Liberal Religion and American Freedom

February 11, 2013

Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality, by Martha C. Nussbaum (New York: Basic Books, 2008)

NussbaumAs a liberal, I have always believed that it is important that we keep religion and politics clearly distinguished and that we avoid the intermingling of political and religious authority and power.

Not that I have always been consistent. While not objecting to released time religious education when my children were in public school, I opposed (as did most liberals) the use of tax money to support any activity related to parochial, especially Catholic, schools.

In recent times, I have worried about the way that secular civil policies are being interpreted in Europe. In our country, I have puzzled over the right policy concerning the insistence that full face photos have to appear on drivers’ licenses regardless of religious disciplines. Increasingly I have been distressed by the alliance of right wing politicians and conservative Christians (Catholic and Protestant) who are seeking to enforce certain religiously defined practices and prohibitions by governmental action.

Lately, I’ve puzzled over what might be the right course of action, and on what grounds, with respect to requiring that health plans be required to provide contraceptive coverage.

All of the above makes be appreciate Martha C. Nussbaum’s book Liberty of Conscience. At the University of Chicago, she holds appointments in the Philosophy Department, Law School, and Divinity School, and she brings all of these disciplines to bear upon her analysis.

Nussbaum illuminates how distinctive the American system of religious freedom is in the history of human societies. It has very few ancient precursors. Contrary to what I had assumed, it is not a product of the European Enlightenment.

Instead the initiator of this organizing principle of the American experiment was Roger Williams, an ardent Puritan preacher and prophet whose convictions about soule libertie ran counter to orthodoxies in Europe and the American colonies, including New England—the “City Set on a Hill.” Its basic characteristics were developed into a constitutional structure by a remarkable group of American political figures, including Jefferson and Madison.

Since then, the system has been developed and interpreted, although in back and forth fashion, because of changes in American life and deepening judicial reasoning. Unfortunately, the system has been threatened by fear and paranoia, and by flawed decisions of the Supreme Court. Nussbaum’s illustrations include bad decisions by Justice Frankfurter in an earlier period and by Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Rehnquist in more recent times.

It is clear that the American system of freedom, fairness, and equality—all based on the first amendment—must constantly be tended, nurtured, defended, and interpreted. It is easy to draw the conclusion, although we ought to be cautious in so doing, that this pattern should be lifted up as a standard for other nations and societies.

One reason why the system has worked better here than in Europe, is that Americans have defined themselves politically rather than by blood or soil. We have violated our own principle in matters of race and ethnicity; but even here the deeper principles of equality and fairness have begun to help our nation work toward a better life for the diverse peoples of the nation.

Nussbaum calls attention to the relative ease with which the United States has accommodated Muslims in recent times. Our political tradition, she suggests, has been well taught and has penetrated deeply into the American psyche.

Liberty of Conscience is tightly argued, extensively illustrated, and interesting. In contrast to a suspense novel, however, it can be put down and is sometimes difficult to pick up again. Much of the exposition revolves around cases in the Supreme Court in which the meaning and application of the first amendment have been developed. A good way to make personal notes for the sake of understanding and remembering the book would be to make a list of these cases with identifying comments for each one.

Nussbaum often refers to the separation of church and state. Although she appreciates the intention of this idea, she skillfully shows that ideas of fairness and equality are more useful in helping us maintain liberty of conscience in American life.

Among the book’s strengths are the introduction and conclusion. In the introduction Nussbaum summarizes her intentions for the book and gives defining paragraphs for eight concepts and six principles that are central to the American tradition of religious equality. We would do well to commit these lists to memory!

The conclusion offers a concise and hopeful exposition of the American commitment to developing and maintaining an overlapping consensus about matters of individual conscience and the wellbeing of the society. With many others, including Nussbaum, I am anxious about threats to the American tradition of religious equality. This book helps me understand it better than I did and bolsters my confidence that this tradition will prevail.


Roger Williams and personal freedom

January 7, 2013

BarryRoger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, by John M. Barry (Viking, 2012)

In her book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic Books, 2008)Martha C. Nussbaum alerted me to the importance of Roger Williams to the American system. It was John M. Barry’s book on Roger Williams that deepened my understanding of Williams’s place in our history.

Williams was born in 1603, twenty-nine years before the philosopher John Locke and 140 years prior to Thomas Jefferson, who was one of the primary architects of the church-state relationship that is basic to the American system. A well-educated and well-placed Puritan theologian, Williams was a major player in one of the most tempestuous periods of English history.

He stood alone in political and philosophic history in his claim that individuals should be granted freedom of conscience in religious matters. Williams founded the North American colony that came to be known as Rhode Island, which was the first (and for a long time the only) place in the world where there was a clear separation of government and religion.

Williams pursued his ideas at great personal risk, both in England and the North American English colonies. Despite the strange name and convoluted character of his most extended book (The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, discussed in A Conference betweene Truth and Peace), Williams anticipated the principal ideas in John Locke’s A Letter on Toleration (1689) and laid the groundwork for the work that Jefferson and his contemporaries did to establish religious freedom in the new American nation.

Barry describes the way things were in English society (which was similar to the rest of the “civilized” world of the time). Four features marked that world.

  1. It was believed that the viability of the state required uniformity of religious belief and practice.
  2. The highest-ranking political ruler determined the religion that would be recognized and enforced throughout the realm.
  3. The stability of the political order required that the state enforce conformity and suppress dissent.
  4. This enforcement depended to a great extent upon harsh punishment, including: arbitrary imprisonment in life-threatening conditions, mutilation (cutting off ears, splitting noses, boring holes in or cutting off tongues), banishment (as in the case of Williams, when John Winthrop forced him out into the New England wilderness in the dead of winter, with death a strong possibility), and public execution by torture.

The social systems of England and the colonies were tightly intertwined and in full agreement on the four elements listed above. The primary difference was that the colonies were able, because of the ocean between them and England, to maintain their own Puritan version of this system.

Williams’s revolutionary contributions can also be summarized in a few points.

  1. He came to realize that religious belief is individualized and widely variant.
  2. Therefore, to require uniformity of belief and practice violates the basic structure of a person’s life.
  3. The intertwining of religion and politics corrupts both partners and leads to cruelty and violence throughout the society.
  4. The proper way to organize society is to allow freedom of religion, except when religious practice would threaten public order within respect to civil matters.

Barry frequently refers to sharply contrasting views of society, John Winthrop’s “City Set on a Hill,” that organized the state according to theocratic principles found in the Old Testament, and Williams’s view that called for “utter separation of church and state and individual rights” (p. 386).

In his early years, Williams learned about power, politics, and religion by working under Edward Coke, one of the central players in English politics. He observed closely and learned from Francis Bacon, one of Coke’s principal antagonists. He was closely associated with Henry Vane and Oliver Cromwell and with two generations of the Winthrop family.

Williams also devoted time to learning about the Indian tribes that surrounded and to some degree interpenetrated the New England colonies. He lived with them, learned their language, and established strong friendships with chiefs. In fact, it was this well-established friendship that enabled Williams to survive during the winter of his banishment.

Barry’s analysis of Williams’s life and times, and his exposition of the development of Williams’s ideas, acknowledge the gradual process by which his initial intuitions shaped his theology and political action. Williams remained an intense Puritan theologian to the very end, but in contrast to all of the others, he saw the difference between religious conviction and political systems.

More than any other, he was the one who developed a way of life that still is unique, often threatened, and much in need of constant protection and renewal. Political debate in America is confused enough these days, that a new Roger Williams would have much work to do!


Preaching on Politics and God

September 4, 2012

I’m watching TV a lot less these days, and for one reason. Virtually every broadcast dealing with news and opinion is dominated by the political campaigns leading to the November election. There was a time when the public political debate dealt with ideas, policies, and programs, which made it worth one’s time to tune in, but not this year. Even news casters and commentators whom I have valued in the past find themselves sucked in by the destructive character of the current campaign. My soul is troubled.

That’s why I sympathize—but only in part—with people who hope that in their churches on Sunday mornings they will find respite from politics. Instead of hearing more of the distortions and character assassinations that seem to be the nature of today’s political discourse, they want to be renewed in faith and once again be brought close to the eternal Spirit of Love at the center of the Christian faith.

Some preachers, however, resist this temptation to do the safe thing, which is to leave politics outside and preach only on the sublime truths of religion. Instead, they persist in connecting faith and public life. Here’s how one preacher explains the practice:

Ministers can’t help themselves. It’s an occupational hazard that goes back, not just through American history, but biblical history, too. Clergy feel called to speak the truth to the real situations of the day. You might like the truth. You might not like the truth. But that’s what ministers are called to do. And it doesn’t come from the authority of a church or a council or an employment agreement. It comes from a deeper place of faith. That’s why ministers speak.

This statement comes from a sermon by Scott Colglazier, senior pastor of First Congregational Church in Los Angeles. On the four Sundays of August, while the nation was preparing for the two political conventions, he preached a series of four sermons on the general theme, Politics and God.

The titles are provocative enough: The Separation of Church and State (And Why Every Christian Should Support It); God (And Other Liberals); God (And Other Conservatives); Dear Mr. President: One Letter from One Minister.

The sermons do not disappoint. The preacher speaks forthrightly about the liberal American political tradition in the light of a faith that is rooted in the message that was at the center of Jesus’ ministry:

Think about it… when he gave his first sermon in a Jewish synagogue, he claimed that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and that he was here to bring good news to the poor. He was here to bring release to the captives. He was here to bring sight to the blind. And he was here to liberate all who were oppressed. And he also said he was here to establish a year of Jubilee, and a year of Jubilee meant a year when old debts would be released and people would finally get out from under the crushing weight of all those student loans!

In his third sermon, Colglazier states his belief that a genuinely conservative quality also belongs to the Christian message.

So, is God a conservative? Well, in a way, the answer is yes. There is a part of God that never changes, like a great mountain that slopes down to the restless sea. God’s love for the broken spirit? That never changes. God’s desire for justice? That never changes. Just as in our democracy, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” should never change.

Although Colglazier draws upon the Bible to support his point of view (especially in the second sermon), he also draws extensively upon the American political tradition, including Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson.

Colglazier does more than proclaim these ideas in a broad, general way. He moves directly into public policy discourse, for example, commenting on Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the current debate over health care. It is easy enough to see where the preacher’s personal sympathies lie, but he successfully (as I read and listen to these sermons) avoids taking an explicitly partisan view. There’s no advice about who to vote for or which way to vote on healthcare or banking legislation (or any other issue that confronts the electorate today).

If more preachers were preaching like this, the political discourse on TV might be better. I might even pay attention, once again, to what the politicians and commentators are saying.

Note: Colglazier appends this “personal word” to each of the sermons in this series: “I think it’s safe to say that everything I learned about church and state, politics and God, can be attributed in one way or another to my friend, Dr. Forrest Church, who passed away a few years ago. Simply stated, he is behind every word of this sermon.”

The image of Paul preaching to the city is a detail from a Povey window at First Christian Church, Portland, Oregon.