For almost 500 years Anglicans in the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church have asked God to dispose kings and rulers to ‘administer justice’ well so as to ensure ‘the punishment of wickedness and vice, and…the maintenance of true religion and virtue.’ As with many things that we say or hear regularly, we often do not think much about that. In fact that prayer puts Anglicans firmly on the ancient side of the debate between the ancients and the moderns concerning politics.
The first bit quoted, about the impartial administration of justice, is not controversial. Most of us understand that easily enough and desire it. We want the courts to provide reliable and fair justice and to implement known and settled law. We don’t want to live in a police state or subject to the whims of cranky neighbors. We want reasonable rules to be applied to everybody the same way, without regard to skin color or political influence. While we know justice isn’t always perfectly impartial, that certainly is the goal we desire and towards which we would like our society to strive.
The next bit, about the ‘punishment of wickedness and vice’, is a little harder. We certainly agree that there is much wickedness which we want stopped. If someone is breaking into my house, I want the police to come and help me. If someone is molesting children or defrauding old folks, we want that stopped also, and by regular and lawful process, not by extraordinary acts of vigilantes. Furthermore, some kinds of wickedness are so heinous they need not only to be stopped but also punished. Punishment serves several purposes. For one thing the prospect of swift and fairly certain punishment restrains people inclined to wickedness. Indeed in a sense punishment even serves to help the wicked person himself, or at least it may do so. This is what traditional moralists meant by saying that the wrongdoer has ‘a right to be punished’. The idea is that punishment not only restrains the wrongdoer from causing further harm, but also has a tutorial and educative function: it shows the wrongdoer what is right and so, perhaps, causes repentance by really bringing home to him the disorder in his own heart.
What is very unmodern in the prayer that I began with is the idea of the punishment of ‘vice’. We usually think of ‘vice’ as essentially private, as something which really only harms the actor and perhaps those closest to him. Drinking too much is a vice, and only becomes a crime or wickedness to be punished if a drunk gets behind the wheel of a car. Vices are things such as too much drinking, drug use, gambling, viewing pornography, and many sexual sins. Our tendency now is to think that these matters are not something the public should take notice of, unless they move into the public realm so as to harm others. Where to draw the line between private vice and public response is debated, but our society for better or worse leans increasingly towards permissiveness.
If the matter of punishing vice seems increasingly questioned in our society, the final bit of the prayer which I have quoted is more so still. Do we really want the government to be in the business of maintaining ‘true religion and virtue’? One great dividing line between the traditional world and the modern world concerns precisely this question. Do governments properly have a role in matters of religion and virtue or are these matters properly private?
More or less everyone before the days of Charles I, who was executed on January 30, 1649, assumed that the most important thing governments do is to direct the people towards virtuous and godly living. Governments were, indeed, to maintain order and to provide justice and protection against violence. But governments also were, it was assumed, concerned with souls, with providing a setting in which people could more easily be directed towards virtue in this world and heaven in the world to come.
In the case of Charles I, and of his Scottish and then English parliamentary and military opponents, the debate was not over whether there should be a state religion, but over which religion the state religion should be. At roughly the same time on the European mainland the Thirty Years War raged from 1618 to 1648 over the same debate. At issue on the Continent was whether Protestant princes would rule or Roman Catholic princes. At issue in England was whether the Church of England would be governed by bishops using the Prayer Book under the anointed king or by some sectarian, Congregationalist, or Presbyterian establishment. Everybody assumed that one or the other should impose one version of ‘true religion and virtue’ on society.
What happened, of course, is that people became exhausted. The wars of religion concerning ultimate goals of virtue and salvation could not be won, at any rate not in Europe in the 17th century. Protestantism might be suppressed more or less entirely in Italy, say, and Roman Catholicism might be effectively suppressed in Scandinavia. In general, however, the opposing parties were too powerful to reduce all to a single Church. In the short term a compromise was reached: the religion of the local prince would decide the religion of his people, and princes would not fight each other about religion alone.
In the long run something even more important happened. The world agreed to make religion private. Instead of thinking that the main role, or at least an important role, of government concerned true religion and virtue, we decided that the main role of government concerns sewer systems and commerce, fair courts, the enforcement of contracts, and the suppression of theft and murder. The goals of governments lowered, from virtue and heaven in the old system to life, liberty, and property in the new. People of differing religions or no religion can agree that iPads are great and that storm water runoff is a problem. People of differing religions or no religion can agree to let others do what they please privately in matters of religion and, often, in matters of virtue. Do you want to go to church and to volunteer at the nursing home and strictly avoid false and misleading speech? Fine. But if your neighbor chooses to avoid church, to disparage religion in a quiet sort of way, to consume all of his income on clothes and cars, and to be shifty and grasping: well, the only negative consequences he will suffer will be private.
In most of Europe, North America, and many other advanced societies, this lowering of political ends from ultimate matters of true religion and virtue to lower, instrumental goods such as life, liberty, and property is not controversial. It seems to be an irreversible fruit of the Enlightenment. In England the modern view of the role of the state in such matters gained sway particularly in the settlement of the so-called Glorious Revolution (1688-1689). In America, although as in England there were established Churches in most of the colonies and, after independence in some individual States as late as the 1830s, religion was generally thought to be important but mainly private.
The Roman Catholic Church fought a rearguard battle against the modern view. In the United States important Roman clergy adopted a very positive assessment of the American Constitution. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, observed that Roman Catholic clergy ‘divided the intellectual world into two parts: in the one they place the doctrines of revealed religion, which they assent to without discussion; in the other they leave those political truths which they believe the Deity has left open to free inquiry.’ (I, p. 312) In general de Tocqueville found American Roman Catholics entirely at peace with the privatization of faith and the equality of condition which characterize American religion in general. In the mid-20th century, the Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray argued for the modern position, and after the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s his ideas seemed to many to have received official approval.
It appears, then, that the modern position concerning lowered goals of government and the privatization of theories about ‘true religion and virtue’ is largely unchallenged. Nonetheless, it is not as strong as it may seem.
The rise of militant Islam is a particularly clear problem for the Western liberal consensus. In Turkey and Iran and elsewhere formerly secular states are no longer so secular. Growing Muslim minorities elsewhere aggressively, and sometimes violently, challenge the secularism of the French and other liberal states. The challenge is not exclusively Muslim: the Hindu nationalist BJP party in India, a civil war in Sri Lanka between the Buddhist majority and a Hindu minority, majority Buddhist discrimination against Muslims in Burma, and on-going Christian-Muslim conflict in much of sub-Saharan Africa, all are very unmodern. Religion remains very much a publicly-significant matter. The relegation of religion to a respected-but-private sphere no longer seems as inevitable as it once did.
Furthermore, there are, I believe, internal problems with the Enlightenment, modern position. In particular I believe it suffers from two profound flaws. The first we might call the religion problem of liberal societies: such societies need the moral formation that religion provides, but over time also tend to undermine religion. That is, modern societies tend to undermine a necessary precondition for their own well-being.
The second problem I will call the illusion of religious neutrality or, perhaps better, the illusion that the state can be a religiously neutral umpire.
Both of these problems deserve careful attention.
If we go back to the period when the place of religion in Western society was still an open issue, and when the ancient and modern assumptions both had active defenders, we find that almost everyone agreed that successful public life depends on a virtuous citizenry. Decent and prosperous societies require that most people freely obey most laws most of the time; that most people work diligently to achieve personal prosperity; and that most people most of the time behave with some degree of neighborliness and civic-mindedness. Even those who thought that the state primarily should be concerned with worldly, instrumental, material ends, also saw that citizens needed a fairly high level of, well, virtue. The defenders of Enlightenment and liberal principles differed from traditionalists and the ancients concerning the sources of the virtue, but all agree that some degree of virtue was needed in the citizenry.
In the case of the American Founding, almost every Framer of the Constitution believed that virtuous and law-abiding citizens for the most part would only exist because of the influence of private religion. Even Thomas Jefferson, who in private was often blasphemously hostile to orthodox Christianity, moderated or dissembled his hostility when president. In any case Jefferson was something of an out-lier. George Washington’s position was more typical. Washington in at least a desultory way, and Patrick Henry more vigorously, defended the extension of the Anglican religious establishment in Virginia after independence from Britain. More notably in famous words from his Farewell Address Washington commented on the importance of the private influence of religion:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports….[R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
But whether the generation of the American founders merely acquiesced in or actively promoted it, they effectively established the liberal, modern, privatizing view of religion with its lowering of political goals to the instrumental matters of life, liberty, and property.
What I have called the religion problem of liberal societies is this. On the one hand, religion in general and, in countries with a Christian background, Christianity in particular, are necessary to inculcate ‘dispositions and habits’ that are essential for political prosperity. The kind of minimal morality and virtue that are necessary if most citizens are to be good citizens requires the support of religion. But the liberal regime, by privatizing religion and exalting the liberal principle, will tend over time to produce liberal citizens and even liberal religion. Regime principle will tend to shape everything within the regime, including religious beliefs and sentiments. And liberal Christians and liberal Churches over time will tend, first to assimilate more and more to regime principles and, finally, by way of completing the process, will tend to secularize, decline, and finally die.
The conversion of American religion to liberal religion already appears far advanced in the descriptions provided by de Tocqueville. The general principles of the regime created a passion for equality, a distaste for hierarchies, and a prizing of the material fruits of a fundamentally commercial, liberal society. Materialism and individualism shape everything in America. Traditional religion, as much as European aristocracies, will tend to wither under these powerful shaping forces.
It is true that for a time the competition of religious sects for adherents will tend to cause a kind of religious flourishing. Competition and market forces will for a time tend to make religion appear healthier than in lands with inherited religious establishments that can avoid competition. But competitive, successful religion will tend to mirror the assumptions of the regime and its principles, which are, again, materialistic and individualistic.
In short, the regime requires the moral and educative influence of traditional religion if it is to survive and flourish, but the regime tends to undermine and eliminate this essential precondition for its own continuance. The ‘religious principle’ required by Washington’s analysis may well have seemed strong enough to him to survive and flourish after religion was privatized. In fact it seems increasingly clear that all liberal societies tend over time to suffer from the religion problem I have just described.
The second problem I mentioned is the illusion that a regime, including a liberal regime, can be religiously neutral. Or perhaps it is better to say that every regime has a religion – a fundamental stance towards matters of life and death, virtue and the good, human ends and ultimate purposes. Hostility towards religion or a refusal to address religion are themselves religiously significant positions. Atheism and agnosticism are religious views. Privatizing religion establishes and favors modern religious tendencies over traditional ones. Every regime has an established religion, even if the establishment is vague and disorganized and even if its tenets are mostly tacit and negative.
Consider the public schools in the United States. These schools always have been animated by a religious world view. In the 19th and early 20th century the public school in fact inculcated a kind of non-denominational, non-hierarchical Protestant Christianity. That public religious teaching is why Roman Catholics strongly felt the need for a sectarian school system of their own: the government schools were understood by Roman Catholics, correctly, to be not religiously neutral but Protestant. Today the public schools continue to have a religious world view which they tend to inculcate. The doctrines of this world view are no longer vaguely Protestant, and do vary from place to place and decade to decade. In general, however, government schools inculcate individualism and hostility to traditional religious and moral norms, especially in sexual matters. The schools tend to be environmentalist, not in the sense merely of teaching responsible stewardship of natural resources, but as a kind of alternative with its rituals (recycling, even when counterproductive) and holidays (Earth Day) and saints (Rachel Carson) and other features of a religion. On a large range of very important issues (public promotion of contraception; assertion of a right to abortion; alteration of marriage laws; assertion of a right to demand public recognition and approval of private fantasies about one’s sex) the new religion replaces traditional religious positions with the new positions that accord better with radical moral individualism.
In short, the regime is not now and never has been religiously neutral. The state religion can usually be ignored for the most part if a society has a broad, tacit consensus concerning most moral matters. The current trend is towards a wholesale collapse of the older consensus on such matters in the face of the onslaught of radical individualism. In this situation religious or religiously-tinged issues come regularly before us.
The early modern consensus formed in England and America in the late 17th and the 18th centuries. This consensus privatized religion but favored and encouraged it for its beneficial effects. That consensus is now ending. Charles I seems in many ways a remote figure from an age that is not our own. But the issues that people thought were settled when the headman’s axe fell upon the royal neck are not settled. Nothing ever is truly finally settled in this world. We now stand on the edge of a new age of conflict about religiously loaded matters. The wars will not wage with armies sweeping across the German plains or with kings dying in London. But conflict there is, and it is growing and will grow worse.