Standing Up to Rousseau: Remarks at a Fortnight for Freedom
Religion & Liberty Online

Standing Up to Rousseau: Remarks at a Fortnight for Freedom

I had the opportunity to speak at the Fortnight for Freedom event held by the Church of the Incarnation in Collierville, Tennessee, on June 21. The venue and the crowd were among the best I’ve ever encountered. Below, you can read my excerpted remarks:

On the Question of Religious Liberty

If I understand correctly, this is the beginning of the Fortnight for Freedom here at the Church of the Incarnation and around the nation. The need for this special fortnight arises from recent actions of the government which indicate that religious freedom may be in serious danger. Specifically, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a mandate requiring all employers who offer insurance to provide coverage for contraceptive and abortifacient products and services. The mandate contained no exemption for religious institutions such as universities, charities, and hospitals who might find difficulty complying for reasons of faith and conscience.

This issue may appear to be a new one, but it is actually very old. The 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a number of influential books and essays. One of the most notable is The Social Contract. In that book, Rousseau has a chapter titled “On Civil Religion.” In the chapter, he observes that ancient cultures traditionally united theology and politics. Each religion was tied to the laws of its state. There could be no conversion other than through conquest. The only missionaries were soldiers. There was nothing to discuss. Force decided religious disputes. There are still quite a few nations that practice the same philosophy today.

Rousseau points to Jesus as the person who disrupted that age-old system. And for a time, you had the Christians operating within the context of a pagan empire while simultaneously refusing to accept the emperor worship that held the whole system together. The empire was willing to tolerate a polytheistic festival of religions as long as all would submit to the overarching religion of Rome. The Christians refused. And they were persecuted, terribly persecuted (killed by wild animals, tortured, turned into flaming lanterns), until, improbably, everything changed. Some of the powerful were converted, such as Constantine, and Christians gained first protection and then establishment status. The empire of Rome eventually fell. But the Christian church carried on (and that is a story for another day).

From Rousseau’s perspective, Christianity and particularly what he called “Roman Christianity” presents a serious problem because there will always the difficulty of double power since the church will not simply yield to the state. Where there is conflict, the church will go where it believes God is leading it. In Rousseau’s mind, such a conflict should be impossible. The state must rule without question. He praised Hobbes for trying to put the two powers back together under the rule of Leviathan in which the state would control religion completely. What is needed, Rousseau wrote, is theocracy such that there is no pontiff other than the prince and no priests other than the magistrate. The only real sin in this new state Rousseau envisioned is intolerance. It is not even enough to have theological intolerance and civil tolerance. Theological intolerance cannot be tolerated. Anyone who “dares to say outside the church there is no salvation ought to be expelled from the state . . .”

Rousseau, of course, was one of the great intellectual inspirations for the French Revolution. The French Revolution, so different from the nearly contemporaneous American one, followed Rousseau’s logic. The revolutionary leaders carried on a massive campaign against the Catholic church and tried to create a new national civil religion. If there is to be something like a religious power, it must be a power under the control of the state and its leaders. That is the method of the secular, statist stream of revolutions that began with the revolution in France. But like the old pagans, the new pagans have found that the followers of Jesus Christ are not willing to accept the idea of the state as the supreme power. That resistance to the supremacy of the state has been and should always be one of the marks of the Christian church.

It seems to me that the mandate handed down (undemocratically) by the government’s department of Health and Human Services represents a return of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political thought in our time. In essence, the state and its rulers are saying that its conception of what is good for human beings is superior to the church’s view and it will be made mandatory (even for the church) regardless of the church’s objections. The offense is compounded because the state could simply opt to tax the people and provide the services on its own. Instead, it insists that religious institutions themselves pay for the contraceptive and abortifacient products and services it rejects. It is not enough that religious organizations have to accept it as passive taxpayers. Instead, they must be forced to directly fund the products and services as part of their employment contracts.

Whether its members realize it or not, the administration is working directly under Rousseau’s canopy. It would have been a simple thing to insert a provision into the mandate accommodating objections based on faith and conscience. Employees working for religious employers (especially Catholic ones who are the most affected) hardly represent a large portion of the labor force. But the accommodation has not been made in any meaningful sense. And one has the feeling that the accommodation has not been made because the other side is working from their own view of principle. They are saying, with Rousseau, that what they see as civil and theological intolerance cannot stand. The Catholic church finds itself at odds with the metaphysics of the United States government. Other churches will soon find themselves in similar circumstances if we do not curb the boldness of the government quickly. Though it is in a relatively low key way (low key as opposed to the French Revolution), the government is essentially saying that a particular view of the Catholic church will not be permitted to shape its organizational behavior, even though the church’s view does not threaten anyone with harm. Individuals who work for Catholic organizations could easily work elsewhere. The church does not force anyone to sign a contract of employment.

I have frequently been surprised to find people who should know better supporting the administration and its mandate. What it often comes down to is one’s political sympathies. Those who prefer a larger government and believe government is the primary provider for the good of people tend to think the mandate is a just measure. But I have discovered that they are able to see the problem with the mandate when I change the fact situation to one with which they are more sympathetic. Let us imagine a Quaker college with a core conviction regarding pacificism. Let us further imagine that the government were to insist that such a college host an ROTC unit on campus. Given these facts, would you insist that the Quaker college must simply buckle under, ignore its core beliefs, and do what the government says? When I put it that way, I find that supporters of the mandate suddenly understand the problem with the situation the government is putting the church in. If the issue is pacifism rather than sex or reproduction, then the matter of conscientious and spiritual objection becomes more clear. We can be blind to important principles when our particular ox is not being gored.

The Fortnight for Freedom is aimed at improving our understanding of religious liberty, but I would submit to you that maybe the issue is simply liberty, itself. I recently read an interview between Bart Stupak and Greta van Susteren. If you don’t recall, Congressman Stupak and a group of pro-life Democrats held up passage of the president’s health care bill because of their concerns about taxpayer money being spent for abortion and because of a desire to make sure that conscience would be protected. After the president signed an executive order aimed at alleviating their concerns, Stupak’s group provided the winning margin in the House. Stupak and his group of fellow Congressmen had attempted to protect religious liberty and rights of conscience in the massive piece of legislation, but all that is a faint memory now. What I am suggesting to you is that if we insist on continuing to expand the power we give to the government, then we should not be shocked and dismayed when we see fundamental rights and freedoms, such as religious liberty, eroded. Where government power increases, freedom is diminished. The relationship is axiomatic. It means that we must be very careful and very sure of what we are doing when we seek to expand the power of the state. It sounds good to solve problems by simply having the government pass a law, but there are often unintended consequences. A laudable attempt at providing health care coverage for more Americans has ended up strengthening the hand of persons or organizations who lack respect for rights and freedoms we cherish.

I have discussed Rousseau’s point of view and how it connects directly to the state of mind that issues something like the HHS mandate heedless of the serious problems it creates for individuals and organizations with objections based on faith and conscience. Rousseau, meaning well, certainly meaning well, wrote a philosophy fit for totalitarians. He is remembered for lamenting that man is born free, but is found everywhere in chains. Less often do we hear another thought of his connected to freedom which is that if a citizen finds himself or herself in disagreement with the general will of the nation, then he or she must be forced to be free! Freedom for Rousseau means being in step with the general will. That is what the secular statists think they are doing to the Catholic church with the HHS mandate. They are forcing you to be free!

But the church has never been intended to set its course to fit the prevailing winds of public opinion or the edicts of state. In his profound Letter From Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that the church must be a THERMOSTAT, not a thermometer. It does not simply reflect public opinion. It sets out to influence public opinion. It means to work a change in people.

I have some good news for you from the worlds of history and political philosophy. America is not a country that has tended to take its cues from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Far more influential on our shores has been the thought of a man named John Locke. Like Rousseau, Locke reasoned about the nature of the social contract. But he did not conclude that we should end up forced to be free by following the general will. Instead, he said that we have government to make us more truly free, free in a sense that you and I can actually understand and support. In a state of nature, there is still a natural law of right and wrong that exists, but our ability to enforce it is in question. For example, if a seven foot barbarian steals your property and takes your home for his own, you may have the right on your side, but there is doubt as to whether the demands of justice will be satisfied. Locke says that we lose little by creating a state to protect us from violent or dishonest acts of others when we have a low probability of achieving the same result without a government. In other words, we gain freedom by empowering a state to punish criminal acts. Rather than being forced to be free, the government will use force to protect freedom.

Locke would not have approved something like the HHS mandate which impairs religious freedom. He said that we come out of the state of nature into a civil society with a government to gain what we could not secure in nature. The goal of government is to protect freedom, not to diminish it. The HHS mandate is an exercise of government that reduces freedom. Worse, it is the kind of government act that infringes on freedom of religion and conscience. These are the freedoms we would be least likely to bargain away because they mean the most. A government that infringes on these freedoms is one that is making us worse off rather than better off. It is a government that forces us to be at odds with the entity that is designed to protect us in the exercise of our freedom. It makes an enemy of us (and this is the important part) when we have done nothing that should make it see us as an enemy. The government has engineered a crisis in which churches are more and more likely to be caught between God and Caesar. This is the last thing a government should be doing to its people when they are committing no wrong.

The bottom line is that there are certain things that belong to the state and others that don’t. The state is an instrument, not some kind of ultimacy. It is a tool. It is temporary. It is designed to solve a simple problem, which is the problem of restraining evil. The state is designed to serve persons. We are not designed to serve the state. The great French Catholic scholar Jacques Maritain said it best: “The state is made for man, not man for the state.”

The United States, traditionally, has been one of the nations that most clearly understands the proper role of the government. We have welcomed the existence and development of many institutions of civil society performing tasks that need not belong to the state. But Rousseau saw a society with two powers of church and state as a liability, something that needed to be destroyed. And the French Revolution accordingly attempted to destroy it. What Rousseau missed that Locke understood is that when government attempts to rule over too much of life, then there are too many areas in which disagreement can only be settled with the exercise of coercive power, including things such as civil penalties and imprisonment. We should only resort to those things when the stakes are very high. Why would we subject more things to that official (and ultimately punitive) sphere than we must?

Having strong institutions in the society other than the government actually improves the prospects for freedom. The family, the church, the private school, charitable organizations . . . all of these represent alternative allegiances for people. Alternative allegiances help limit the power of the state and to curb its ambitions. A totalitarian state prefers to have only two entities in society. The individual and the state. In that situation, the vision of the state will always be supreme.

When we protest that something like the HHS mandate might eventually have the effect of forcing the church to abandon its efforts in running schools, universities, hospitals, and social services, a pragmatic person might well rethink the whole project out of worry for the loss of all the good religious institutions do. But for people of a certain ideological stripe, when we say the HHS mandate could force the church out of various endeavors, they think silently to themselves, “Good.”

I am not saying these people are villains. They have a big vision for society based on government action. They believe it is for the best. They believe strongly enough in this vision to take an amazingly bold action against the church. But the experience of the 20th century should make us reluctant to agree to these large and ambitious plans. Karol Wojtyla, the man who became Pope John Paul II, lived his life in the service of a church forcibly repressed by first the Nazis and then the Soviets, both of whom carried out their programs in service of their plans for the good for humanity. As a younger man, he made a practice of taking young people out into the country for hiking and canoeing. He wanted to show them that even under totalitarians, one can and should carve out space for a life they do not control. He was teaching them that the state is not the supreme reality. The supreme reality is the church seeking after the will of God. And that is why Peter and apostles told those who wished to imprison them that “We must obey God rather than men.”

If the church fails to stand up and be counted at this moment, then the HHS mandate will simply be the first of many more such rulings and regulations in the future. We need to protect religious freedom now.

I was asked to speak on the topic of engaging the culture in the light of this recent crisis. I have spent a good bit of time explaining why I think the HHS mandate is fundamentally misguided and violates the basic American understanding of government power. My hope is that if anyone here needs convincing that perhaps I have made out a case for restricting government power and resisting the siren call that issues forth every so often telling us that the millennium will come when we have composed the perfect package of government rules and programs. Certainly, that was the message the administration broadcast to young people during the last campaign: “We are the one’s we are waiting for.” It was a continuation of the theme former vice-president Gore pushed in his famous film An Inconvenient Truth. He claimed that the only resource we really need to solve our problems is political will. My first suggestion is that we all become a great deal more modest in terms of what we expect a government to do so that we can maintain our confidence in our freedoms. The big solutions usually disappoint us. And freedoms do not typically return once they have been surrendered to the state.

On How We Can Move Forward

What do we need to do to prevent this tide from reaching further inland? I have a specific suggestion that deals with the heart of our lives as Christians.

About three years ago, I was part of a group that invited Archbishop Charles Chaput to come to Houston Baptist University and give a major evening address to the people of our community and the city at large. He taught me how to pronounce his name, which looks like CHA-PUTT. Instead, he explained, it is SHAP-YOU (he said with a twinkle in his eye) which rhymes with SLAP-YOU. One of the interesting features of Chaput’s presentation was that he criticized then-Senator John Kennedy’s famous speech to the Protestant pastors of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in which the candidate insisted that his Catholicism would have little impact on his leadership if he were to be elected as president. In so doing, Kennedy contributed to the strength of a form of religion powers and principalities prefer. This religion is private religion. Private religion says that when I am in the public world, I will act as the world expects me to act and speak. When I am in my church world, I will act and speak a different way. That kind of religion will always be praised and uplifted by the world. It threatens nothing and changes nothing. It leaves evil undisturbed. Private religion actually appears to be the sort of religion the issuers of the HHS mandate were thinking of because they did exempt the houses of worship, as if only the actual worship facilities deserve protection from regulations which threaten conscience.

Private religion treates Christian public engagement as though it were under the Miranda warning police officers issue to suspects: “You have the right to remain silent.” And you are expected to use that right. The world system of money, power, and amoral function doesn’t want to be challenged by the prophetic witness of the church and by the words and example of Jesus Christ. We could be talking about the kinds of financial practices that led to a huge crash and economic disruption. I suspect there were some Catholics and other Christians participating in that method of doing business and yet showing up for Sunday worship. Certainly, we know that the CEO of Enron was a member of a large, conservative Baptist church in Houston. Let’s call it the separation of faith and commerce. There are plenty of public officials who are Christians who want to draw a sharp line between their faith and politics, at least when their faith would lead them in a direction they don’t want to go. We can find this sort of private religion keeping quiet, refusing to confront clear wrongs, because that is what private religion does. Private religion can take care of our christenings, our weddings, and our funerals. It marks the big events of life. Private religion usually isn’t worth all that much. It is an accessory to living. A little enhancer. A spritz of perfume. It is a tie or necklace you wear once in a while.

The alternative to private religion is not loud, preening public religion. Neither is it theocracy. I am not asking you to go door to door and hand out evangelistic tracts. I do not think you should be standing on a street corner shouting. I do not wish to force unbelievers into churches as a condition of citizenship. The alternative to private religion is thoughtful, winsome, compassionate, and sometimes prophetic engagement.

Engagement begins with living out our faith everyday rather than holding it aside as some one hour a week Sabbath engagement. This is the acid test of our credibility. We need to think through our relationships in terms of the scriptures and the model of Jesus Christ. We need to show our children that we are seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit at all times. We should conduct our businesses in that same manner. We should work as unto the Lord. If we have the task of managing people, we must also remember that they are our brothers and sisters and not mere subordinates. The manager is to serve and not to lord authority over people. Our faith should guide us in the ways in which we approach entertainment, what we choose to read, how we spend our time. As we do all these things, our friends and neighbors will notice. Leading a Christ-guided life will affect many matters in our society. It will cause more children to be born in a home with married parents. It will result in more marriages staying together. It will result in stronger relationships between parents and children. It will produce a greater sense of fellowship in our churches. We could go on and on. Our faith should affect the way we steward our money and how we give. It should make us more open to the real needs of people. Integrating our faith with the rest of our lives will first be a tremendous blessing to us and our communities. When we do these things, our lives act as an alarm clock for others who have been asleep. I think about a couple in my church who went to the Phillipines and asked to adopt the child no one wanted. They got him. His name is Angel and he needs a lot of help. Everyone who encounters Fonsie and Leslie finds themselves thinking about where they fall short in demonstrating the love of Christ.

Integration of our faith with our whole lives means that it will affect our politics, as well. We should care about freedom because we care about the ability to respond to the call of God in our lives and our institutions without needless interference from the state. We think people should be free because they have been created in the image of God. If we care about freedom, then we should act politically to try to protect it. More explicitly, we should make it clear that we are calling, writing, organizing, networking, speaking, and voting because our faith matters to our politics. The world needs to understand that we attach a great value both to our rights both as citizens and as members of the church body. We will not lightly let go of such a great inheritance.

For some people, this whole idea is strange. There are streams in the Christian tradition that uphold the idea that we should have nothing to do with politics, either because politics is a dirty, worldly business which we should avoid or because they think the Bible counsels mere passivity before the law. So, we either withdraw or we obey. And if we cannot obey, then we simply accept punishment. I would argue that these options are not sufficient for Christians living in the United States. We have been blessed to live in a republic in which sovereignty belongs to the people. That means that each one of us bear some responsibility for the policies and action of government. If we should fail to accept that responsibility, then we are guilty of poor stewardship of rights and freedoms that are the envy of people around the world.

The amazing thing about this privilege we have of participating in our own government is that we do so freely and securely. How dare we withdraw from the exercise of our right to speak, write, organize, and vote? How dare we treat those giant blessings as though they were cheap trinkets when we have seen the trials others have gone through as they have attempted to win those rights for their fellow human beings? We must be motivated when we look at individuals such as Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who struggled against the greatest totalitarian menace the world has ever seen. And while China is improving, I still remember sitting in a yogurt shop in Jacksonville, Florida nearly 20 years ago with a friend from Hong Kong. I watched hot tears trailing down his cheeks as he recounted the events of the Tiananmen Square massacre in which young men and women his age had been killed for their protests in favor of democracy. No, we must not look lightly upon such a great blessing as we have. Part of the reason we must demonstrate vigilance against this recent challenge to religious liberty is because we value what has been earned by previous generations who paid a much higher price than simply suffering the scorn and condescension of cultural elites who think us backward and superstitious. Our predecessors paid a price in a much more costly currency.

While I would not propose to tick off a laundry list of political positions I think Christians must support as citizens, I would suggest a couple of foundations. We must continue to strive to protect life that is unborn, disabled, and elderly. Maintaining the sanctity of life is absolutely essential. If we fail in this regard, we will have sacrificed what may be the single greatest Christian contribution to political society. We must also continue to maintain the freedom of the church, the family, and other institutions against the intrusion of the state. We have to remind the state that it does not rule over souls. It has a specific purpose to fulfill, which is the restraint of evil. And it should stick to that purpose rather than trying to bring more and more parts of life under its control.

By way of conclusion, I would like to speak very briefly of what is probably the single most important thing for the church to remember as it encounters earthly powers. Toward the end of his massive study of the resurrection titled The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright includes a section titled “Resurrection and World Leadership.” He notes that early Christians used the phrase “Son of God” to describe Jesus both knowing that pagan emperors had applied it to themselves and intending to confront them with “the world’s true Lord.” Calling Jesus the Son of God, in this sense, demonstrated the determination of early Christians to prevent themselves from being understood as “a private cult, a sect, a mystery religion.” What began as an absurd challenge toward Rome launched by “a tiny group of nobodies” became so serious that within a couple of generations the might of Rome was trying, and failing, to stamp it out.

We are not simply another group of people around the world who rally around a religious figure whom we believe had a special revelation. We follow the son of God who gave evidence of the truth of his claims by rising and being seen by over 500 people after being put to death by the greatest empire the world had ever seen. The empire he founded outlived the empire that tried to strangle his kingdom in its infancy. The church is still here, improbably, while so much else has changed in two millennia. We will always be in conflict with the great earthly kingdom builders because we will not allow the state to dictate terms to us in areas where it has no just jurisdiction. Nevertheless, we owe the state our service. Augustine wrote that we should be the very best citizens of a nation that does not attempt to force us into impiety. He was right. We should be great citizens for America. We should be patriots. And our patriotism should extend to doing everything that we can to ensure that our nation does not go wrong in this crucial hour with fundamental freedoms at stake.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is a professor of political science and the dean of arts and sciences at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in religion & politics at the Acton Institute. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.