Religious Freedom in the History of Ideas

Travel Trend Myanmar TourismInterview with Dr. Larry Arnn:

The War on Faith and America’s Religious Freedom

January 2014

Hugh Hewitt (HH) interviews Dr. Larry Arnn (LA)

HH: It is the first of the 2014 Hillsdale Dialogues with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. All of 2013’s Dialogues are collected at, including the six hour marathon that Dr. Arnn and I did on December 31st and January 1st of this year and last in order to kick off the year with the history of ideas. Dr. Arnn — Happy New Year to you. I hope it’s not as snowy in Michigan as it is in New York.

Pentecost3LA: It is freezing and snowy, and we feel very rugged and masculine because of it.

HH: I don’t feel rugged and masculine. I want to whimper and go back to California. That’s what I want.

LA: (laughing)

HH: I’ve totally lost my Midwestern blood, but Happy New Year nonetheless.

LA: Happy New Year.

HH: It is so appropriate that we begin the year the way that we have set this up, because on New Year’s Eve, Justice Sondra Sotomayor, a Barack Obama appointee, issued an injunction against Obamacare going into effect for the Little Sisters of the Poor. And next week, we’re going to return to our march through the Western history with the era of Constantine and the early Church fathers. But I thought we would start 2014 by reflecting on not only that injunction, but the tradition which it represents, which dates back to the founding of Maryland and beyond and Pennsylvania to a continent that has always been conceived in religious liberty, Larry Arnn.

LA: Very much. And the first, and that’s, it’s important. We’re going to be talking about the forming of the Christian structure, the Church and its relations to politics, especially when we get to Constantine. And it’s a good idea to keep in mind while we do it how completely remarkable and unique, unprecedented, are the arrangements about Christianity that were made in the United States of America.

HH: Very remarkable, and I set it off against, and I have not spoken to you since I did this, I was down in Argentina two weeks ago, and I was in Pope Francis’ home cathedral, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires. And in that cathedral, there are military men, 24/7, guarding the tomb of the founder of Argentina, General Martin, and I thought to myself he would walk by that every day. And I could no more imagine George Washington’s tomb being in a church than I, oh, I just can’t imagine it. It’s just not what we do.

LA: Yeah, that’s…yeah, and of course, his tomb is at his home.

HH: Right.

LA: But that’s right, we don’t have our Westminster Abbey in the United States, either.

HH: And that’s a good thing.

LA: Well, it is a good thing, and it’s an achievement that has guaranteed…the most important freedoms we have are freedoms of the unique nature of the human soul. Reason and speech are synonyms, and because of them, we have a moral sense and a sense of the Divine that are natural to us alone among the earthly creatures. And the 1st Amendment protects those two things as has never been done in any country before us.

HH: Now your very energetic and wonderful assistant, Kyle Murnen, sent to me five documents in particular that we want to cover today – the Northwest Ordinance, Article III, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation, Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, and Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. But before we begin there, I want to begin with the first freedom. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor the free exercise thereof, abrogating the free exercise thereof. This is a first freedom, Larry Arnn, and that’s what Sotomayor was talking about when the Justice acted on Wednesday night.

LA: Look, you know, to put it in relief, a quick survey of Church and State from the beginning, in the beginning of Western civilization, in the Greek cities, the gods, the primary gods, and the most important gods in the cities were the ancestors of each family, and for the whole city, of the leading families. And those ancestors had founded the city and its laws, and they were worshipped around the hearth, the sacred fires that were kept burning 24 hours a day in every home. And so religion and the city were the same thing. And then in Judaism, something comes along that had never been seen, and that is a God who doesn’t disappear when His people are captured and put into, and taken away, and His temple’s destroyed. And this God has made a covenant with Abraham that I will be your God, and you will be My people, and this will be a blessing to all the peoples on the face of the Earth. And so that’s something different. And that religion sets up a polity, but the polity is not universal. It’s only for the Jews. Then when you get Jesus, you get somebody who does two radical things. The first is He claims to be everybody’s God, and responsible for their eternal, ultimate, and finally only good. And then on the other hand, He says My Kingdom is not of this world. And so what is going to be the relationship between the law and religion when that happens, because you’re going to have different people in different countries under different laws, and yet the claim is He is the God for all of them.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And that problem, and you have to understand, that’s a very radical problem. That changes everything, as regards politics, in the way that Judaism partially changed it. And so you get the three great religions today, well, three, you know, we live in a multicultural and pluralistic world. Let me say there are these three religions, and big things can be said about them.

HH: There you have it.

LA: Judaism is a universal religion, and a political religion, but not universally political. Islam is a universal religion, and the way it’s read by many people, it commands the law in detail, Sharia law, and that gives rise to a certain kind of politics. Now not all Muslims read it that way. And then there’s Christianity, which obviously is not a system of laws and judges and forms of government, and yet it is a universal religion. And those three things are the makeup of the religions of the West as we have them today. And Christianity presents the most remarkable paradox. How are you going to have, and you know, you have to think. You know, Christians will think because of the season we just passed that one of the reasons that Jesus is killed is frustration that He does not build an army and get going.

HH: And get the Romans out of the Temple precincts, yes.

LA: It was to be a, you know, there was a strain of thought about the Messiah that it was to be a conquest. And Jesus makes plain even at the moment of his own arrest that that’s not what it is. He now only commands that the sword be put away, but he heals the person who’d come to arrest him who was struck. So that, you see, that’s the problem that has to be addressed. And much of the history of the West after Jesus is a story of addressing that problem. And so…

HH: And for 1,600 years, that is primarily worked out in Europe.

LA: That’s right.

HH: …in a variety of different attempts and ways, most of them failing, often with great violence and terrible disaster. And then there is conceived on the new continent a new approach. But it isn’t, it wasn’t foreordained that it would turn out this way.

LA: No, you know, America was first settled by Europeans early in the 17th Century. And the Revolution was later in the 18th. And so 150 years, roughly, and the first colonists who arrived came indeed to escape religion persecution. But their plan, so far as they had one, was that they were going to set up cities of enforced religious conformity on this continent that was, that nobody knew much about it except that it was large and it was wild. And they thought we can just pick our own place and there won’t be anybody else around, and we will have laws that you have to practice as we practice if you’re going to live in this town.

HH: And in the meantime, on the southern neck of the continent, there was an invading Spanish empire, which had its own view of Church-State relations both in Florida and in New Mexico and Texas, and Southern California. And they were very much Church-State unionists.

LA: That’s right. And the British, the British colonization after it was different in kind from the Spanish, and the difference in kind is visible in the people who came, because what the Spanish sent was a bunch of men – priests and soldiers. And it was the doctrine of the Catholic Church at that time, no more, that the separation of Church and State, that the union between Church and State was bad, and the union between Church and State in some sense was the right thing. And so the Spanish brought men, and the English came in families.

HH: And when we come back, we’re going to talk about how after 100-plus years, the Americans who were here post-Revolutionary period decided to balance these competing models.

HH: So, Dr. Arnn, we come up to the Revolution. And we have the Revolution. And then the framers have to actually decide what to do about religion. Talk to us about the competing views and how they worked themselves out.

LA: Well, they have been living together for 150 years on the continent, and they discover that although the continent is sparsely settled, it isn’t big enough to enforce religious conformity without the frictions that had troubled Europe. And so there’s an episode, for example, if you read Daniel Boorstin’s books on America. He was the Librarian of Congress, and a distinguished historian. And he actually makes the argument that the key thing about America is that it’s very pragmatic and practical-minded. It’s not a very principled place. This, he says, of the land of the Declaration of Independence. But he gives a story to prove it about Massachusetts Bay Colony. And what had happened there was that some Quakers from Pennsylvania came over, and they were trying to convert people, and that was against the law. And the proof that in Massachusetts Bay Colony, a Puritan colony, that they were just practically-minded is that they took these three people, I said three or four people, I can’t remember how many, but I remember there was one woman among them. And they put them on a gallows, and they put a noose around their neck, and they put bags over their heads, and they pronounced a death sentence on them. But then they didn’t hang them. They let them go, arguing, don’t come back, or with an order, don’t come back. Some of them did come back, and later they were hung. But what that proves to Boorstin is we don’t really care much about principles, we just work out things as we go, very practically.

HH: (laughing)

LA: But you see the point is the Quakers were moved by deep faith, and the Puritans were moved by deep faith. And they were, and the Puritans, in this instance, were using the law to command how faith could be practiced, and what could be said about it. And remember in the 1st Amendment, freedom of speech and freedom of worship are together there as they must be.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So there’s strife. And they struggle their way toward religious liberty. And that goes beyond religious toleration. You know, toleration means don’t you have all kinds of things in your life you have to put up with? Lord knows I do these days. I go to Washington too much. But…and so when you tolerate something, that means that you’re abiding it, and Lord, you don’t like it, whereas religious freedom is a different standard. And that standard was coming to be accepted in the colonies at the time of the Revolution.

HH: And I think we ought to…

LA: In fact, it was widely accepted, you would say, but more had to be worked out.

HH: I think we ought to begin there with Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, because it precedes our Constitutional agreement by a lot. And Jefferson deserves credit for this, for this farsightedness.

LA: Well, yeah, and see, Jefferson and Madison really, see, they were, the debate had got to this place by the time of the Revolution. Everybody was for religious freedom. And the question is how far does it go? And it goes so far that everyone may worship however he pleases without any penalty. And of course, Jefferson writes beautifully about that in the Statute of Religious Liberty. And you know, it’s one of the three things that Jefferson caused to be put on his gravestone that he wrote this thing, and he did not include on his gravestone that he served as president of the United States.

HH: Yeah.

LA: He was very proud of this. And you know, the words are that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money to the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.

HH: You know, that is so appropriate in light of the Obamacare attempt to oblige people of faith to subsidize the morning after pill.

LA: That’s right.

HH: It speaks directly to it.

LA: And see, what the debate was about at the time, there was a pretty wide agreement at the time. I would say it’s fair to just use the word wide, that it was okay to tax people to support the church of their choice. And Jefferson and Madison lead the charge against such a law in the state of Virginia. And it’s the church of your choice. And you have to pay taxes to support one. And they don’t think even that can be allowed. And under the Constitution of the United States, states are at liberty, as it’s originally written, states are at liberty to establish a religion if they want to. They can pick a church and appoint it the state-protected religion. They couldn’t, under the Constitution, oppress anyone else in the practice of their religion, but they could favor a church if they wanted to. And many did for a long time. And Jefferson thought not only was that not right, but compelling people to pay taxes just to support the church of their choice was wrong.

HH: And Madison wrote, and maybe we should squeeze it in here specifically against religious assessments to spell out that argument.

LA: That’s right, in the Memorial and Remonstrance, a beautiful document. And people forget, or they sometimes obscure the fact that both Jefferson and Madison, whatever their personal religious views may have been, write powerfully in respect of God and of the duty we have to God, and our natural freedom to practice that duty. And I’ll go back to something about Christianity here. Christianity is the most amazingly volitional faith. In other words, it is about what you believe. It internalizes certain things. And the test is whether they are in fact internally held. And so compelling, and all of this looks plainer after the American Revolution than it did anytime in that 1,600 years you referred to.

HH: Right.

LA: Because in the 1,600 years, I mean, here’s an argument that makes some sense, and that is you do need to live in a community where the faith is propagated, and the schools must do that, and families must do that, and the law must encourage that, else the faith will die out. That’s a good argument. And the founders have something they substitute for that argument that we’ll talk about in a second. But along the way, they also say but remember, to compel your duty to your Maker is to get between you and your Maker. And that is a violation of the essential nature of the human being.

HH: When we come back from break, we continue our walk through on this, 2014 is going to be an enormously important year for how Americans reconcile the modern life that they conduct with the time-honored tradition of religious freedom that has persevered. And one or the other is going to win, and we hope it’s the latter.

HH: Dr. Arnn, in 1785, James Madison writes the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. It concludes, because finally, the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion according to the dictates of conscience is held by the same tenure with that of all other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature. Either then we must say that the will of the legislature is the only measure of their authority, and that in the plentitude of this authority they may sweep away all of our fundamental rights, or what they are bound to leave this particular right untouched and sacred. Either we must say that they may control the freedom of the press, may abolish the trial by jury, may swallow up the executive and judiciary powers of the state. Nay, that they may despoil us of our very right of suffrage and erect to themselves an independent and hereditary assembly, or we must say that they have no authority to enact into law the bill under consideration. What a wonderful run up to the convention two years later.

LA: That’s right. You see, and there, it’s a beautiful thing, and you know, you do have to see what it means, because these things that are going on right now today, these are extremely powerful movements. We talked about this a month ago or something. The state, the government, has become such a large part of the society, and so comprehensive, and the kind of laws that it’s passing now command people to do things and to say things or refrain from saying things that are actually fundamental to their faith. And that is what’s going on. And I put the point a month ago, I think you and I both did, that the question is, is there going to be a private sphere remaining where people can have their conscience and follow their conscience? Or will it become so circumscribed that then you become like a totalitarian state where in the workplace, potentially in the family, because in the schools where your kids go, if they can be punished for things that they say, or for practices that they advocate or adhere to that violate the code that’s going about, you know, this case against the Little Sisters Of The Poor, this is about whether they are required to submit an application or else be fined millions of dollars having to do with the requirement for health care plans to provide abortifacients and contraceptives.

HH: Right.

LA: And that’s speaking in the name of the rights of women who want those things, and are entitled to them in their health care plan versus the right, and you know, then you get what’s called a conflict of rights, you know? I’m Sandra Fluke, is how I think you pronounce her name…

HH: Yeah.

LA: …that lady who was big in the 2012 election, a Georgetown law student who I think she said she spent two or three thousand dollars a year on contraceptives, and it was hardship on her to have to pay for it herself, she an unmarried woman. And the point is, her right to have those paid for is in conflict with the right of a group of nuns to practice the Catholic faith as it has been known for 2,000 years.

HH: And what I think is important about this hour is that we remind people of how obvious that choice would have been at the time of the framing. And the next key document, one that people often forget, one that I credit you with always reminding me of, is the Northwest Ordinance organizing our properties even before we were a Constitutional republic. And Article III provided religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind. Schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. That clearly tells us which way those people would have thought as between the Little Sisters of the Poor and Sandra Fluke.

LA: And that suggests a fundamental point here. The law is a moral force, and founded on conceptions of right and wrong. And so notice the conjoining in the Northwest Ordinance, that’s from Article III, religion, morality and knowledge, those three things go together. And the solution that’s found in the American Revolution and the founding of America is the…do we have to go?

HH: Yeah, give us a break. We’ll be right back with Dr. Arnn.

HH: When we went to break, Dr. Arnn, we were talking about Article III of the Northwest Ordinance, which commends religion, morality and knowledge. And in these eight minutes, we must not only tie that ordinance’s combining of those three to the two most remarkable letters. And it’s a wonderful thing that both George Washington in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation, and Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, acted to assure people of their president’s desire for their religious liberty to be first and foremost protected.

LA: That’s right. So I was, this conjoining of religion and morality, there are two ways we might know right and wrong. We might know it because it is revealed to us by God in Scripture or tradition or in a vision or a direct conversation. And we might know it because we can just think about it. And you can, you know, the morality, that means the way things act, what they’re like, how they are. And so they put those together, and they capsulize in the American Revolution on the extremely happy fact that the moral things we know through faith, and the moral things we know through reason, are compatible or almost completely compatible, and sufficiently compatible as to make a basis for law.

HH: Yup.

LA: So in the Declaration of Independence, the expression is the laws of nature and of nature’s God. And that means that we’re not rebelling from England in the name of a commandment from a religious institution, but in the name of the things we know, which are named in the Declaration, both by reason and by faith.

HH: And it is that congruence, I think, they are so closely aligned, that Washington can tell the Jews, and Jefferson can tell the Baptists, not to worry.

LA: That’s right. When Washington writes to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, and he’s probably the first executive of a country outside of Israel to address Jews as equal citizens. When he writes that, he says now no more that we speak of religious toleration as if it were by the indulgence of some that others enjoy their inherent, natural rights. And then later he says each is free to worship between, beneath his own vine and fig tree, none to make him afraid. And then he says the country only asks that each citizen demean himself on all occasions as a good citizen, given his country his effectual support. See, what that means is the standard is the law will be built on the moral law, and it will be strong, and it will forbid murder, and it will protect the family. And one of the precepts of the moral law is we will be protected in our right to worship. And there, you have the basis of the American regime. And that’s what all these great documents about religious freedom are about. And they remove, therefore, the cause of conflict between the sects that had divided and made turbulent politics for 1,600 years.

HH: And only a few years later, Jefferson writes to the Baptists not only about the wall of separation, I love the concluding paragraph. I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association assurances of my high respect and esteem. I just can’t imagine Jefferson insisting that the Little Sisters of the Poor or Hobby Lobby to conform to a federal government’s vision of what must be right.

LA: And you know, that understands the radical nature of that vision, too, because you know, we — the politics is increasingly about sex in one way or another. And they increasingly, they forget, politics forgets, that sex is the way we get our children. And sex is set in a context of having children and then the massive job of raising them and caring for them. You know, I’ve got my son-in-law in waiting here over Christmas for the first time. His parents approve of me, because they’re radical Hugh Hewitt fans. They live in Houston, Fred and Karen. And so I’ve won big points with them, you know, because I know Hugh Hewitt.

HH: You tricked them.

LA: And that whole phenomenon, right, Kathleen Arnn, my eldest daughter, our eldest daughter, is a grown woman and a college professor, and soon to be the headmaster of a school. And she and her siblings are the most important things to us. And now she is going to get married next summer. And there’s going to be grandchildren, we hope and pray. And the point is, that phenomenon, which is fumbling in America, it is staggered, the status of the family. There’s a new book out by an economist called Home Ec, and you should get that guy on your show, Hugh.

HH: Okay.

LA: I’ve read the first third of it, and it’s a fascinating book. And what he says is the family is the way that people grow up successfully, and there are measures of it. And the economy depends on that. And that is failing, and he doesn’t actually go into why all that much. There are many factors about why. But one of them surely must be that we have changed our doctrine about the purpose of sex. And the Little Sisters of the Poor, by the way, in following Catholic doctrine, are only following what has been thought in reason for 2,000 years about the family, and about the way children are to be raised.

HH: Yes, and they are protected, they are one of the walls, as is Hobby Lobby, against the radical assault on that. And it’s going to be decided this year, Larry Arnn. Are you an optimist about our justices in this regard?

LA: Well, it’s extremely interesting to me that you know, you made the case, and I was skeptical before Christmas, that this Hobby Lobby case would give some justices a chance to rethink what they think about Obamacare in light of its obvious failings. And I was skeptical about that. But it’s interesting that Sotomayor has issued this writ. And it put me in mind of something that Winston Churchill said in 1931, the radical Socialist government under Ramsay MacDonald at the time had put a trade union into Parliament and a trade disputes bill that was very radical and very unpopular. And it was killed by his liberal coalition partners. And Churchill said on the House of Commons I see what MacDonald did. He said to the liberals, take this thing outside and cut its dirty throat.

HH: (laughing) We can only pray. Dr. Larry Arnn, an excellent first Hillsdale Dialogue. Have a great start to 2014.

 End of interview.

Interview Transcript from

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