Religion a Threat to, or Foundation of, Liberty?

The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831 to answer a critical question for his country. The American and French revolutions had been waged within 13 years of one another, both against despotic monarchs and upon fundamental principles of liberty and equality.

The American Revolution had proven an unprecedented success; the French Revolution a ghastly failure. What did America do right that France did wrong?

"On my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention," Tocqueville said, "and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great consequences resulting from this new state of things. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion - for who can search the human heart? - but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions."

French vs. American view

Tocqueville derided the French revolutionaries' belief that religion and liberty were incompatible. "Religious zeal, said they, must necessarily fail the more generally liberty is established and knowledge diffused. Unfortunately the facts by no means accord with their theory...." The Founding Fathers, unlike the French, understood that religious liberty is not a result of self-government. It is a prerequisite.

Religion thus formed the foundation of American liberty: the "self-evident" truth that the rights of all people are endowed not by the state, but by their Creator. As long as people derive their rights from, and hold their loyalty to, a higher authority, the state has natural bounds it cannot exceed. This is why authoritarian regimes throughout history are so hostile to religious liberty. It is a direct challenge to state authority.

The Founding Fathers also knew that, as a practical matter, civil government could be limited only to the extent that citizens are willing to govern their own actions. A population whose religious belief forbids doing injury to others lessens the need for authoritarian power. As John Adams observed, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

They also understood that despots often used religion as an instrument of state power. The medieval church provided a catalogue of the atrocities that occur when religion is co-opted by government. Thus, in addition to guaranteeing religious liberty, they forbade state usurpation of religion.

Jefferson, who coined the term "separation of church and state" in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, had a different concept than liberals who use his term today. Jefferson envisioned a nation in which religious liberty would guide and influence the life of the nation, safe from the corrupting interference of government.

While the American founders sought a nation of religious tolerance, the modern left seeks a state intolerant of religion. To them, as to the French revolutionaries, religion and liberty are inimical. Those whose religious convictions motivate them to public service or civic involvement are routinely branded as narrow-minded "theocrats," worthy of the most vitriolic scorn.

A writer's 'crime'

This point was driven home to me when a member of my staff was derided by a Sacramento Bee columnist. The staff member's crime? He had written an article for a church magazine urging Christians to get involved in politics. He might have a right to organize politically, sniffed the columnist, but "his words and actions are deeply threatening ... to a majority of Americans."

Deeply threatening? Jesse Jackson once asked, if you're alone in an alley and are approached by a group of young men, would you feel more or less threatened knowing they were leaving a Bible-study group?

Deeply threatening? Perhaps in the sense that archaic leftists feel threatened by a population that can't and won't condone offensive suggestions to their children, plunder their neighbors, or accept governmental intrusions into their families.

But threatening to liberty? George Washington answered that question in his farewell to the nation in 1796. "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens."

* Tom McClintock, a Republican from Los Angeles, represents the 38th Assembly District in the California State Legislature.

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