The Christian message is one that seeks liberation from arbitrary power, as well as the flourishing of personal holiness in the context of cultural, political, and economic freedom. From time to time, Christians have erred by supporting a fusion or overly cozy relations between Church and State. For instance, quite a few Catholics up until the turn of the twentieth century were looking to restore temporal political power to the Pope. The trouble here is less that the Church or Christians will corrupt the State; the greatest danger is that the Church and Christianity will compromise their mission for the sake of preferential treatment from the State. This point was explicitly made in the sermons of the American colonial period and early Republic and helped give rise to a multiplicity of Christian denominations and a “separation” between church and state, which agreed to the strictly limited scope of the State—leaving the particulars of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and most of civil society besides, to the interplay of faith and freedom. Protestant and Catholic doctrine have both derived rights of the Church and family against the State, such that, there are theoretic grounds that morally justify active resistance and even revolution under some circumstances. This was an aspect we saw brilliantly carried out in the Papacy of the late Pope John Paul II against communism, as well as right wing dictatorships.
Indeed, I submit that it is faith that holds the center from political extremes. Just as freedom facilitates peaceful pursuit of spiritual purpose, faith lays the foundation and reinforces the institutions that make human freedom possible. Therefore faith and freedom are not only entwined, they are symbiotic: the human family is nurtured and flourishes where the two give each other mutual advantage. Freedom without faith devolves into license and leads to violence and chaos; it is characterized by the aimless walks of confused people, whose noblest ambition is as consumer. Faith without freedom leads to an oppressive and joyless life, mistaking form for sincerity and control for volition of the heart. Both ways enrich a moneyed or priestly caste; whereas, ‘Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’ Faith holds the center from political extremes and preserves liberty from the socialism of the left and the fascism of the right.
A problem occurs whenever politicians, right or left, begin to perceive the State as the central organizing principle of society; whenever they begin to view public (as opposed to private) institutions, as the most essential means by which all good things are protected and advanced; and worse, whenever they begin to adore their Leader too much. Faith is needed now, as it always is, to bolster freedom. Not the misnamed faith of prideful men who desire power and privilege, but the humble faith in followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, who would render unto Caesar what is his, and claim forcefully the prerogatives of the Church, family, States and communities. It is the faith—and also the strength and courage—of freemen we need, and a renaissance of the American political tradition. According to which, man is, in part an economic and an animal creature; but he is also recognized to be a spiritual creature. Further, spiritual needs and spiritual desires constitute the superior side of man’s nature, even taking precedence over economic wants. American political tradition looks upon the enhancement of man’s spiritual nature as a primary concern of political philosophy; the economic and spiritual aspects of man’s nature are intertwined along with faith and freedom, but man’s freedom is endangered if he is dependent for his economic needs on the State. What has set the American tradition apart from others, what maintains the essential nexus of faith and freedom, in which ordered liberty can flourish, is the rejection of that very first principle of totalitarianism: that the State is competent to do all things and is limited in what it actually does only by the will of those who control the State.
This rejection is in concord with the Constitution, which is foremost, an instrument for limiting the functions of government—written as it were, by men who held a Christian worldview and understood liberty and understood that a righteous people could make of our country a ‘Shining City on a Hill’ that cannot be hid, which would serve as an example (not a crusade) to the whole world. The Founding Fathers had a considered and thoughtful reason for endorsing the principle of limited government, and Americans have generally subscribed to this reason and to the Constitution as the fairest solution devised. It is because government represents power in the hands of some men to control and regulate the lives of other men—and historically, government has proven to be the most common agent thwarting man’s liberty whenever and wherever power becomes delimited. As Lord Acton put it, power tends to corrupt most men, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The legitimate functions of government are conducive to freedom: maintaining internal order, keeping foreign foes at bay, administering justice, removing obstacles to the free interchange of goods. Unrestricted government, however, becomes an instrument for restricting freedom and for subjugating or enslaving the people. Freedom depends on effective restraints against the accumulation of power in a single authority. Where faith is strong among the people, it serves as the single most effectual restraint on government. So faith is helped by freedom to worship and to live according to one’s light, but freedom is maintained through faith and the virtue of a faithful people.
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he ran for U.S. Congress (TX-District 31) in the 2004 Republican Primary. Email: email@example.com