be read as the first among the sources of a shared Western civilization in schools and universities, and as the rightful inheritance of believers and non-believers alike.

Its second section is dicier:

Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private. At the same time, Jews and other religious minorities are to be protected in the observance of their own traditions, in the free governance of their communal institutions, and in all matters pertaining to the rearing and education of their children. Adult individuals should be protected from religious or ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes.

Does this section call for the state establishment of Christianity? It does not say so explicitly but arguably implies it. What does it mean for “public life” to be rooted in Christianity? What does it mean for the state to “honor” Christianity’s paramountcy? How should non-Christian private institutions “honor” Christianity? Is this expectation to honor Christianity mandated by law or upheld by social custom? If Jews and other non-Christians are “protected” to practice their faith in their own communities, is their religion then subordinated in public life by law or by custom? And if adults are protected from “religious or ideological coercion” in their private lives, are their public lives potentially subject to coercion, legal or social, in favor of Christianity?

The statement calls for these expectations in societies where Christians are in the majority. But fewer and fewer Western nations, especially in Western Europe, have firm majorities self-identifying as Christian. A 2018 Pew survey found only 41% in the Netherlands did, with bare majorities in Sweden and Norway. A 2022 Pew survey found that self-identified Christians in America declined across a decade from 75 percent to 63 percent. Does the calculus about rooting national public life in Christianity suddenly shift if self-identified Christians drop to 49 percent or less, which is possible in America and likely in most Western European nations? Needless to say, most of these self-identified Christians are not regular church goers and are unlikely to back “public Christianity.”

How is Christianity to be “rooted” in public life via the state or by consensus and habit through civil society? The United States historically does not offer “toleration,” which assumes a religious establishment, but religious freedom to all. In the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights authored by George Mason, James Madison successfully changed the language from “toleration” to “free exercise of religion.” That declaration’s language is instructive: 

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

The 1786 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson, was a natural follow-on to the Virginia Declaration of Rights by disestablishing the church. It declared that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” 

This concept of religious liberty and freedom of conscience was of course rooted in a Christian anthropology. The Virginia Statute’s first article explained: 

Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was his Almighty power to do . . .

The “Holy author” is obviously Christ. The Virginia legislators operated in a largely Christian milieu but did not wish to enforce it through government dictate. They preferred and assumed Christianity would depend on the churches and popular preferences expressed through civil society. This perspective prevailed in the U.S. Constitution, and its Bill of Rights, in which Madison and Mason were actors. Several state establishments, such as in Massachusetts persisted into the early 19th century, but their doom was foreordained.

Religion, and specifically Christianity, for Tocqueville best endures in society not through state policy but by public persons, no less than private persons, living up to its broad moral precepts, including decency, honor, compassion, self-denial, and humanity.

The Second Great Awakening, which generated new revivalist denominations resenting state establishments, further ensured the death of state religious establishments. Methodists didn’t want to subsidize Calvinists, and Baptists didn’t want to subsidize infant baptisms. Few wanted a state, local, or federal government to define Christianity. The Constitution does not mention God, except in the “year of our Lord” dating, not because its framers were indifferent to Him but because they did not legislatively want to define Him. They mostly agreed with Jefferson, an Anglican who was privately Unitarian, that “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” They also mostly agreed with John Adams, who was Congregationalist and privately Unitarian, that, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” even as Adams declined in his 1798 address to the Massachusetts Militia to define what that religion should be.

In this spirit, Alexis de Tocqueville famously thought Christianity “should be considered the first” of America’s “political institutions” and that Americans must “maintain Christianity…at all cost.” But he noted that Americans, descending from ancestors who had “escaped the authority of the pope, did not submit to any religious supremacy.” So, their religion and habits were “democratic and republican.” Tocqueville warned against any establishment of religion, which would politicize and discredit it. He thought “the only efficacious means governments can use to put the dogma of the immortality of the soul in honor is to act every day as if they themselves believed it” and that “it is only in conforming scrupulously to religious morality in great affairs that they can flatter themselves they are teaching citizens to know it, love it, and respect it in small ones.”

For Tocqueville, religion (and specifically Christianity) best endures in society not through state policy but by public persons, no less than private persons, living up to its broad moral precepts, including decency, honor, compassion, self-denial, and humanity. Perhaps here is a theme for the well-wishers of Christianity in American public life: higher moral standards in public life. Such moral standards may preclude the hardball politics that some advocates of “public Christianity” advocate.

Incorporating Christianity specifically into a political manifesto, especially in America, is vexing. For two centuries, religion in America has not rested on state power. Its vitality, and its failures, are its own doing. Any revival of Christianity in America, or anywhere, depends on persons and communities, apart from government, seeking God through faith, prayer, and a thirst for holiness, with acts of mercy and love.

Public life in America will become more “rooted in Christianity” and transcendence only if American Christianity itself experiences a revival. As Thomas Jefferson warned: “civil incapacitations” beget “hypocrisy and meanness and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion.” The Gospel simply admonishes: repent and believe.