Shortly after the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14, 1789, the English political theorist Edmund Burke wrote a letter to Lord Charlemont, the first president of the Royal Irish Academy. It is Burke's earliest known statement about the French Revolution:
The spirit it is impossible not to admire; but the old Parisian ferocity has broken out in a shocking manner...if it should be character, rather than accident, then that people are not fit for liberty, and must have a strong hand, like that of their former masters to coerce them. Men must have a certain fund of natural moderation to qualify them for freedom, else it becomes noxious to themselves, and a perfect nuisance to every body else.
We know the rest of the story. The French revolutionaries proved themselves to be unfit for liberty. Barely a decade after executing their hated monarch—and after years of political instability, social chaos, and the remorseless violence of the guillotine—the freedom-loving revolutionaries installed an emperor to replace him. Napoleon Bonaparte, dictator for life, would become a perfect nuisance to the rest of Europe.
Burke's fullest assessment of events in France, his 1790 letter Reflections on the Revolution in France, written while the revolution was still unfolding, reveals a mind quickened by its moral insight into human nature and the nature of free societies. In his Reflections, Burke warned of political revolutions that despise everything that came before them: "People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors."
The impulse to damn with indifference the wisdom of an earlier generation is no longer confined to the French avant-garde or the cultural left. It is taking root in ultra-conservative circles in the United States, where a revolt against the core tenets of liberal democracy is underway. A small but growing cadre of Christian conservatives—mostly Catholic—has decried the American experiment in self-government as a fool's errand: a quest for the fully emancipated self, unconstrained by the ties of custom, tradition, family, or faith. Classical liberalism, argues Patrick Deneen, Notre Dame political scientist and author of Why Liberalism Failed, was based upon a "fundamental commitment to the liberation of the individual...from nature's limitations." Its malicious strategy, he claims, is to enlist an omnicompetent state to enable "the greatest possible pursuit and satisfaction of the appetites."
This conservative—and, at times, conspiratorial—critique of liberal democracy is sustained by a grievous conceptual mistake. It is the failure to grasp the profound differences between the two great revolutions for freedom in the 18th century—between the events of 1776 and those of 1789. Not unlike the radical left, a vocal wing of the religious right seems contemptuous of the achievements of the Anglo-American political tradition.
Intoxicated by visions of a truly egalitarian society, the revolutionaries in Paris took a wrecking ball to the institutions and traditions that had shaped France for centuries. Virtually nothing, including the religion that guided the lives of most of their fellow citizens, was sacrosanct. "We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic," warned Maximilien Robespierre, "or perish with them." Their list of enemies—past and present—was endless. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, by contrast, did not share this rage against inherited authorities. Although the Americans, in the words of James Madison, did not suffer from a "blind veneration for antiquity," neither did they reject the political and cultural inheritance of Great Britain and the Western tradition. They did not seek to invent rights, but rather to reclaim their "chartered rights" as Englishmen. From both classical and religious sources, the American founders understood that human passions made freedom a vulnerable state of affairs: Political liberty demanded the restraints of civic virtue and biblical religion.
America's deepening political crisis is not, as some claim, the inevitable result of its liberal-democratic ideals. Rather, we are witnessing a culture war waged by the defenders of two radically different revolutions, two competing views of human freedom.
TO BUILD A FREE SOCIETY
On one side we have the republican project of the American founders. Their revolution for freedom was grounded in a Lockean understanding of natural rights, in the moderate Scottish Enlightenment, and in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. "We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by...morality and Religion," wrote John Adams. "Avarice, ambition, Revenge or Gallantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net." On the other side is the French project, inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Francois-Marie d'Arouet (better known as Voltaire), by the most radical strain of the Continental Enlightenment, and by a supreme confidence in human reason to chart man's destiny. "Man is born free," Rousseau declared, "but he is everywhere in chains." One of the first chains to be cut was the authority of the Christian churches.
The fundamental assumptions of these competing visions are widely divergent. The architects of the French Revolution believed that the task of establishing a free society was straightforward. In Rousseau's 1762 work The Social Contract, a secular bible for the revolutionaries, "the general will" of political society was easily discoverable by every citizen. In their version of a democratic state, there would be "no incompatible or conflicting interests; the common good makes itself so manifestly evident that only common sense is needed to discern it." What is more, every citizen would gladly submit his own interests to the common good. In the early phase of the revolution, the concept of the general will was elevated into a nearly infallible national conscience.
The confidence of the French philosophes in a beneficent human nature is perhaps the most striking note in their writings. It animated the thought of Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach, one of the most influential French philosophers of his day. Here is how he summarized it in his 1772 book Common Sense:
The human mind, confused by its theological opinions, ceased to know its own powers, mistrusted experience, feared truth and disdained reason, in order to follow authority. Man has been a mere machine in the hands of tyrants and priests, who alone have had the right of directing his actions. Always treated as a slave, he has contracted the vices of a slave....To learn the true principles of morality, men have no need of theology, of revelation, or gods: They have need only of reason. They have only to enter into themselves, to reflect upon their own nature, consult their sensible interests, consider the object of society, and of the individuals, who compose it....
This sanguine—and thoroughly secular—view of human capacities underwrote the inevitability of their political project. In their democratic society, all of the base and cruel passions would be enchained, while the sentiments of generosity and brotherhood would be awakened by the laws. According to the French intellectual vanguard, a new age of political nirvana was on the horizon. "Let France, formerly illustrious among the enslaved lands, eclipsing the glory of all the free peoples who have existed," Robespierre wrote, "become the model for the nations, the terror of oppressors, the consolation of the oppressed, the ornament of the world—and let us, in sealing our work with our blood, see at last the early dawn of universal bliss—that is our ambition and our goal."
This was an anthem to political utopianism the likes of which had never been heard before in Europe. The Americans rejected it as dangerous nonsense. Instead, the founders articulated a hopeful but deeply sober view about the prospects for republican self-government. Indeed, a major concern of the Federalist Papers, one of the most significant reflections on the nature of political societies ever written, is the problem of human self-interest. Though defending, along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, the American Constitution, Madison identified the threat of factions as the "mortal disease" of popular government:
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society....So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.
In the view of the founders, the fearsome reality of factions—what today we might call tribalism—was too deeply rooted to be solved by the mere presence of prudent political leadership. "It is vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good," Madison wrote. "Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm."
This belief in the dark propensities of human nature was the mainstream view among the founding generation, reinforced by the pulpit oratory of the day. Indeed, the urgent need for moral and spiritual awakening was a drumbeat theme throughout the Protestant churches of colonial America. An evangelical sermon preached in May 1776 by Reverend John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration, was typical: "I do not blame your ardor in preparing for the resolute defense of your temporal rights," he said. "But consider, I beseech you, the truly infinite importance of the salvation of your souls." Whatever the precise theological beliefs of the founders, the biblical concept of mankind's fall from grace was firmly embedded in American culture. "What is the present moral character of the citizens of the United States?" asked Benjamin Rush, another signer of the Declaration, in 1791. "I need not describe it. It proves too plainly that the people are as much disposed to vice as their rulers; and that nothing but a vigorous and efficient government can prevent their degenerating into savages."
Thus, one of the great objects of the American Constitution was to "break and control the violence of faction." Could it be done? Not even Thomas Jefferson, in his most intoxicated mood about their accomplishments, expected the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just," he wrote, "that his justice cannot sleep forever." Benjamin Franklin, as he emerged from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, knowing the kind of government the delegates had created, was circumspect. "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" he was asked. "A republic," he replied, "if you can keep it."
In the American and French revolutions, we encounter starkly different journeys toward freedom: two conflicting visions of human nature and the nature of political societies. A republic—if you can keep it—or the dawn of universal bliss.
TEMPLES OF ENLIGHTENMENT
Near the heart of the divide between these revolutions was their view of religion and religious authority. To be sure, the political leadership in America and France agreed that the lust for power was often concealed under the cloak of piety. They saw the national, monopolistic churches of Europe—either in Catholic or Protestant form—as a major obstacle to a more democratic and egalitarian society. But they drew opposite conclusions about the relationship of biblical religion to liberty.
The French revolutionaries were as vicious in their attacks on the Church as they were on the monarchy and the nobility. A program of "de-Christianization" was launched with a fury. "We will strangle the last king," they said, "with the guts of the last priest." In 1789, the National Constituent Assembly nationalized Church property and turned the clergy into salaried government employees. The following year, the assembly approved the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which, among other things, ordered all Catholic ministers to take a loyalty oath to the revolution. Half refused, further dividing French society. Some bishops removed their episcopal hats and put on a cap of freedom, declaring that the only religion of a free people was that of liberty and equality. Churches were vandalized, and the clergy were physically attacked. By 1794, only 150 of France's 40,000 parishes were openly celebrating Mass.
The climax of the French Revolution's assault on religion occurred at its most famous cathedral, Notre Dame, on November 10, 1793. For more than 600 years, Notre Dame had been a symbol of the Catholic-Christian identity of the nation of France. It was the place where marriages were sanctified, children were baptized and brought into the faith, and people confessed their sins before a Holy God. But now it was viewed as the great opponent of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The priests were banished, the saints desecrated, and the altar removed, replaced by the Goddess of Reason. The cathedral was renamed the Temple of Reason. This was the logic of the radical Enlightenment.
The American Enlightenment, by contrast, was a Lockean Enlightenment: Faith and reason were staunch allies in the quest for a more just and democratic society. Scottish theorists such as Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith—both of whom drew heavily upon the Bible—were favorites in early America. Yet, in establishing a tight bond between liberty and the Judeo-Christian tradition, no thinker had a greater influence over the founders than English philosopher John Locke.
Locke's 1689 Second Treatise of Government was devoured by educated Americans, who agreed with his theological basis for the natural equality and freedom of every human being: "[F]or men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure." Most of Locke's readers probably would have recognized his allusion to the book of Ephesians: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." Similarly, Locke's argument in 1689 for religious freedom, A Letter Concerning Toleration, helped to establish liberty of conscience as a natural right, perfectly consistent with reason and with the ethics of the Gospel. "Toleration of those that differ from others in Matters of Religion, is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine Reason of Mankind," he wrote, "that it seems monstrous for Men to be so blind, as not to perceive the Necessity and Advantage of it, in so clear a Light."
Freedom, reason, and revelation formed a conceptual trinity in the American Revolution because the colonists were heirs of the Lockean tradition. This outlook was exported to America in a legal sense through the English Act of Toleration of 1689, which offered protection to Protestant minorities dissenting from the Church of England. The principles of the Act of Toleration were applied to the American colonies either by charter or by instructions to royal governors. Meanwhile, the Lockean approach to freedom was also validated by the pluralism of colonial society: the waves of Protestant immigrants who brought with them every strain of European Christianity. Alec Vidler, in The Church in an Age of Revolution, describes the effect:
But just as the early colonists had been political and religious radicals who had wanted not to transplant European traditions and institutions but to escape from them, so the subsequent waves of immigrants were mostly dissatisfied seekers after a better kind of life and a better kind of religion than Europe had afforded them.
Unlike the French philosophes, Americans considered religious belief and expression an intrinsic aspect of human nature—a natural right that must be enshrined in law and culture. Thus, Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance, a 1785 tract against church-state alliances and probably the most important defense of religious liberty ever written by an American, captures the consensus of the founders: "Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe." For the founders, our fundamental and prior obligations were to the Creator, and these obligations could be fulfilled only in a political society that honored the aspect of human nature that houses our spiritual yearnings. Religious freedom—the right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience—became the cornerstone of our civil liberties.
Following Locke, the founders established the legal separation of church and state; there would be no national or established church. This, they reasoned, was the safest way to uphold justice, protect the independence of religion, and ensure its moral influence in society. This last objective, strengthening the attachment between religion and republican virtue, was crucial in the American context. In contrast to the enlightened intellectuals in France, no revolutionary leader in America imagined that freedom could be sustained without civic virtue, which in turn required religious belief.
In his farewell address as president, for example, George Washington took a swipe at the French philosophes: "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education...reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." In a letter to Benjamin Rush, John Adams called religion "essential to morals" and doubted that skepticism could produce an ethical life. "I never read of an irreligious character in Greek or Roman history," he wrote, "nor in any other history, nor have I known one in life, who was not a rascal. Name one if you can, living or dead." Reverend Witherspoon—president of the College of New Jersey and mentor to a generation of future colonial leaders, including Madison—reinforced the prevailing view: No form of government could prevent social breakdown if virtue and piety were in short supply. "What follows from this?" Witherspoon asked. "That he is the best friend to American liberty who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion."
CHRISTIANITY AND EMANCIPATION
It is true, of course, that the founders embraced these principles while condoning slavery and the African slave trade—the greatest moral evils of their day. Few acknowledged a sharp contradiction between the teachings of the Bible, with its themes of emancipation and redemption, and the practice of chattel slavery. The framers of the Constitution, desperate to establish national unity, made their peace with the institution of slavery. Nevertheless, to the most enlightened Americans, slavery in any form was, in the words of Benjamin Rush, "repugnant to the Genius of Christianity."
This conviction that Christianity was an emancipatory religion was largely absent from the political debates in revolutionary France. Although the French Republic officially outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1794, it would soon be reinstated. More important, the French intelligentsia never viewed the Catholic Church as a force for liberation. The French state could make use of a subservient religion that shared its aims—a civil religion whose doctrines supported "the sanctity of the social contract." Toward this end, the philosophes concluded, Christianity could contribute nothing. "Far from attaching the hearts of the citizens to the state, this religion detaches them from it as from all other things of this world," Rousseau wrote, "and I know of nothing more contrary to the social spirit." Rousseau spoke for many when he denounced Christianity as an ally of oppression: "Its spirit is so favorable to tyranny that it always profits by such a regime."
It's not hard to understand the rationale for such skepticism. The Catholic Church enjoyed a privileged legal position in France's national life, militantly enforced by the state. Four years before the English Act of Toleration was established, the French monarch in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had offered limited toleration to Protestants. Thus, the Church thoroughly integrated itself into the political and economic power arrangements of pre-revolutionary France. As Vidler observes, "It was said that they administered more provinces than sacraments!" The Catholic Church was undoubtedly a pillar in the ancien regime, viewed as one of the great opponents of democratic reform. Like the other supporters of the old order, it would be swept away in the maelstrom of the revolution.
Having rejected the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, the revolutionaries in France turned toward other deities: liberty, equality, fraternity, and "the rights of man." Ironically, it was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who confirmed Burke's worst fears about the events in France. "Because the Revolution seemed to be striving for the regeneration of the human race even more than the reform of France," he wrote, "it lit a passion which the most violent political revolutions had never before been able to produce." The revolution, he said, took on the appearance of a religious crusade. "Or rather, it itself became a new kind of religion, an incomplete religion, it is true, without God, without ritual, and without life after death, but one which nevertheless, like Islam, flooded the earth with its soldiers, apostles, and martyrs."
With this messianic mission in view—"the regeneration of the human race"—the democratic zeal of the revolution, epitomized by the radical Jacobins, turned with fury against its alleged heretics. The Catholic Church in France only ever partially extracted itself from the debris of the revolution's discredited political theology. Despite the French Republic's professed commitment to religious liberty, the idea of Christianity as a collaborator in the struggle for equality and human rights never resonated in French society. Freedom of religion has meant freedom from religion, and a pervasive secularism characterizes French society to this day.
THE BIRTH OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM
There was a completely different result, of course, in the American experience. The genius of the founders was to learn from the wisdom, and the folly, of their ancestors. In The History of Rome, Titus Livius drew this sage conclusion: "The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see: and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid." The architects of American democracy studied the classical threats to liberty, as well as the resources for sustaining it over time. Perhaps their singular insight was in how they conceived of the role of religion in preserving democratic freedom.
In Tocqueville's Democracy in America, his magisterial analysis of American culture written more than half a century after the American Revolution, we find a stunning description of American exceptionalism with regard to the progress of religion in democratic society:
The philosophers of the eighteenth century explained the gradual weakening of beliefs in an altogether simple fashion. Religious zeal, they said, will be extinguished as freedom and enlightenment increase. It is unfortunate that the facts do not accord with this theory. There is a certain European population whose disbelief is equaled only by their brutishness and ignorance, whereas in America one sees one of the freest and most enlightened peoples in the world eagerly fulfill all the external duties of religion. On my arrival in the United States it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck my eye....Among us [the French], I had seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom almost always move in contrary directions. Here I found them united intimately with one another: they reigned together on the same soil.
To Tocqueville's surprise, every priest and minister he spoke with pointed to the Constitution, to the separation of church and state, as the reason for the vitality of the faith communities in America. By taking away government support for religion, Tocqueville observed, "one came to increase its real power." This is precisely what the American founders intended.
It is hard to imagine two revolutions for freedom so different in their core beliefs, in their conduct, and in their results. Most Americans perceived this long before the French Republic collapsed into tyranny. By 1800, when Napoleon began dismantling the last vestiges of representative government, the verdict was in. As John Quincy Adams put it in a letter to Prussian leader Friedrich Gentz: "It cannot but afford a gratification to every American attached to his country to see its revolution so ably vindicated from the imputation of having originated, or having been conducted upon the same principles, as that of France."
Nevertheless, these salient and long-established facts appear to have eluded America's conservative critics. Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism, likens the United States to Napoleonic France: "an ideologically anti-religious, anti-traditionalist universalistic power seeking to bring its version of the Enlightenment to the nations of the world, if necessary by force." Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule argues that the classical liberalism of the founders would "betray its inner nature" were it to respect the institutions of family and faith. "Both politically and theoretically, hostility to the Church was encoded within liberalism from its birth." Patrick Deneen denounces America's Lockean liberalism as "a catastrophe for the ideals of the West," based upon a "false anthropology" that exalts "the unleashed ambition of individuals."
It is difficult to see how such views can be maintained with anything like intellectual honesty. These critics are correct, of course, to lament the radical individualism that defines much of modern liberalism. But in their feverish denunciations of the many ills afflicting liberalism, they have failed to treat seriously the actual origins of the American experiment in self-government: what Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., gratefully called "the sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage" and "those great wells of democracy" dug by the founding generation.
At times, these intellectuals appear nearly blind to the remarkable achievements of the Western political tradition, expressed supremely in the American project. The freedom of religion, speech, and assembly; the campaigns to defeat racism and human slavery; the elevation of the status of women; the vast improvements in the workplaces of modern industry; the lifting of millions of people out of desperate poverty; the establishment of a vibrant civil society, energized by churches, synagogues, and faith-based charities of all kinds—none of these accomplishments are conceivable without a foundational belief in the God-given freedom, equality, and dignity of every human soul. Indeed, this was the theological lodestar of classical liberalism.
To belittle these achievements is to contribute to the great divorce between religion and republican self-government. "Collective freedom—a society that honors the equal dignity of all—depends on constant vigilance, a sustained effort of education," warns Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. "If we forget where we came from, the battle our ancestors fought and the long journey they had to take, then in the end we lose it again." Both liberals and conservatives would do well to consider Burke's brutal critique of a political revolution untethered from the permanent things, from the transcendent truths that guided earlier generations:
In some people I see great liberty indeed; in many, if not in the most, an oppressive degrading servitude. But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths.
Virtuous liberty—ordered liberty—is the only kind of liberty for which the American republic was designed. And it cannot be sustained without religious belief. Unlike in France, this was the settled conviction of the founding generation. More than that, it was a doctrine considered axiomatic for political and civic life. "Every just principle that is to be found in the writings of Voltaire," concluded Benjamin Rush, "is borrowed from the Bible." Nevertheless, many ignore our debt to biblical religion. The result is liberty without wisdom, the path of folly and madness. Many Americans, indeed, are discarding the duties and the blessings of revealed religion for the empty promises of a counterfeit and degraded freedom.
Herein lies the source of the current crisis: the willingness to trade the legacy of the American Revolution for that of the French. Social thinker Os Guinness, author of Last Call for Liberty, summarizes it this way: "There is a long tradition that when Americans are disillusioned with America, they look to European ideas that are fatefully different from the ideas and ideals of the American Revolution. Once again America has become a house divided, and Americans must make up their minds as to which freedom to follow." Tocqueville anticipated the danger. He concluded Democracy in America with a warning about the responsibility of the nation's citizenry to remain true to their principles: "It depends on them whether equality leads them to servitude or freedom, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery."
What path will we take? Perhaps the welfare of the City of Man really does depend, after all, on our belief in the City of God. Perhaps no political society can survive for long when it excludes those spiritual truths that alone can judge, inspire, and transform our earthly politics. Maybe, more than anything, we need a recovery of faith in what C. S. Lewis called the "far-off country," a renewed quest for the virtues and ideals of that bright Kingdom that lies beyond the Sea. "Because we love something else more than this world," Lewis wrote, "we love even this world better than those who know no other."
This piece originally appeared in National Affairs