Against Freedom of Religion: An Exercise in Courting Misunderstanding. Especially Given the Image I’m Choosing to Illustrate This.






I’m really worried that this is going to be misunderstood, but I’m publishing it anyway.  No, this guy is not advocating theocracy.  Kind of the opposite, I think.  I’m not sure.

This (I want to memorialize it as a bibliographic citation, not just a link, so see below) is quite simply one of the best, most interesting, most helpful things on the church-and-state question that I’ve read… in a long time, I think.

And this, I submit, is the real gravamen of the First Amendment religion clauses: not to protect the freedom of either the church or religious individuals, but to protect the state from influence by the church or religious individuals. So long as neither the church nor individual religious believers presume to judge the legitimacy of the regime or particular laws within the regime on explicitly religious grounds, both may enjoy tolerance; religious liberty is merely a means to the end of protecting the state. But when either church or individual presses the boundaries of the “truce of tolerance,” the First Amendment’s protection of the state from religious opinion will demand that the religious opinion or activity be abrogated.

Thus orthodox Christianity, as an example, is in double jeopardy. First, it violates the spirit of the myth of religious freedom by claiming that it may discipline the consciences of its individual members. The church insists that religious freedom is freedom of the church. Second, the church insists that its faithful and obedient members must be allowed full participation in the political process even if that participation leads them to cast votes, formed by church teaching, that either affect non-Christians or undermine the state’s necessary myths and rites, or both. The church violates both the end of the First Amendment and the means to achieving this end.

The third myth is that religious liberty is possible in any modern political regime. The first and overwhelming priority of any regime, including this one, is jealously to protect its principles, rituals, and institutions. One of those principles is a commitment to religious indifference.

By “religious indifference,” I mean an attitude of adherence to one set of religious doctrines, but without any concomitant idea that this excludes the “truth” of competing and contradictory religious doctrines. While one might believe that religion has some value to human life, it really makes little difference what that religion is, just so long as that central notion is maintained. Religious belief which would presume to exclude the truth (defined as usefulness to the individual consistent with irrelevance to political life) of other religious belief is an exotic intruder into a realm of indifference. This is exemplified by Thomas Jefferson’s quip that it neither picks his pockets nor breaks his leg how many gods his neighbor believes in. Religious opinion is not relevant to questions of politics and policy. Religious opinion that presumes to be so is, by definition, excluded from rational standing…

The fourth myth that needs to be dispelled is that religious believers are best off in a regime like this one that is so successful in propagating its myth of religious indifference; or worse, that such a regime is a product of Christianity. For Christians to assume that we have the “right” to enjoy the same liberty as everyone else is a prejudice borrowed from the alien liberal myth. And if the church assumes this prejudice it also assumes the philosophical and political story that informs it. Thus, it will find a need to give theological sanction to the very myth which has designs on marginalizing orthodox religious belief in America.

In other words, I do not believe that Christians have an interest in defending and furthering the idea of religious liberty as a political good. This is because the only regnant definition of religious liberty in American political discourse is one that has designs on marginalizing, if not eradicating as a significant presence, orthodox religious belief. The American story is not interested in persecuting Christianity to death. Toleration is a much more effective means, especially if the liberal regime is successful in enlisting Christians to give it aid and comfort.

The choice between liberalism and religious orthodoxy is not a choice between reason and dogma; rather it is a choice between competing dogmas. Or one could say that it is a choice between competing tradition-laden rationalities. In both liberalism and orthodox religious faith, the terms and conditions must be accepted as “reasonable” by one’s interlocutor; and what counts as reasonable is precisely the same as what counts as a legitimate reason. And what counts as legitimate reasons are those assertions that are consistent with the discourse of the community by which one is formed. Christians have no stake in liberal religious liberty, because they have no stake in the tradition that makes it “rational.”The Catholic idea of religious freedom is neither interested in, nor capable of, securing the kind of undifferentiated religious liberty that liberalism (falsely) claims to have secured, because the Catholic principle recognizes that such an idea of freedom in a pluralistic political society is neither a possible nor even an ideal good to be pursued. Like liberalism, Catholicism is concerned with establishing freedom for itself, on its own terms; unlike liberalism, the Catholic idea attempts to ground derivative political-religious liberty for non-adherents in its own theology. But it makes no claim that this derivative liberty is not necessarily relativized and mitigated by the church’s own precedent freedom, as granted by God. It does not claim to have a neutral principle. But this Catholic insistence that its own freedom is precedent does not, per se, distinguish it from liberalism. Liberalism, too, secures the highest level of religious liberty for its own adherents, while tolerating non-adherents within carefully constructed boundaries. The Catholic idea is simply more honest about the impossibility of securing, in principle, absolutely equivalent religious freedom for all people.Christians have no interest in finding a political principle which facilitates disbelief in Christ; their interest is rather to induce people to believe by witnessing to the resurrection of the Christ who, Christians believe, relativizes all political theories, and who commands that people bind themselves to none — indeed that we bind ourselves to Jesus Christ alone as King. In this context Stanley Hauerwas and Michael Baxter, C.S.C., have recently concluded that we might have to leave the problem of church and state “profoundly unresolved.” If a resolution implies that the theologian’s task is to give theological approval to a particular regime, I would say that it is the mandate of the theologian (and the religious believer more generally) to leave the question profoundly unresolved. The history of attempts to resolve the question is the history of religious believers sacrificing the integrity of their faith to the interests of the political regime.

This is not quite right.  It’s not.  He’s leaving things out, he’s dismissing any trace of post-milennealism, and above all he’s setting up an intransigent hostility which he believes Christians must have to authority as it is embodied on earth: he’s wrong here, because we must understand that it’s in the context of our own lives, our own responses to (relatively) good authority, that we are trained in the habits of virtue and loyalty and community membership.  If we’re in a polis that doesn’t throw Christians into the arena with the lions or Jews into the little rooms with the Zyklon-B, we must give great thanks, and we must work for the good of these relatively good polities.

But.  He so clearly articulates, here, my allergy to the neoliberal End of History triumphalism, that I can’t avoid one more quote: It is, he says,

precisely liberalism’s presumption to have put all questions to rest (on its own terms and by its own rules) which compels the Christian to be highly suspicious of this “solution,” and to work all the more diligently to find another more adequate theory particular to his own faith.

And one more thing: I think that the bibliographic citation is a beautiful tradition in danger of being lost in this era of linkfests.  It’s a technology of ordering information that, like the index and the chapter-and-verse references in Scripture, is something worth valuing.  And so I will do my part to keep it alive, right here:

Craycraft, Kenneth R.

“The Myth of Religious Freedom: ‘Tolerating’ Christianity into Irrelevance”

New Oxford Review, April,



10 responses to “Against Freedom of Religion: An Exercise in Courting Misunderstanding. Especially Given the Image I’m Choosing to Illustrate This.

  1. This reads like a profoundly and honestly confused wandering in a dark forest by an academic who turns to impenetrable sentences when he’s lost.

    He refers monolithically to orthodoxy, orthodox Christians, orthodox religious believers, Catholicism, the Catholic idea, and the Catholic principle — all as undefined but apparently rough equivalents within an American context. I feel they are all versions of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, absurdly repeated to suggest a consensus among “the Abrahamic faiths” or “people of faith” generally that has never existed.

    Reflection on what is and has been actually the case in the world — about different beliefs and loyalties — leads one to recall how the extremely violent clashing between Protestants and Catholics (and both against Jews, Anabaptists, “witches,” etc.) was the main reason for the rise and success of the officially “religion-neutral” liberal pluralist state, and of the United States more than any other nation.

    Yes the liberal state is not truly neutral, and neither were the states directed by Christians who enshrined their idea of sectarian orthodoxy in the laws of the land. In a real sense, the 30 years war did not end, or had its finish in the world wars of the early 20th century.

    Your apparently Catholic author seems to be realizing these things (dimly) and therefore entertains the suggestion of an Anabaptist theologian that religious faith should never align itself as necessarily for or against the state, or liberalism, or whatever — precisely because there is no “Christian” or “Catholic” or “religious” principle that can be *the one principle* to enshrine in law and bind all to its will. To do so would be to construct an idol, an ideology, perhaps a ready tool for crusading fundamentalists and Machiavellian skeptics alike who both worship a dark and violent deity.

    (Barth is very instructive on this point as well.)

    To come to this realization should be a profoundly troubling and humbling position for a Catholic to take, if he is the sort to speak so comfortably of institutional orthodoxies (another myth he apparently believes in) and the church’s primary goal of “inducing” people to believe its claims. The church, his church or any church, in its institutional form is little better than and not much different from the state. To see the institutional, Constantinian, imperial church as an abuse, a corruption, and something that would be unintelligible to Jesus and his disciples is not such a challenging idea for Anabaptists, which is what most Protestants and many Catholics have become, at least in their idea of the church, in the US. Yes they have a big point, but it is not an answer, it is an acceptance of a mess fraught with perils, and this is seldom recognized.

    “Institutional religion” that has prevailed for a long time with formative effect in a culture will have come to be a reservoir and protector of tradition. If we recognize the protecting institution is corrupt, or incredible, illegitimate, or failing and weak, it does us not good to merely concede this — still less to celebrate it. What becomes the primary problem then is the loss of the tradition and all its benefits, much of which is innocent of any crime and integral to society in ways that have come to be forgotten or denied in the larger cultural crisis.

    The single most important principle idea to come out of Israel and Europe may be the one enshrined delicately in our founding myths and deuterocanonical texts like the Declaration of Independence — all men are created equal. The spiritual or ontological equality of all people — understood as a single human race — has deep roots and perhaps its fullest articulation in St. Thomas, who saw humanity as being coextensive with the church/body of Christ. There is no “outside” or “Other.” It’s this insight that exposes the wrong of all institutional power put to persecutory use, even if centuries of Christians acted otherwise and tried to define their churches and nations as militant tribes facing demonic enemies, their neighbors.

  2. To the extent that Mr. Craycraft favors us with comprehensibility he tries to cover for poorly developed thought by means of wordiness. What does it mean to leave a question “profoundly unresolved,” as opposed to merely unresolved? He has to do this because he assigns himself the mission of disfavoring the separation of church and state, that has proven itself successful in bringing about circumstances under which religion thrives, and favoring the governmental supremacy of Catholicism which has proven successful in creating widespread hypocrisy. Ignoring history or other aspects of reality is rarely, if ever, useful.

  3. Trouble with this article is that it lacks historical perspective. The idea that our constitutional protections of freedom of religion are intended to protect the state from religious influence is a recent development. At the time the constitution was written religious percicution for being a quaker as opposed to a methodist was a very real problem.

  4. Three strikes and Craycraft’s out. Oy.

  5. Did you read this book? I looked it up on Amazon, and it kinda sounded like he does advocate theocracy. Or pines really longingly for it.

  6. I actually BOUGHT it. Haven’t read it yet. Will keep you apprised.

  7. In my humble and ardently Tory opinion, the separation of Church and State was not the greatest of ideas.

    • Tory opinion is not generally opposed to the idea, since state administered churches have been such an obvious and violent failure. Refusing to learn from the past is not traditionalism, it’s a disorder.

      Great ideas too are bad for states. Workable ideas are not. Great ideas like to impose themselves with many not so great policies.

      It’s just so much nonsense and trolling to look back fondly on a past when “our social betters” imposed religious tests as barriers to government service, loyalty oaths to monarchs as quasi-popes, discussed “the Jewish Question,” the “Irish Question,” and other questions about people who never were asked for their opinion.

  8. I misread a line in Dan’s comment above– I read it as “refusing to learn from the past is not traditionalism, it’s disorder.” And I loved it, read that way: weird that my gut-level aesthetic reaction to the word “disorder,” meaning lack of order, is so different from my gut-level reaction to “a disorder.” The first reminds me of Kirk, the second of Freud. But obviously it’s the same concept.

    So I think I have to really take on board your critique, here, Dan, as a corrective to the Chestertonian line of argument about not rejecting the past just because it’s the past. Refusing to learn from it, refusing all empiricism and experience in politics and economics, is to deliberately choose unwisdom and chaos. That’s not a healthy conservatism, that’s a lack of respect for reality and the feedback of history and the external world.

    • That’s a good way of reading it. Yes, conservatism in a time of crisis does seem prone to infections of dogmatists who love dogmatomachy, power, and even violence in the service of protecting goods that, even if they are truly good, will be spoiled by such handling. It’s like overparenting, or any temptation to use power to achieve what only can be achieved properly through friendship.

      Barth, like Voegelin who coined “dogmatomachy,” made this sort of observation and critique central in his theology of Providence. It seems to have been aimed squarely at the “Christian worldviewism” coming out of German idealism, historicism, and volksnationalism; he applied quite pointedly to the Kuyperian tradition, which undergirded Apartheid and repressive policies toward Jews in the Netherlands. It is something that culture-warring members of the religious right turn a blind eye to — this ugly past and also the very sound rejection of a Christian philosophy or politics as a deadly and enslaving idol. Just one passage from Barth:

      “…a vitally-self-renewing knowledge of faith [in Providence] is the faithfulness and constancy of God, can never be rigid, or clearly enough distinguished from an obstinate clinging to insights already won, a sterile repetition of a position already adopted. That history necessarily repeats itself, and that pictures once seen must be regarded as necessary today, is the very last thing to be expected by the man who believes in the providence of God. Hence he will not allow even a sound view of the historical process to become a strait-jacket.”

      Barth then says someone who really believes in Providence will be open to being wrong, to changing his mind, and refuse to try to smooth out the inconsistencies in his views over time because he is not trying to be true to himself but to the Word of God which he never has in full comprehension.

      You can obviously translate this epistemological humility to purely secular terms based on the idea that the meaning and end of history transcend your capacity to predict or fathom. Secular ideologies that claim mastery and answers on such a high level are then exposed for being religions, which is something Voegelin examined in great detail. I imagine he must have read Barth, but both were considering some of the same traditions of thought and working through the same chaos and wreckage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s