By Nicholas P. Miller –

It is time to examine a position that provides a principled freedom, both religious and civil, the possibility of a public morality, and a common language with which to discuss and debate the issues.

The recent presidential campaign has broken out into a disorienting game of religious liberty musical chairs; Catholic bishops assert the importance of religious liberty like old-fashioned Protestants, and Protestant presidential candidates stump for issues like prayer in schools and government support for religion, sounding for all the world like pre-Vatican-II, pre-President-Kennedy Catholics.

And then there is President Obama, a self-professed Christian with a Muslim heritage taking essentially secularist positions that are contrary to the historic positions of both Christianity and Islam.  These positions include his promotion of abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

This mélange of conflicting views and players seems very unexpected and modern. It certainly presents some genuine surprises.  With Evangelical religion playing a more prominent role in electoral politics, who would have predicted the U.S. Presidential race would feature a liberal Christian secularist with a Muslim background going up against a Mormon who was formerly governor of one of the most liberal states of the union?

But far from being a modern phenomenon, the three-cornered nature of the current arguments over religious liberty is actually quite historic. It goes back to the roots of the American Republic.

In recent years arguments over religious liberty, and the culture wars in general, seem to have proceeded on a binary track.  There are a series of issues, abortion, same-sex marriage, faith-based funding, with two possible positions, one for the secularist, and the other for the "faith communities."

But the binary nature of this discussion is a relatively recent development.  It trended this way in the mid-1970s and 1980s, as Protestants began to make common cause with Catholics, first over the issue of abortion, and then on other family-based issues.  The trend has been towards pushing for greater government support for religion and religious viewpoints.

The recent conflict, though, over the Health-Care mandate that required Catholic institutions to provide contraceptive coverage has brought to the forefront the historic Protestant position on keeping matters of religious conscience free from the will of the majority or the government.  The irony of course, is that it is the Catholics reminding Americans of their Protestant heritage.

That they must do this reminding goes to show that we have lost sight of something important in our recent "faith versus secularism" arguments.  There are different kinds of faith, and different kinds of faith approaches to questions of church and state.  This has been largely overlooked by many Americans, where the debate often devolves into a shouting match of slogans between "believers" and secularists.

But for most of American history, from the founding through the 1950s and 1960s, there was a more nuanced dialogue and argument that involved three contending points of view.  On the left, there were the secular liberals, coming to prominence in the progressive era of the 1920s, symbolized by the rise of the ACLU.  This group has deeper roots, though, going back to Thomas Jefferson and the philosophies of the French Enlightenment.

On the right were the Christian republicans, made up of a uneasy coalition of Catholic groups seeking state funding for parochial schools, and evangelical groups supporting Bible reading in the public schools (KJV only, please), Sunday blue laws, and religious tests for political office.

These Christian public moralists had their roots in the Puritan theocratic philosophies of New England and the Anglican establishments of New York, Virginia and the south.  These colonial groups were images of the magisterial Protestantism of Europe, where the church was sponsored and controlled by the state, and dissenting groups were regulated and often suppressed.

But there was a third group, which though marginalized today, made up a majority for most of this period.  These were what could be called the dissenting Protestants, who rejected a formal connection between church and state.  They promoted a free-church tradition, where the state did not supply resources to religious groups, and churches were free from state oversight or control.

The dissenting Protestants did not reject all state involvement with morality.   But they believed that issues of public morality should be legislated in light of the natural moral law, and not scriptural injunction.  Their colleges taught courses in moral philosophy, which was required for all students so as to provide a foundation for public moral discourse and debate.

Always a minority in Europe, these dissenting groups were unable to affect European political arrangements.  But these Baptists, Anabaptists, and Quakers, and eventually Methodists and Scotch-Presbyterians, became politically controlling in a number of American colonies; first in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, and then later in Virginia.  They also had significant influence in New York and the Carolinas.

These free-church groups grew explosively during the Great Awakening religious revivals of the 1740s, and by the time of the founding, they were politically ascendant in most colonies outside of New England.  Thus, when the federal constitution came to be framed, it more or less reflected, in its church/state arrangement, the philosophy of the dissenting Protestants, and not of either Puritan republicanism or French enlightenment thought.

Much of the modern day conflict over the constitution and religious liberty comes from partisans trying to remake the founding either in the image of a Jeffersonian secularism, or a puritan Christian republicanism.  The dissenting Protestant posture is increasingly overlooked.

But what would difference would a dissenting Protestant view make to the religious liberty discussions of today?   Well, it would remove a certain kind of moral argument from the conflict, appeals to scripture and explicitly Christian arguments would not be used.  But another kind of moral argumentation would be allowed, one that appealed to common moral experience and human reason.

It would disapprove of state funds to overtly religious institutions, something secularists would appreciate.   But it would prevent the state from burdening religious entities with regulations contrary to their religious teachings, such as the contraceptive insurance coverage requirement found in the President's health insurance program.  The faith-based community would appreciate this.

State-official led prayer and worship services or rituals would be out of bounds, a position secularists would applaud.  But references to a divine being, a Creator, even a God, would not be verboten, as notions of the natural moral law revolved around the philosopher's God, which was not considered a product of sectarian religious thought.

Even Thomas Jefferson, the author of the famed "Wall of Separation" letter to the Danbury Baptists, referred to the "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence.  But it was a Creator as understood in the light of the "self evident" truths of nature, of moral philosophy, and not those requiring special revelation.

Issues of abortion and gay rights would require a careful, nuanced approach. The religious right's moral absolutism, ostensibly based on scripturally-derived moral imperatives, would give way to a more fine-grained analysis that would weight competing moral concerns, which is the hallmark of a reasoned moral philosophy.

The state could recognize the moral weight of life and potential life, but also recognize other moral values, such as quality of life, and justice for victims and the oppressed.  Abortion on demand and abortion as a method of birth control could be restricted, but when the life and health of the mother was at risk, or the pregnancy was due to coercion or other moral impositions, these countering moral concerns could be protected.

In the area of gay rights, society could recognize the importance of providing close personal relationships with support and protection.  Values of privacy and equal treatment before the law would counsel against public discrimination of gays for state benefits or workplace discrimination.  But the importance of religious freedom would allow religious institutions, both places of worship, and educational and health institutions, to preserve their values in relation to sexual conduct.

This approach would also recognize the moral value of protecting the goals and ends of the child-raising unit of a mother and father, and reserving its full approval for such relationships.  Such an approach might allow for civil unions, for tax and insurance purposes, but limit marriage, and the right to raise children, to heterosexual couples, based on moral arguments about the purposes of procreation, and the rights of children to benefit from the special care provided by a mother and a father.

It would be a world that would fully satisfy neither secularists, nor Christian republican.   But it would take into account most of their central concerns and, just as importantly, provide a common language with which to engage public policy debates.

It is possible that this present moment of religious liberty musical chairs can cause us to reexamine a position that provides a principled freedom, both religious and civil, the possibility of a public morality, and a common language with which to discuss and debate issues of freedom and morality.  If this happens, then this odd political parlor game may be very worthwhile indeed.


Nicholas MillerNicholas P. Miller, J.D., PhD, is an associate professor of church history and director of the International Religious Liberty Institute at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.  His book, The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State, has just been released by Oxford University Press.

Professor Miller, a graduate of Columbia University School of Law, has appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court in a number of religious liberty cases, including representing the plaintiffs in the case of Mitchell v. Helms, and a widely-published scholar with a PhD in American religious history (University of Notre Dame). Professor Miller lectures frequently both nationally and internationally, and has appeared as a guest on numerous television and radio programs, including Faith and Freedom television show, Freedom's Ring radio program, National Public Radio, and was the founder and original co-host of the Liberty Insider television series. Dr. Miller is available for interviews and speaking requests.


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