Why Religious Conservatives Are the Last Best Hope for Limited Government

Kevin Vallier offers a clear set of distinctions between different philosophical approaches and arguments that variously seek to settle the relationship of religion and politics, church and state. He neatly divides four distinct approaches to this relationship – libertarian, religious conservative, secular progressive, and “classical liberal.” He finds the first three wanting; the first, because it lacks a real theory; the middle two, because each seeks to totalize their claims: Both seek to “establish” religion or expunge religious claims from the public sphere. He argues for the “classical liberal” model – presumably, hoping to bring libertarians and perhaps “religious conservatives” on board as well – concluding that what is needed is an approach that is “fundamentally constructive and anti-establishmentarian.”

Vallier writes as a philosopher and brings to the table the virtues and vices of his craft.  On the one hand, he is admirably clear about the distinctions between the various approaches and arguments. On the other hand, he seems finally to prefer the clarity of the arguments over the reality on the ground, at some points badly misstating the actual positions of these various actors, and in others missing the relationships between them. I offer this response as a corrective from the perspective of a political theorist, on the one hand attracted to getting the argument right, but on the other, recognizing that politics rarely consists of such neat categories.

To begin, Vallier offers an overly crude view of “religious conservatives,” particularly in his claim that they seek “establishment.” I would challenge him to name any church today, or any significant religious tradition in America, that is seeking outright a state “establishment” of religion. To have an “established church” has traditionally meant publicly recognized observance of the tenets of that religion, including preferential civic treatment of a particular church – for instance, public financing of ministers or religious schools – along with some form of punishment for non-observers. It is a promiscuous use of the word “establishment” to describe what are increasingly superficial efforts by believers to have largely anodyne and generally nondenominational religious symbols on display in public areas.

This position – what he mistakenly calls “establishmentarian” – used to be the position of classical liberals. Classical liberals held that a good and decent liberal society should move away from actual religious establishments and instead promote vaguely “Judeo-Christian” values. This was regarded as the more moderate, less sectarian solution to the challenge of religious pluralism. It followed the general tenor of the Founders and leaders such as Washington, Madison, and Lincoln, philosophers like John Locke (who disapproved of religious establishment, on the one hand, and argued for withholding toleration from atheists, on the other), and the creators of American public education, such as Horace Mann.

That this “classical liberal” position is now re-described as “religious conservative” suggests how far the debate has been moved, especially by the aggression of “secular progressives.”  Religious conservatives today occupy the ground once inhabited by “classical liberals,” defending territory that they found to be abandoned by “classical liberals,” who largely became secular progressives.  The same class that once occupied elite institutions throughout America – its main political class, and leaders of its schools, universities, newspapers, journals, businesses and belles lettres – once made the arguments that are being made by today’s “religious conservatives,” namely, the need for public morality grounded in vaguely “Judeo-Christian” values. But as America’s elite became more secular – for instance, disaffiliating almost all private educational institutions from their founding religious traditions – they became overtly hostile to any explicit religious expressions, even confusing largely innocuous invocations of symbolic religiosity (which their class once endorsed) with forms of “establishment.” 

Further, Vallier seems to be describing the concerns of “religious conservatives” of several decades ago, when it was believed that historically “classical liberal” commitments to religiously grounded moral norms were still defensible in the public sphere. The main action today is not to be found in the activities of those remaining few religious conservatives who are seeking to place the Ten Commandments in the public square. Instead, those people Vallier describes as “religious conservatives” have now fallen back to a defense of their “keep.” They are far less focused on seeking to shore up religious morality in public, but rather they are defending the right of religious liberty within their Churches and the ability to express religious beliefs within organizations that are unconnected with Church institutions (e.g., Christian groups at public universities) or more loosely connected (e.g., resistance to the HHS Mandate in Catholic and some Protestant universities, such as that of my institution, the University of Notre Dame).

What Vallier seems to miss is that there really aren’t any more “classical liberals.” They have become secular progressives. Consider, for instance, what has happened to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA was passed in 1993 by a unanimous House of Representatives and 97 Senators, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The act delineated a wide sphere for religious liberty, limiting government burdens upon religion only to instances when such burdens were justified by a compelling public purpose, and when no less burdensome means could be devised. In the intervening two decades, many one-time liberal supporters of RFRA now decry the use of RFRA to defend religious beliefs that they now find indefensible.  Senators who previously supported RFRA are now proposing to amend it to limit its scope.  Some commentators have even gone so far to argue that RFRA was meant to protect small, minority religious groups such as the Indian tribes who sought to use peyote – not Christians, who constitute a “majority” religion.

By delineating a set of separate “arguments” as if they were unrelated to each other, Vallier wholly misses the inherent tendencies within liberalism toward “secular progressivism,” and thus ends up promoting a position that few people are likely to embrace today. I don’t have space to elaborate on why this tendency has existed from the outset (I have done some of this work here), but suffice to say that “classical liberalism” was a transition stage on the way to “secular progressivism,” which today seeks complete victory over a declining, weakened, and increasingly defensive remnant of religious believers in America. Religious conservatives today aren’t seeking “establishment”; they are seeking to protect the integrity of their faiths, their churches, and their religious institutions. It is “secular progressives” who are succeeding in their own “establishment,” and eventually the criminalization especially of longstanding Christian belief and expression.

Quite strikingly, it is religious believers who remain the most active force in American politics today attempting to restrict the reach and power of the state.  It is “religious conservatives” who are making “highly sophisticated, well-reasoned and sincere arguments” against not only the HHS mandate, but the recognition of same-sex marriage (and being deluged with spurious charges of homophobia and recidivist views that are tantamount to racism, without corresponding rational argument defending the re-definition of marriage beyond totemic invocations of words like “fairness” and “equality”). They rightly see an inevitable expansion of government following in the wake of both developments – for instance, inevitable efforts by gay marriage proponents to force religious institutions to actively participate in supporting gay marriage through use of anti-discrimination law, and eventually (I predict) the expansion of national health care policies to provide children to gay couples, born either of surrogates or created by technology as their “right,” in the name of “fairness.” In their opposition both to gay marriage and aspects of the Affordable Care Act – the HHS mandate in particular – religious conservatives seek to defend the most fundamental unit of civil society that has always constituted a barrier against the encroachments of the state, the family. Increasingly they see libertarians joining forces with liberals to isolate religious believers, and the millennial generation is the very portrait of this combination – favoring both individual liberty and an active and enlarged state that exists to afford them liberty (e.g., “free” health care, “free” education, etc.). This was exactly the culminating nightmare of “democratic despotism” that Tocqueville feared would be the final act of the democratic temper, an eventuality that seems to be unfolding before our eyes.

Vallier finally confuses the nature of the “role” that religion plays in public life. He argues that “the role of religion in politics is to preserve religious liberty against an overreaching state and encourage religious contributions to laws that promote justice and the common good. Religion belongs in politics primarily as defense, rather than offense, restricting state power rather than extending it.” He views religion from the outside, suggesting its final value is to be evaluated in secular terms. But for religious believers, its primary value is not the contribution it makes to political life, but in aiding people in their worship of God and the salvation of souls. That it makes any political contributions – particularly limiting the reach of government – is not its primary intended effect. By seeking to make religion “useful” to politics and defining its role as primarily “defensive,” Vallier would effectively hamper the actual grounds for religion’s contribution to politics. If accepted for the reasons that Vallier offers, religion would cease to have any real purpose for the believer – because no one practices religion for its political benefits. Religious believers don’t accept the lines of division proposed by Vallier, between “defensive” and “offensive,” understanding that the defense of the integrity of the Church is for the evangelization and conversion of all peoples. Any benefit from religious belief can’t be strictly limited in the way Vallier suggests.

Vallier needs to consider the theological grounds that secondarily allow religion to provide a political benefit. Religion can limit the state finally because religious believers understand their religion to lie beyond the reach of the state. As most classical liberals once understood, our basic freedoms exist not as a result of secular norms, but most fundamentally arise from rights that are “endowed by our Creator.” As James Madison wrote in “Memorial and Remonstrance,” the most fundamental limitation of the State exists because of a wholly separate power and an obligation to recognize its authority and legitimacy:

Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.

Classical liberals – such as Vallier – have forgotten the true nature of this relationship, and give place of priority to the political over the religious.  Hence, they build on quicksand, and those shaky foundations have given way to the “secular progressives” who have no compunction about, and are actively engaged in, a massive and unlimited expansion of the reach, sway, and intrusiveness of government. If Vallier truly wants to establish limits to the earthly powers, then he should begin listening more closely to the arguments of “religious conservatives” – or, better put, those who still believe in the distinct and separate realms of the Cities of Man and God.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Philosopher Kevin Vallier of Bowling Green State University suggests that libertarians need to think more carefully about the complicated territory between church and state. A propertarian approach will not suffice, he argues, and yet neither the left nor the right offers genuinely liberal solutions to the problems of religion in public life. Vallier recommends a set of principles that are at once anti-establishmentarian — there will be no official church — and yet “constructive,” in that it welcomes religious interests and even religious arguments on questions of public policy.

Response Essays

  • Patrick J. Deneen argues that the boundaries of political discourse have moved leftward. As a result, so-called religious conservatives now stand in the place that classical liberals formerly occupied: All that they want is a simple religious liberty, with an acknowledgement of the Judeo-Christian character of the morals needed to sustain such liberty. Today’s so-called classical liberals have forgotten their own heritage, and they stand ready to align with secular progressives. Deneen charges that these progressives have as their object nothing less than the criminalization of Christian belief and expression. Those who value small government should therefore side with Christian conservatives.

  • Maggie Garrett takes some issue with the classification system outlined in Kevin Vallier’s lead essay; she does not recognize herself, for one, in Vallier’s portrait of secular progressives. She denies that she stands for secular establishmentarianism in particular, and she would not discount the opinions of people of faith. Yet to count as a valid reason in public policy, she believes that more is required than bare divine revelation; justifications must be given that carry the power to convince others. She would refuse the granting of religious exemptions to otherwise secular institutions, like businesses, that would deny services to same-sex couples or marriages. She defends the contraception mandate along similar lines.

  • Michael Shermer argues that science is producing better government, and that religion hasn’t been a help to it. In a liberal democracy, citizens can experiment with how they want to be governed. They can compare ideas and try out new ones. The American experiment, as it is often called, has been a success in many different ways. Meanwhile, expressions of religion in the public sphere are increasingly “obsolete.” This fact should be recognized; religion should retreat from public life just as it has from scientific inquiry, and for the same reasons.