Religion and Liberty: From Vision to Politics

by Michael Novak

Mr. Novak held the George Frederick Jewett chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. at the time this article was written.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 6-13, 1988. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The liberty of conscience transcends any and all political orders. Human freedom rooted in God declares that all states and all political orders are under God. States can crush or kill human beings, but they cannot alienate them from their responsibility to God and conscience.

The French Catholic poet Charles Péguy once remarked that politics begins in mysticism, and mysticism always ends in politics. Or as I would paraphrase it: every form of "politics in depth" begins in a religious vision, and every vision that is incarnated in history must end in politics.

What we normally think of as politics, familiar to us from the daily press, concerns the public business of securing interests and exercising power. It is constituted by the actions of officials, administrations, agencies, parties, factions and citizens. What I am calling "politics in depth", consists of the convictions that seem self-evident to citizens. These in turn are the legitimating principles of politics. In the United States, the Declaration of Independence articulated these legitimating principles. "We hold these truths to be selfevident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

The problem that faced the framers of the Constitution 11 years after the Declaration was how to incarnate that vision in everyday politics. Granted such self-evident truths, how do we constitute a government worthy of the free persons so described? Although the revolutionaries had been given a "New Beginning," in a sort of "New Eden," they had every reason to fear that their actual conduct would subject them to the mockery of humankind.

In recent times we have learned that it is possible for humans to be free even in the prisons of the KGB. I have heard Soviet exile Natan Sharansky. for example, testify how he retained his liberty even in solitary confinement. Like so many prisoners before him, Sharansky discovered personally what Jefferson meant by calling human rights "unalienable." All the KGB required of Sharansky was that he confess his error, admit that he had been wrong. Yet Sharansky felt more powerfully the requirement of his own conscience, in the presence of another Judge. The KGB could restrict Sharansky’s diet to bread and water, and could impose a series of other punitive measures, but it could not alienate him from his fundamental liberty. Sharansky maintained the freedom to say No. As he has testified, he found a nourishing, strengthening liberty at the very heart of creation, a liberty to say Yes to the God who made him -- and made him free -- and No to his tormentors.

This liberty of conscience transcends any and all political orders. Human freedom rooted in God declares that all states and all political orders are under God, limited not omnipotent. States can crush or kill human beings, but they cannot alienate them from their responsibility to God and conscience.

But precisely because this freedom transcends all politics, it does not of itself constitute an order within which the liberties of human beings are secured. The purpose of instituting governments, as the American framers noted, was not to enumerate human rights but "to secure these rights."

Thus, the fact of religiously grounded liberty, when confronted with concrete, social conditions, leads directly to the question of how such liberty ought to be ordered. How should a this-worldly order be constituted so as to be worthy of the free persons for whom it is introduced? A prison liberty is not sufficient. An ordered, institutional, routine liberty must also be imagined and secured. In tackling this problem the Constitution’s framers were well aware of one crucial lesson taught by Judaism and Christianity: human beings, however good, are always moved by appetite, disordered will, passion, ignorance, even bigotry, intolerance, enmity, greed and narrow self-interest. Russell Kirk, in a splendid study of the Constitution, The Roots of American Order (Open Court, 1974) , writes:

A conviction of man’s sinfulness, and of the need for laws to restrain every mans will and appetite, influenced the legislators of the colonies and of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson, rationalist though he was, declared that in matters of political power, one must not trust in the alleged goodness of man, but "bind him down with the chains of the Constitution."

A principal difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution was this: the American revolutionaries in general held a biblical view of man and his bent toward sin, while the French revolutionaries in general attempted to substitute for the biblical understanding an optimistic doctrine of human goodness advanced by the philosophies of the rationalistic Enlightment. The American view led to the Constitution of 1787; the French view, to the Terror and to a new autocracy [p. 29].

Fearing "the tyranny of the majority" as much as they feared any tyranny, the framers recognized the need to check the democratic principle by the republican principle of representative government. They sought to provide new "republican remedies" for each of the "republican diseases" apparent in history. They took care to "see that ambition be made to counteract ambition."

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other -- that the private interest. of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights [Federalist Papers, No. 51].

The framers saw little point in designing a "new order" for saints. There are too few of them, and they are often the most dangerous tyrants of all. Therefore, they hedged liberty around with institutional checks and balances.

The framers also paired the notion of limited government and the notion of government under law and under God. Regarding this second pair of notions, they decided, on the one hand, to limit the powers of government so that it could not intrude into the realm of religion or conscience. They resolved, on the other hand, to hold government accountable to the moral and religious conscience of free citizens, as expressed both individually and through existing communities of belief. Government may not impose upon conscience; on the contrary, government must be under conscience.

The framers recognized, in other words, that humans’ unalienable liberties entail transcendent obligations. Liberty means responsibility both to conscience and to the source of conscience, God. As a result, the framers often distinguished true liberty from false. To act in ignorance, in bigotry, in the inflamed passions of a mob or in brutality is not to act in liberty but in bondage. To act in liberty is to act from reflection and choice.

True freedom, then, requires a high level of human virtue, to which it is difficult for humans to ascend. Liberty has a price, and that price is the virtuous life, which the ancients of Greece and Rome with good reason regarded as the standard for civic behavior. An early version of the Seal of the United States showed the word "virtue" inscribed where, in the final version, the words Novus Ordo Seclorum were placed.

Without broad practice of the virtues appropriate to a free polity, the novus ordo, the new order, could not possibly survive. The reality of that new order is not protected by "parchment barriers," as James Madison noted, but by the virtues and institutions of its citizens.

The framers’ "in depth" view of liberty operated, then, on several levels. On the most immediate, practical level, these men saw the necessity of protecting the free conscience from its own tyrannical tendencies, which protection they achieved by separating the power of religious establishments from the power of the state. This is the political level. On a somewhat deeper but still visible plane the framers saw that the originality of the novus ordo -- what made it, in fact, a new order -- lay in the unprecedented degree of liberty each citizen possessed to define the course of his or her own "pursuit of happiness." This is the ethical level. On the most profound level, however, the framers recognized that ordered liberty depends mightily upon certain habits, virtues and practices -- that is, upon a moral culture of a highly developed type. This is the cultural level.

It was not for the framers to codify these moral prerequisites. In these intimate cultural matters they were prepared to rely upon the vigilance, moral seriousness and wisdom of their fellow citizens. But they knew that to lose this cultural undergirding would be to lose liberty. As Clinton Rossiter observes:

Whatever doubts may exist about the sources of this democracy, there can be none about the chief source of the morality that gives it life and substance. . . . [From the Hebrew tradition, via the Puritans, come] the contract and all its corollaries; the higher law as something more than a ‘brooding omnipresence in the sky"; the concept of the competent and responsible individual; certain key ingredients of economic individualism; the insistence on a citizenry educated to understand its rights and duties; and the middle-class virtues, that high plateau of moral stability on which, so Americans believe, successful democracy must always build [Seedtime of the Republic (Harcourt, Brace, 1953, p. 55)].

Citizens must take care to practice all the virtues that permit their daily action to spring from reflection and choice, in a manner worthy of their freedom, lest their exercise of liberty become a mockery, a parody, of liberty. The face on the Statue of Liberty is not that of a libertine, but of one seriously, resolutely, purposefully, seeking light, in the manner of one who tries always to walk in the light of the law, which is a lamp to her feet. As the hymn "America" enjoins: "Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law."

Though both the conception of human liberty and the virtues necessary to its true exercise sprang from biblical teachings, the framers were careful not to endow biblical religion, or any religion, with state power. But their alternative to a society with an established religion was neither a society with no religion at all nor a secular society. A state without power over religion is not necessarily a secular state. Though for a time social scientists gave credence to the secularization hypothesis, which predicted that American religion would become ever more privatized and American society ever more devoid of religion, this hypothesis appears to have been disproved. Both in private and in public, religion seems more vigorous today than at earlier periods in American history.

Given these peculiar circumstances, one cannot assume that the American experiment could be easily duplicated elsewhere. The establishment of appropriate institutions to order religious liberty in the daily political life of nations depends heavily on a practiced local eye, skilled in finding local remedies for local ailments and in matching local checks and balances to local ambitions.

Americans, for their part, should appreciate how much the Jewish and Christian traditions have provided the vision and context for creating and maintaining a society of ordered liberty. The belief that every human person possesses unalienable rights to liberty derives from a vision first introduced into history by Judaism and then taught to Christianity. Both Judaism and Christianity, despite historical sins and failures, cherish the religious liberty of even those who say No to their revelations. Both believe that true faith arises only in voluntary consent. Conscience can be neither feigned nor coerced. And the perfectionism to which Judaism and Christianity are committed is always both realistic and progressive. It respects particulars and concrete limitations but presses human efforts forward to the next, realizable steps. Unlike utopianism, Judaism and Christianity do not posit a sinless world. Russell Kirk in The Roots of American Order cites an illuminating passage from Neal Riemer’s The Democratic Experiment:

Because freedom from slavery and oppression were dominant themes in the Old Testament, the legacy of Israel and Judah nourished American liberty. It warned -- as in the story of the Tower of Babel -- against Man’s attempt to be God. It forced Man -- as in the story of Adam and Eve -- to recognize his mortality and fallibility and to appreciate that there can be no Utopia on earth. Again and again, it inveighed against the belief that Utopia can be captured and made concrete in idolatry. On the other hand, however, it left ample room for effort to make life better. This is the central meaning, as I read it, of God’s Covenant with Noah and its reaffirmation with Abraham, with Moses, and with the later prophets [p. 47].

Jewish and Christian resistance to utopianism rests upon bitter historical lessons about the weight of human sinfulness. In this experience of sin lies the root of the principle of limited government, and of the balancing of systems and powers, so that the instruments of potential tyranny do not fall into a single set of hands.

Upon first thought, and according to ancient conceptions, such a fragmentation of social powers might seem to deprive societies of the integrative power of religion. If religion cannot integrate culture from above, will it not lose its rightful place? In practice, however, when religion is prevented from falling into tyranny from above, its historic temptation, a great burden is lifted from its shoulders. When religion is saddled with direct political responsibilities its judgments necessarily become political as well as religious. When freed from this obligation, religion accumulates a yeasty power in the dough of culture, and the light it offers consciences is purer. When its influence upon political power is not direct but indirect, religion becomes a guardian -- perhaps a guardian primus inter pares -- of a regime’s ethical power.

The relations between religion and liberty are complex and operate upon many levels at once. But 200 years after the constitutional convention, Americans can be grateful for the religious vision embodied in our political arrangements. Without that vision, we would be far less free than we are.