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A Sure Foundation: 

It is an astonishing thing to read what the American Founders thought about its founding: for they regarded both the achievement of independence and a constitutional union as an act of Providence. Here’s Washington, for instance:

The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations…


To read the founders, of course, is to recognize the great distance our society has travelled since its founding. The dominant idea of freedom on the left as on the right – as freedom to do whatever I want – would be regarded by the founders (and virtually every religious and philosophical tradition of mankind) as a travesty, mere license for ignorance and debased passions, an invitation to spiritual bondage. Freedom, in the ancient and universal account, is the power to obey the law of one’s own being, to realize one’s own nature in accord with the design of Nature’s God. Freedom is realized in virtue, and virtue requires religion. As Washington said in his Farewell Address, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle” .

Given the antiquity and universality of such ideas, we may ask what brought about the late emergence in human history of religious and civil liberties in societies like ours, of the recognition of human rights, and of the institutions of liberal democracy. Historians have long recognized it has something to do with the Reformation, since it was from countries shaped by reformed doctrine (such as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States) that these ideas first emerged in stable forms. Exactly what that connection is, however, the historians are not always clear. The freedom of conscience prized by the 16th century reformers did not extend to disestablishment of churches or toleration of religious dissent. It was, rather, an inward spiritual freedom of the conscience from fear of God’s wrath, which it received in justification before God, through grace alone, on account of Christ alone, and by faith alone. Yet it is from this purely inward freedom that the outward freedom gradually emerges, as scholars like Bradford Littlejohn have argued.

For if Christ has made us free, then he is our Lord, and we owe all ultimate loyalty to him alone. All other claims to lordship over us are therefore radically qualified. They are at best provisional authorities, to which we submit according to the will of God, out of loyalty to Christ. In this loosening of loyalties to earthly powers, that the free individual emerged: one who might have to conform outwardly to the dictates of the community in which he found himself, but whose conscience could transcend those limits in judgments of truth. At the same time, those community authorities charged with upholding of public peace and order began to see that those public goods required minimal intrusion into the relation of the individual with the Lord, and the judgments of the individual conscience, and ever broader toleration of ideas and practices that might well be erroneous. Because the individual is answerable to God alone for the way he responds to God’s call, the role of public authorities in it is much diminished.

That’s a thumbnail sketch, that passes over the gradual and painful way in which the political implications of the gospel were worked out in thought and practice. But work themselves out they did, and so gave birth to the modern world. The question is, whether these ideas of religious and civil liberties, of individual human rights, which emerged out of the Reformation, out of the gospel itself, can survive without the gospel, as our societies move away from their Christian roots. It’s not insignificant, for instance, that much enlightened opinion, especially the opinion of the elite institutions, wants to subordinate the freedoms of religion and speech – those rights established in the very first Article of the Bill of Rights – to other pressing concerns such as those of gender, sex, racial justice, public health, and environmental safety, all of which require the state’s return to the policing of morality. You can live on your capital for a long time, if you have enough; but eventually, it runs out. The horrific collapse of the condominium tower in Surfside, Florida is a reminder: a building can remain standing for quite a while when its foundations are undermined, but eventually, it will fall, and the ruin of it will be great.

This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, July 11, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.