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The Link Between Faith and Freedom
by W. James Antle III
1 January 2003 

Christianity has greatly contributed to our freedoms and liberties, contrary to the overemphasis by wall-of-separation absolutists on its flaws.

For most Americans, including those who adhere to a variety of faiths or no faith at all, Christmas is a time of giving and holiday cheer. For committed Christians, it marks the birth of the Savior. Yet each year, a small but determined number of people view Christmas as a time for political and ideological battle.

A nativity display in the town square? A crèche displayed at the local courthouse? These must come down under the threat of lawsuit! Even secular symbols of a commercialized Christmas, ranging from Santa Claus to Frosty the Snowman, have been targeted as Christmas has been forcibly transformed by the politically correct into some ambiguous Winter Holiday. At issue, we are told, is the sacred and impenetrable wall of separation between church and state. (Never mind that this phrase appears not in the Constitution but in Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, and referred to government nonintervention in religion rather than the banishment of all things vaguely religious from the presence of government.)
With the season behind us now, perhaps it would be an opportune time to reflect on the idea that Christianity, much less religious faith in general, does not have the necessarily corrupting influence on public affairs that wall-of-separation absolutists seem to assume. In recent years, syndicated columnist Paul Craig Roberts has reflected around Christmastime upon the contributions of Christianity to Western civilization and human liberty.

Conservatives in particular need to revisit these contributions, lest they merely embrace commercialism and economic determinism as representatives of the business wing of the contemporary political class. While V.I. Lenin spoke of his communist tyranny as “unlimited power, resting directly on force, not limited by anything,” Roberts wrote, “Christianity’s emphasis on the worth of the individual makes such power as Lenin claimed unthinkable.” Authentic conservatism, as espoused from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk, seeks to conform to transcendent moral laws. It is not merely the unthinking preservation of the status quo or the mindless pursuit of the bottom line on a balance sheet.

It is vitally important that we recognize that there is a law higher than that of the state or the will of the majority. There is a higher law than that which springs from the fallible minds of men. This law, insofar as it has been revealed to us and can be ascertained through reason, is the basis of our natural rights. While many people look at the long and horrific history of religious wars and the lethal violence of religious fanaticism, so woefully evident in our own age, and see religion as a threat to liberty, the founders of our republic understood that God was the ultimate source of our liberty.

The Declaration of Independence states clearly that the rights of the people come from God and the powers of government come from the consent of the people. Our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness precede the laws established by government; governments can either respect those rights or violate them, but their edicts have no bearing on their existence. The U.S. Constitution represents the powers the people consented to give to the federal government.

Our Founding Fathers attempted to design a system of decentralized government, partly in acknowledgement of human beings’ fallen nature. As Albion Knight once remarked in explaining what he considered the American Republic’s Biblical foundations, “…we recognize the truth of the Biblical assertion of the innate sinfulness of man. This means that all persons have within themselves the tendency to think of their own well-being before that of others. Thus, no one person can be completely trusted with power. Therefore, we need the checks and balances defined in our Constitution.” Diffuse and decentralized power mitigates the human tendency for corruption and tyranny, whereas consolidation of power enables such tendencies to flourish.

By the standards of those who file lawsuits to remove Christmas displays from government buildings – or to remove the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance – the very people who framed and ratified the First Amendment they appeal to were guilty of creating some kind of theocracy. Of course, constitutional republic of our founders was nothing of the sort. A system based on God-given rights does not inherently deny the rights of an unbeliever anymore than we deny the rights of a socialist to own private property or profit from the free-market economy. The acknowledgement that human beings and the institutions they create are imperfect acknowledges the imperfections of professing Christians and members of other religious traditions. The idea that government powers should be limited, defined and divided acts as a check against all potential tyrants and offers protection to all potential victims.

Forgetting the link between faith and freedom leaves all our liberty less secure.

Email W. James Antle III