Christians Learned the Limits of the State and the Rights of Believers by Trial and Error
Christian Nationalism is what founded the 13 colonies, then our country.
I am nearing the end of my series on the roots of religious liberty and gun rights in Anglo-American history and Christian anthropology. Soon I will be assembling this series into a book, to come out this fall in time for the midterm elections.
If you’ve followed my argument, you’ll see that by now nearly all the pieces are in place, for the founding of a political order based on ordered liberty, here on our shores. Over the course of centuries, through many arguments and crises, Christians had explored the full implications of the biblical view of the person in politics.
From the Catacombs to Cathedrals
From terrified, persecuted subjects of the Romans, Christians had become dissidents, refusing at the price of their blood to worship a pagan emperor. Then through the providential conversion of Constantine, Christians had become advisors to the throne. They would mitigate evils such as slavery, stop the exposure of unwanted infants, and put an end to murderous gladiatorial games.
Our bishops helped restore public order in the West when Rome collapsed, and evangelized the barbarians. They and the monks they directed had recopied the ancient works of Greece and Rome, which would otherwise have vanished. They set up hospitals to treat the sick, schools to educate the poor, and innovated in farming, windmills, time-keeping, and other technologies. The Church went on to found every university created in Europe for hundreds of years.
In the course of all this work, Christians had to sort out — through the clash of men and institutions — the proper relations of Church and State. Popes had to fight off kings and emperors who wished to reduce the Church to a mere department of the State. Monarchs had to push back against popes who wrongly saw themselves as worldly overlords, governing kings.
The Revenge of the Secular State
When mounting Church abuses provoked the Protestant Reformation, partisans on both sides of the Tiber would look to secular rulers to silence their enemies. In return, secular kings gained unprecedented power over the (now plural) churches, exacted as the price of their support, and of not switching sides. The kings of France and Spain, though technically Catholic, wielded almost identical influence over Christians in their dominions as Henry VIII had seized in England.
Individual Christians who dissented from the religious decisions made by their kings helped revive the early Christian idea that all the Church should ask from the State is the liberty to pursue its mission, and the enforcement of just positive laws based on the Natural Law. It was wrong, these English Catholics and Calvinist Frenchmen argued, for the State to persecute believers. It forced people to falsify their consciences, and encouraged even in the dominant churches themselves corruption and cruelty.
The Return of Religious Liberty
As we’ve seen, the resolution to the English Civil War in 1688 created a template that would dominate in the English-speaking world: a broad tolerance of Protestant believers (and later of Catholics), and a newly tolerant attitude toward Jews and other non-Christians. This new “liberal” attitude would unfold its implications gradually, as restrictions on various churches fell away in some places more slowly than in others. Catholic services would remain illegal in Boston until after the American Revolution, and Catholics in Ireland would remain disenfranchised into the mid-19th century.
The theoretical basis for this libertarian compromise was laid down by English political philosopher John Locke. He grounded it not in mere practicality, the exhaustion of persecution followed by counter-persecution over centuries, but in philosophy. He argued that the real nature of Christian faith demanded freedom, and that State interference in religious belief and preaching threatened the integrity of Christianity itself. It also violated the God-given rights of human persons.
A comparable process of argument, armed conflict, and regime change had helped developed a new political theory of government authority by Locke’s time. From a static conception that God granted authority to monarchs, whom we must obey, a much more complex theory had developed in the West. Christians were not like ancient pagans, submissive to any ruler who claimed the mantle of heaven. Instead, as citizens we took part in a covenant with our rulers. They were bound by the same God who binds us to respect our rights and govern justly. If they did not, we were authorized to replace them.
A New Hybrid Nation, Conceived in Liberty
In the context of Colonial America, these various strands in Christian theory and Anglo-American practice could come together and form something new. From their foundation with royal permission, each of the English colonies had almost entirely governed itself for a century or more by 1763. That’s the year when the British crown finally defeated the French in their battle for North America. The conquest of every French colony by the British removed the great external threat which had justified the presence of British troops in self-governing colonies — whose residents were not represented in Parliament.
From their first settlement, colonists themselves had shouldered the main burden of self-defense (and often of conquest) against native Americans, as well as rival colonies peopled by French, Spanish, Dutch or other European settlers. British regular troops were a rare and exceptional presence, who mostly appeared in times of international war with parent kingdoms such as France.
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As we’ve seen here, citizens organized militias around local churches, which saw their contribution to defending public order and safety as part of their mission. In this sense, “Christian Nationalism,” the dog-whistle leftists are using to terrify the ignorant today, stood at the very beating heart of America at its birth. Armed citizens, organized at their churches, not licensed or controlled by colonial governors, carved the 13 colonies out of the wilderness, and would come to demand their independence from Britain. We may need them again soon, to protect our freedom today.
In the next segment, we’ll explore how those citizens militias were crucial to the resistance of colonial citizens to a new effort to control, tax, and dominate the colonies by a British parliament in need of money and eager to flex its muscles.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”