The Myth of “Liberal, Secular America”

A reply to D.G. Hart

How will you be celebrating American independence? In Moscow, Idaho, the children in Doug Wilson’s church will be riding their bikes in their county’s Fourth of July Parade. The kid with the most patriotic bling wins a $100 prize from Wilson’s church. In fact, Christ Church members were instrumental in restarting the parade after a twenty-year hiatus. 

Don’t tell Hillsdale professor Darryl Hart this, however. 

Hart got an early start on his Independence Day festivities by publishing a June 30 Wall Street Journal editorial attacking Pastor Wilson. According to Hart, Wilson will not be celebrating Independence Day. Neither will Stephen Wolfe, author of The Case for Christian Nationalism (both Wilson and Wolfe are military vets, by the way). Nor will a group of Catholic scholars called Integralists. None of them like America enough, Hart argues, so they won’t be celebrating. They practice the sin of ingratitude for what he calls “America’s liberal, secular polity.” 

Controversies over “Christian Nationalism” or “Integralism” aren’t new to readers of American Reformer. There’s certainly a lot of uncharitable and stupid back-and-forth among believers on Twitter about it, too. But at a time when Christians are increasingly cast as unAmerican and dangerous, what motivates Hart to throw his fellow confessional Presbyterians under the bus in front of 3M+ WSJ subscribers? Was he filling in for David French? Was Russell Moore too busy with a book tour? What would oblige Hart, from the supposedly faith-friendly halls of Hillsdale, to launch what seems like an attack on another school filled with believers? 

UnAmerican Americans

Hart must name names, as they said in the 1950s, for unAmerican activities. He mumbles an indictment of his “gifted” Roman Catholic opponents, saying only that they are critical of “Lockean liberalism,” and quickly pivots to his Protestant foes. They commit the great treason of proposing “a return to pre-1776 patterns of government, such as John Calvin’s Geneva or John Winthrop’s Boston.” 

So far as American political thought goes, one could interrogate Hart forever on this point. Is he claiming that there is no continuity between colonial America and the Founding? That would certainly come as a surprise to a host of American intellectuals since, well, the Founding. Is he claiming no influence for “patterns of government” articulated and advanced by magisterial Protestants? That would also come as a surprise, especially to John Adams who cited Protestant works in the development of Anglo-American constitutionalism. 

Perhaps the essential question is why Professor Hart hasn’t “done the reading.” Setting Wilson or Wolfe aside, why has Hart ignored the great renaissance among scholars (many Protestant or Catholic) whose university press monographs and trade titles have rehabilitated Christian articulations of constitutionalism, natural law, and resistance theory, tracing them not only from the Reformation but even before it, to the American Founding and beyond. Apparently, Hart even missed some fine work on Locke over the last twenty years. Why is he trapped in a narrow window of historiography and political thought – a few decades of the twentieth century at best – claiming America is merely “secular and liberal?” 

And why does he think that his view of the Constitution and First Amendment is uncontested? Consider the authority of Joseph Story, appointed to the Supreme Court by President James Madison (Madison of the “Memorial and Remonstrance” oft-cited to support a merely liberal and secular America). Story published extensive commentaries on the Constitution in 1833. On the question of the First Amendment, Story noted that “every American colony, from its foundation down to the revolution, with the exception of Rhode Island, did openly, by the whole course of its laws and institutions, support and sustain, in some form, the Christian religion.” Lest you think this enables Hart’s line of pre-and-post-1776, Story goes on to say, “And this has continued to be the case in some of the states down to the present period, without the slightest suspicion, that it was against the principles of public law, or republican liberty.” Again, this was in 1833. 

Why doesn’t Hart know that questions surrounding religion were left to the states until incorporation by SCOTUS in the 1940s? Even if he thinks incorporation of the First Amendment to the states is prudent, does he know that the First Amendment jurisprudence America got from the Vinson, Warren, and Burger courts relied on pre-1776 ideas and figures to justify its unprecedented demand for a secular public square? In short, Hart wants a First Amendment that didn’t exist, concocted using cherry-picked facts from a pre-1776 America he doesn’t like, to justify a secularity no statesman would recognize – at least until the mid-twentieth century. Hart may seek the credibility of citing 1776, but what he has in mind is 1946. 

But what about, as Hart calls it, “the freedom that lets faith thrive?” Since the First Amendment didn’t threaten state religious establishments (excepting religious tests for federal office) didn’t the First Amendment at least prohibit the federal government from interfering in matters of religion? Again, we look to Story who contextualizes legal ideas leading up to the First Amendment, “The right and the duty of interference of government in matters of religion have been maintained by many distinguished authors, those who were the warmest advocates of free governments, as those who were attached to governments of a more arbitrary character.” The reason for this concerned the common good. Story continues, “The right of a society or government to interfere in matters of religion will hardly be contested by any persons who believe that piety, religion, and morality are intimately connected with the well-being of the state, and indispensable to the administration of civil justice.” Such interference, Story argues, “is a point wholly distinct from that of the right of private judgment in matters of religion, and of the freedom of public worship according to the dictates of one’s conscience.”

Traditional Protestant Political Thought

Story’s insistence that government interference in matters of religion is compatible with “the right of private judgment in matters of religion” or “the freedom of public worship” is not contradictory if compared to traditional Protestant teaching (what is often referred to as Two Kingdoms or 2K). For example, in 1614 Calvinist statesman and author Johannes Althusius saw no contradiction. In his work Politica, he wrote, “The Christian religion not only subordinates the bodies and goods of pious subjects to the magistrate, but even lays their souls and consciences under obligation to him, and shapes them to obedience” and, “A magistrate in whose realm the true worship of God does not thrive should take care that he not claim imperium over faith and religion of men, which exist only in the soul and conscience.” This is because, Althusius argues, “God alone has imperium in this area. To him alone the secrets and intimate recesses of the heart are known. And he administers his kingdom, which is not of this world, through his ministers of the Word.” 

Althusius alludes to a verse used by folks like Hart to claim that religious establishments were foolish violations of scripture (Matt 22, Mark 12, Luke 20). Althusius’s distinction between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s demonstrates that no one presumed governments could make anyone believe anything: “Faith is said to be a gift of God, not of Caesar”. Althusius’s distinctions are also evident in Chapter 17 of the 1649 Platform of Church Discipline wherein New England Puritan ministers (including John Cotton), for example, asserted the right of the magistrate in “matters of godliness” and yet distinguished between “things merely inward, and so not subject to his cognizance and views” (over which he has no authority) and “things acted by the outward man” (over which he has authority).

It’s worth emphasizing that this traditional Protestant thinking or traditional 2K (also called magisterial Protestantism) is not the “new” 2K of Professor David Van Drunen of Westminster Seminary Escondido, though Van Drunen’s 2K resembles Hart’s ideas in actual practice. Nor is traditional 2K the faux 2K that Hart is peddling here. Hart’s two kingdoms are a kingdom or realm of voluntary things and one of involuntary things. In Hart’s complaint, his opponents advance a “Protestant version of Christendom” wherein “the civil magistrate supported churches and cajoled citizens to practice faith.” 

Getting Cajoled

At least we think Hart means involuntary. “Cajoled?” There’s a word you don’t hear very often, so it’s worth looking up in a dictionary and a thesaurus. Does Hart really mean deceived, flattered, coaxed, wheedled? Magisterial Protestantism’s civil magistrate flattered citizens to believe? Deceived them? Gently persuaded? What’s his point here? Is it about magistrates? Belief? Is all cajoling bad? If a parent cajoles a kid to clean their room, is that the same as social media cajoling them to dance in their underwear? What if neoliberal public policy cajoles us to have regular cancer screenings? Are our hearts cajoled to practical atheism by public blasphemy? Those are questions both practical and profound and reveal that the world is not all involuntary or voluntary. Neither is the former always bad and the latter always good. 

Why even bother refuting such simplistic ideas, however? The simple fact is that no one–not Augustine, not Calvin, not Cotton, not Story–thought that you could force (or deceive or flatter or…) anyone to believe anything, including the tenets of the Christian faith. You can say that a million times, but it will not budge the myth that religious establishments were so stupid as to think that you could force people to be Christians. They didn’t. And it shouldn’t be implied in the pages of the WSJ that they did. 

In Hart’s metaphor in which “America made room for all religious groups,” the Christian faith is a mere set of beliefs or ideas. A church is like a club that studies those ideas together, maybe LARPs them, too. The US stands or falls according to the health of such clubs, says Hart: “The U.S. was conceived as a nation that relied on civic associations, private organizations and virtuous citizens who learned morality at church, in the home and in school.”  We both appreciate the importance of things being voluntary. Our wives want us to pick up our socks voluntarily, and we should. We want our students to do their assignments voluntarily, and they should. When someone tells you that Christian faith is something that should stand entirely on its own two feet (and wouldn’t it be great if it did?), however, in every polity, suggest the same should also be entirely true of mental health, equality before the law, literacy, parental responsibility, public decency, honoring contracts, or a host of other things that this same Christian faith encourages. No one treats those goods as things to be left entirely to clubs. They understand them to be part of the “common weal” (common good or common wealth). 

People in political society cannot help but make judgments about what is good, and seek ways to make sure those things are done in common. The hard part is deciding what is most essential and prudent. Even Hart’s editorial is a demonstration of this. He can’t help but lecture his Christian reader on how to conduct themselves on July 4: “Churches are probably best advised not to sponsor a float in the local Independence Day parade . . . But the desire to thank God for the U.S.A. by marching in a parade with the Boy Scouts or the Rotary Club is a noble one.” If Hart devotes his limited editorial space to micromanaging a hierarchy of parade activities and associations, then the common good of a polity must surely be more than false dichotomies about voluntary things versus cajoled things.  

Who May Celebrate Independence Day?

We emphasize that it is not our intention, in criticizing Hart’s purge of deplorables, to defend whatever Wilson or Wolfe have said about America, or even to defend every goal of magisterial Protestantism. (We profess to offer no defense of Integralism.) Wilson’s political philosophy is actually a mixture of Westminster Presbyterianism and Christian Reconstruction, and Wolfe’s book sometimes strays from magisterial Protestantism. But it isn’t hard, as we have just done, to dispel myths about America by drawing lines of traditional 2K from magisterial Protestantism in Althusius (in the vein of what Hart called “Calvin’s Geneva”) to “pre-1776 America” to the US Constitution. Such lines, and many others, suggest that Hart’s casting of America as liberal and secular since the Founding should be much more tentative — at least tentative enough to hold his tongue before attacking other believers as unAmerican in a major newspaper. Arguing about what law does and doesn’t do in America, and what the roots of those laws are, is actually a very American thing to do. 

Image Credit: Pixabay

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Joseph Rigney

Joseph Rigney serves as Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of numerous books, including Courage: How the Gospel Creates Christian Fortitude (Crossway, 2023).

Glenn A. Moots

Glenn A. Moots is Professor at Northwood University and author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology and co-editor of Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American War of Independence"