Liberty Matters

The Spirit of Religion and the Spirit of Freedom

All history is also rhetoric. Even the flattest narration of accepted facts involves selecting, prioritizing, ordering – in a word, a point of view. To tell a story about the past is always to some degree and in some way a moral-political act, an effort to shape the future.
The New York Times "1619 Project" is obviously a case in which the ratio of rhetorical and political action to sober historical narration is very high, outrageously high. Any observer moderately informed regarding the more or less established facts of American history, both the edifying and the disappointing, can easily see that the project of re-imagining the history of the United States of America in the sole perspective of the original sin of slavery is instrumental to the moral-political project of the identity politics of victimhood. Above and beyond the important discussion concerning the factual probity of the 1619 Project, the fundamental question citizens as well as scholars must learn to answer is whether we can ground our public discourse in an ideology whose putative shared "ideal" of equality is understood to be radically opposed to our actual historical inheritance. What good can come of the claim that up until now our country has been -- we have been (with the exception of the ontologically innocent victim categories, of course) -- fundamentally bad?
Sarah A. Morgan Smith proposes another perspective in which to understand our shared identity as a people and a more wholesome project for moving forward as a "body politic." What if we looked to the Mayflower Compact of 1620 as embodying, surely not the whole truth or the only truth, but a significant truth of our past that it makes sense to privilege in our deliberations about the future we are building together? The suggestion is unquestionably more than plausible historically and largely salutary as a moral-political proposition. Let us consider its meaning and its practical implications for us today.
A paradox immediately confronts us as we consider Dr. Smith's proposed framework for articulating American's meaning: Smith insists upon the religious origin of our foundational principles, but not, it seems, upon their religious meaning for us today. The Mayflower Compact is at once the "logical predecessor for later American experiments with contractual self-government and religious liberty," expressing "the essence of republican self-government, and "a logical consequence of the Separatists' religious doctrine." Thus the cash value for us today of a document rooted in a certain rigorous interpretation of Christianity, is nothing notably Christian, it seems, but, in Calvin Coolidge's inspiring words, "the grand doctrine, that all men are born equal and born free." Further on, as Smith concludes, it appears that the main contemporary take-away from our radical Protestant heritage is a resistance to "conformity," or a "toleration for social experiments" that would allow us to set aside "things indifferent" such as national educational standards or abortion policy, thus leaving people "free to pursue their convictions in small communities."
In her only rhetorical concession to something like religious enthusiasm, Dr. Smith speculates that such a diverse localism might "plant the seeds of flowers of yet unimaginable beauty." For my part, without necessarily conceiving the beauty of which the author speaks, I am more than ready to believe that reversing our polity's deep-seated centralizing momentum and devolving more decisions to "the convictions [of] small communities" would represent a significant improvement -- although, I would add, there is no guarantee that these localized decisions would always conform to some "shared commitment to equality and liberty in things indifferent." What counts as "indifferent" from the standpoint of justice understood as "equality and liberty" is precisely the question that so often divides us, it would seem; and one could say, moreover, that it is a certain egalitarian and libertarian idea of justice that drives the nationalizing conformity that Smith opposes.
This question of how a "shared [moral] commitment" can yield a polity of localized diversity returns us to the central paradox of Dr. Smith's essay, that of the religious source of a non-religious political ethic. Any quarrel I might have with the author on this point is not historical – in fact I think secular modernity in general is infused with a spirit inherited from radical Christian transcendence. (See my Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics, just for example.) The question, instead, is whether the Christian inspiration of modern secular notions of "equality" and "liberty" is good news. I think the news is, well, mixed.
Let us consider more closely Dr. Smith's understanding of the link between the Pilgrims and us. Smith proposes tracing our politics of liberty and equality to the dissenting congregationalism expressed in the Mayflower Compact. The individualism of "conscience" and the anti-hierarchical contractarian politics of the Separatists is held to be the "proving grounds for what became the Anglo-American social contract tradition." The transferability of the ethic of a religious community to a political doctrine of social contract was apparent from the beginning, Smith convincingly argues, in the original congregation's willingness to expand or blur its borders by "bind[ing] themselves together with those outside their religious community," in fact "adopting the same [religious] language of covenant commitment" in a non-religious compact. Thus the Pilgrims "were willing to separate religious conviction from political conviction in a way that their contemporaries in England found unimaginable."
Again, the paradox: the religious founding of a political ethic separated from religious conviction. The implication can be read in either direction. Either the pilgrims were secular or secularizing, and didn't know it, or we, in our commitment to libertarian equality or egalitarian liberty, are Protestant, and don't know it.
Alexis de Tocqueville was very alert to both these readings of the relationship between Protestantism and American equality. In the second chapter of Democracy in America (first volume, 1835)[1], this friend of Catholicism and of America, neither American nor quite Catholic, subtly probes America's New England origins. Our French friend in many ways anticipates Smith's argument: "in America, it is religion that leads to enlightenment; it is the observance of divine laws that guides man to freedom." (42) "Puritanism"[2]… was almost as much a political theory as a religious doctrine": it produced "a body of political laws which, drafted two hundred years ago, still seems to anticipate from very far the spirit of freedom in our age." (35, 39) According to Tocqueville, then, the radicalism of New England theology opens up a vast area of political freedom and innovation, "a field left by the Creator to the efforts of intelligence." (43)
Tocqueville, however, does not give the Puritans the final word in interpreting their First Founding (any more than he gives such a final word to our political Founders' vocabulary of social contract). The solidity of the "Puritan" founding (as well as certain of its excesses in the repression of personal vices) depended as much upon what the Puritans could not see and could not say as upon their inspiring political and religious rhetoric. The success of their bold innovation within the political domain, which their theology allowed them to see as "a field without a horizon," depended rigorously on the traditional and religious boundaries on this field that they accepted without question: "when [the Puritan] mind arrives at the limit of the political world, it halts….; it bows with respect before truths that it accepts without discussion." (43)
Tocqueville, like Dr. Smith, takes a very positive view of America's combination of "the spirit of religion and the "spirit of freedom." But, unlike Smith, he views this combination as "marvelous" – that is, as something that is not automatic but that history and Providence somehow put together and that must be held together, in part by moral truths accepted without discussion. And our French visitor seems less sanguine than Smith concerning an American Democracy in which the ideas of liberty and equality, fueled by a radical imagination that can be seen equally as religious or secular, might one day expand far beyond their practical religious origins.
Sarah A. Morgan Smith does well to remind us what we owe the religious founders of 1620. Now it is up to us fully to appreciate, not so much their explicit radical theology of congregational covenant and individual conscience, as the more complete implicit principles of their actual practice, biblical, traditional and natural. The Pilgrims built better than they knew.
[1.] I cite the University of Chicago edition, Mansfield & Winthrop translation.
[2.] Tocqueville does not distinguish between the non-separating "Puritans" and the "Pilgrim" Separatists.