Religion & Liberty Online

Truth, Conscience, and the (New) American Way

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A new book examines how notions of conscience and its rights have changed from the 16th century to today’s woke orthodoxies. Is conscience now little more than personal whim that can deny reality at will?

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We live in a culture where many believe that the claims of their emotional lives trump all other considerations. This sentimental understanding of the self is driven by our culture’s obsession with identity, which is often grounded in our “sense of self.” Clearly most people in the West still believe there is a source of authority accessible within that grants us the power to make powerful claims about reality. What else would enable anyone to think they could bravely speak “their truth” to what they believe to be a hopelessly regressive world, and that the world should care? On what other basis would anyone expect to be taken seriously when they claim they were born with the wrong kind of body? 

The past decade’s most important and (seemingly) novel political fads all seem to revolve around something like a sense of conscience, deformed though it may be from the traditional understanding of that faculty. Indeed, part of our deep cultural divide surely flows from our inability to agree on what conscience really means.

Steven D. Smith’s The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity traces the successive transformations of how we understand conscience by highlighting three key figures in its redefinition in the Anglo-American world: Thomas More, James Madison, and William Brennan. Smith argues that a “commitment to something called ‘conscience’ … has been a central and in some ways defining feature of modern Western civilization.” Conscience in the sense of an innate, internal compass is fundamental in the sense that other matters of belief and faith that we hold dear depend on some version of it holding sway in our moral lives. Nonetheless, we seem to be in acute danger of losing sight of what made it so powerful in shaping a society of ordered liberty.

The Decline of Christendom’s Conscience

Smith’s first chapter offers a lengthy, fascinating treatment of Thomas More, which covers his appeal to both a kind of freedom of conscience rooted in the Catholic tradition and conscience in the sense of a faculty that alerts us to the difference between right and wrong. Here he attempts to clarify the basis upon which More appealed to conscience in his struggle with Henry VIII over his marriage to Anne Boleyn and assumption of supremacy in the English church, as well as assess the tensions within More’s thinking. In doing so, he illustrates the ways in which More’s view rested on an ultimately unstable understanding of the link between personal beliefs and the truth.

Although More declined to offer detailed reasons for his dissent, his resistance to Henry VIII’s separation from Rome was grounded in a traditional Christian understanding of marriage, and the kind of conscience he relied on is quite different from later iterations. Conscience began its public life as a communal more than an individual force, one rooted in the shared, Catholic assumptions of medieval public life. In its first iteration, conscience is a matter of the self’s relationship to the community and the Church, which already has articulated the right view of things: “To say that you should do what is right is practically equivalent to saying you should do God’s will” but also “to thine own self be true”; “to obey God is to be true to yourself.” 

Smith also considers the apparent internal contradictions in More’s own thought and action: How could he rest his own defense on conscience while systematically denying Protestants recourse to it? More believed that Protestants “were not merely acting against conscience themselves; they were working to make it impossible for Christians generally to act on conscience” and therefore sought to suppress their views before they destroyed Christendom itself. 

Within even the communal conception of conscience More held dear, unless conscience is to be entirely coextensive with the public doctrine of the Church, each of us must still work through the contours of our own belief: “You should do what you believe to be right even though you may be mistaken, and even though you may incur excommunication for doing so. … In this way, conscience contains a sort of capacity to cover for—even to consecrate—error. … Conscience thus appears to offer us a win-win situation: if I do what is right, I do right; and if I do what is wrong, I still do right—provided I do what I believe to be right.” Even in More’s thinking, then, a transition away from a communal conception of conscience seems inevitable: once you accept something close to the idea that there should be no compulsion in matters of faith, it seems natural that something like this view would acquire moral force, and in the face of proliferating disagreements about the nature of the Christian faith, a concept of toleration emerges. 

The Gospel of Conscience?

At least since the American founding, the notion that faith ought to be professed freely has been a commonplace, one that solidified a place for conscience in our national life. Using James Madison’s thought allows Smith to grapple with the shift in how we viewed conscience, from More’s corporate conscience to a more thoroughly disestablishmentarian view. And this was certainly Madison’s goal: not to move religion itself out of the public’s mind but to eliminate ecclesiastical establishment of every kind, an “institutional transformation that Madison, and also Jefferson, had in mind.” Madison basically sidesteps the earlier rhetoric that emphasized the pedagogical reasons for a state church, the need to curb error, and the idea that a common faith could be unifying—all these were a dead letter in the Colonies. In ignoring them, “he was, rather, sensibly and mercifully declining to waste words beating up on straw men.” 

Building upon an extended discussion of Madison’s efforts in drafting and revising the Virginia Declaration of Rights and engaging with his extensive body of letters and essays, Smith offers a novel assessment of Madison’s extension of traditional notions of conscience away from a strict understanding of it as our duty to God and toward the idea that all forms of sincere religious belief ought to be respected. Throughout he observes that, while Madison defended religious belief, he seemed also to believe that Christians were altogether too focused on questions of theology, or on “getting it right” rather than respecting the sincerity of other people’s views. 

In this view, Madison established something Smith calls the “Gospel of Conscience” as a public theology supreme over any other competing view: 

He acted to establish, in and by law, not the outward institutional trappings of the church but rather the real church—namely, the conscience. … Madison took what for More was a sort of peripheral corollary of the Christian faith and made it the centerpiece of his credo. For More, it was Christianity that consecrated conscience. For Madison, it was conscience that consecrated Christianity—and that consecrated our other sincerely held faiths as well.

More’s and Madison’s visions of conscience diverge sharply on what each considered the acceptable content of one’s belief, but in Smith’s account, both of their articulations still lead inexorably toward the individual human person’s beliefs about God. Indeed, both frame their views of conscience with respect to the duties we owe our Creator.

Faith Displaced

Smith traces the shift away from conscience rooted in religious duty through the jurisprudence of Justice William Brennan. Perhaps the most influential Supreme Court justice of the 20th century, Brennan wrote opinions in several deeply consequential cases in which he sought to defend what he viewed as the “essential dignity of man,” largely by expanding the list of rights we could claim in our private lives and sharply circumscribing the role religion plays in public life. 

Brennan’s view of judicial duty became the model for many American politicians whose public stances clashed in some way with their profession of faith. In Brennan’s case, the tension emerged between his Catholic faith and his views on issues such as contraception and abortion. “Brennan emphasized his fidelity to the judicial oath as a way of demonstrating his independence from his church, and thus his suitability for high office.” He engaged in a “compartmentalization of a particular kind, separating things that had once seemed, and by their intrinsic nature might seem to be, inseparable.”

By Brennan’s time on the Court, conscience’s role in public life had shifted dramatically, transforming into a claim about our inner life alone: “Now conscience means, and needs to mean, something like a person’s deeply felt convictions or commitments regarding how he or she should live.” Brennan’s privatization of religion suggests this view had taken hold, rejecting America’s long history of intertwined religion and public life. He was not alone in this endeavor. He came to prominence at the same time John Rawls suggested good liberals should eschew reasoning from “comprehensive doctrines” in their public life, and in his decisions “Brennan read the compartmentalization that he had adopted for himself into constitutional law, so that it became normative for everyone.” 

This jurisprudence and the approach to public life aimed at a certain understanding of dignity, albeit “the dignity of each individual as understood by that individual.” This subjectivism not only separated Brennan from his own church’s understanding of dignity but also reversed the older assumption that certain kinds of corporate conscience or settled, commonly held orthodoxies must be respected. Instead, Brennan’s view of rights (as evinced in Planned Parenthood v. Casey’s “mystery passage”) “evidently contemplated not merely a right to believe in one’s concept of the universe … but rather some kind of right to have one’s conception respected, or not interfered with, by the government.” Brennan exceeded even Huey Long’s promise that every man should be like a king, making us all miniature gods “creating their own individual universes with their own meanings.”

A Fragmented Age

Each of Smith’s three major profiles is thoughtful and illuminate aspects of how conscience has shaped public life. But his conclusions, largely drawn out in the latter sections of his chapter on Brennan, as well as in a brief epilogue, offer some of the book’s deepest insights into our predicament.

By the American founding, religious toleration was a widely accepted principle in our politics, albeit not without complications (consider the challenges Catholics, Quakers, and Jews faced at various times). Brennan’s contemporaries, like Michael Walzer and Rawls, desired a society driven by mutual respect, where “government would maintain a stance of religious detachment or neutrality; it would eschew announcing or approving any religious creed or doctrine, so that regardless of their particular faith or lack thereof all citizens can stand as equals before the state and the law.” We have clearly moved beyond this position, to a point where a vacuous, self-determined understanding of conscience has given way to policing a new set of orthodoxies. Toleration falters in the face of these ideological forces, for if conscience has nothing to do with God, “why should government respect and attempt to accommodate the consciences of people whom government necessarily believes to be mistaken or misguided in their judgments?”

Even worse for people of faith, Smith suggests that on some level, the advocates of subjectivism and constructivism who define modern pursuits of rights and dignity know their position is weak precisely because it is the result not of nature or truth but the power of narratives alone: “self-validating fictions cling to a tenuous existence, because if saying something is so can make it so, then saying something is not so can likewise make it not so.” This explains to a great degree why progressive activists have spent so much of the past decade attempting to shut down public discussion about virtually every aspect of their agenda. 

The compartmentalizing of religion helped create this situation by denying us any intellectual resources to cope with it: “How can citizens meaningfully debate such issues when they are admonished not to invoke what they most fundamentally believe?” And so most Americans—even religious believers—are left without much sense of how to challenge the new order, and certainly little ability to recapture a corporate sense of conscience. The Disintegrating Conscience may not end on a cheery note, but it gives readers something more than the discordant narratives that dominate our moment by exploring some hard truths. 

Smith may undersell one key point, however: the persistent longings of our conscience may just point us back to our deeper need for truth—a desire that the self alone cannot satisfy.

Brian A. Smith

Brian A. Smith is senior program manager at Liberty Fund and the author of Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer.