Christian Citizenship in Post-Christian America (NYC)

October 14-15 2016

A conversation on Christian citizenship at The King’s College in New York City, part of the Davenant Trust’s 2nd Mid-Atlantic Regional Convivium, a gathering of ecclesially-minded scholars, academically-minded pastors, and theologically-concerned professionals.

Text of Dr. Littlejohn’s remarks at bottom.


first things kings college 2


Friday, Oct. 14:

6:30 PM: Refreshments served
7:00 PM: Matthew Schmitz (First Things), “Christian Politics After Liberalism”
7:45 PM: Dr. Bradford Littlejohn (The Davenant Trust), “Protestantism and Political Liberalism: A Complicated Relationship”
8:30-9:30: Responses and Q&A

Saturday, Oct. 15:

9:00 AM-12:30 PM: Presentations on various topics by grad students, early-career scholars, and pastor-scholars. (Invitation-only, email Benjamin Miller if you are interested in participating. Lunch will be provided.)
1:30-3:00 PM: “Rerum Novarum 125 Years Later: A Vision for Christian Social Thought” (panel discussion led by Dr. David C. Innes, The King’s College)
3:30-5:00 PM: “Post-Christian America: Old and New Models for Christian Citizenship in the 21st Century” (panel discussion led by Dr. Matthew Parks, The King’s College)

Protestantism and Political Liberalism:

A Complicated Relationship


“We may call the one the spiritual, the other the civil kingdom. Now, these two, as we have divided them, are always to be viewed apart from each other. When the one is considered, we should call off our minds, and not allow them to think of the other. For there exists in man a kind of two worlds, over which different kings and different laws can preside. By attending to this distinction, we will not erroneously transfer the doctrine of the gospel concerning spiritual liberty to civil order, as if in regard to external government Christians were less subject to human laws, because their consciences are unbound before God, as if they were exempted from all carnal service, because in regard to the Spirit they are free.”[1]John Calvin, Institutes III.19.15, “Of Christian Liberty.”


From the moment that Christ enigmatically rebuffed Herod’s political theologians with the words “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his followers have had to grapple with the challenge of living under “different kings and different laws.” At various times and places, some have been so bold as to imagine they had removed the sting from Christ’s statement, whether by bringing God and Caesar into alliance, by restricting their kingdoms to different worlds, or by ensuring that Caesar would adopt pluralistic policies that would grant free rein to any religious conscience. Each such solution has in due course been exposed as an over-optimistic illusion, leaving Christians to grapple anew with the tensions of their dual citizenship. Whatever the failures of Reformation political thought, it must at least be credited with its refusal to blithely dismiss the problem; indeed, few questions were more central to early Protestant theology and churchmanship.

The quote I began with can claim to be something of a classic text when it comes to Reformation political thought, appearing constantly in the secondary literature—although this ubiquity of citation hardly guarantees any unanimity of interpretation. Why is Calvin so concerned to warn us against a “transfer” of spiritual liberty to civil order? Why does he insist that we “call off our minds” from political issues when we consider this doctrine of Christian liberty? Certainly, most of those who have written on the topic of Protestantism and modern political thought have tended to ignore this warning. A host of preachers, writers, and scholars throughout the past three centuries have been busy making just this transfer, the so-called “Whig history” of liberty, in which Protestantism, with its protest against papal authority, unleashed an unstoppable impulse toward individual freedom, toppling tyrannical governments, establishing constitutional order, separating church and state, and eventually (for many of its twentieth-century advocates at least) generating human rights.[2] Even if spiritual liberty and civil liberty ought not be conflated, such historians argue, one cannot deny the historical fact that the proclamation of the latter closely succeeded the former, with a geographical as well as a temporal correlation to the centers of the Protestant Reformation. Are we to dismiss this as a historical accident or is there some inward connection, by which Protestantism served as the “midwife”[3] for civil liberties and the separation of church and state? And if there is some connection, it is certainly curious that Calvin is so eager to deny it.


In this lecture, I hope to both challenge and then finally defend the notion that Protestantism’s proclamation of “freedom of conscience” helped give birth to the modern liberal version. The challenge can be posed on multiple fronts. First we must face the obvious difficulty that whereas Luther’s ideal of the liberated conscience was one in bondage to the word of God, modern liberalism’s seems inherently pluralistic—it is the freedom of every individual to worship any God or none, and reflect that worship in their lives as fully or minimally as they like. This difference at the individual level is mirrored at the political level: modern liberalism’s sine qua non is its insistence that this freedom of conscience must be guarded as an inviolable political right, with apparent corollaries about the inappropriateness of religious establishment of any kind; Luther and his followers, however, had little hesitation in retaining and indeed insisting upon a Christendom model, in which orthodoxy was defended and indeed imposed by political authority.

Indeed, I will argue that this reflects not so much a difference between Luther and modern liberalism, but a tension that runs right through any account of liberty of conscience, pre-modern or modern. If individual conscience is not to be aimless and anarchistic, must it not be bound to a higher law, and if so, must it not seek to remake the political order in obedience to that law, actively overthrowing injustice rather than quietly pursuing its own freedom of worship? Without such an activist idea of conscience, oriented toward some universal law, an appeal to liberty of conscience seems a call for the disintegration of society into an interminable conflict of myriad self-justifying preferences (the paralysis that grips late modern consumer society). If such an activist conscience dominates, however, the social order is always in danger of being overthrown by a band of zealots, whose campaign for justice and righteousness threatens to trample underfoot the liberty of any consciences that might beg to differ (the danger that religious traditionalists today fear from the successive waves of social justice crusades that have reshaped Western liberalism in recent decades). In either case, it should be noted, freedom of conscience seems to be pitted against the freedom of a commonwealth to be or act as a commonwealth rather than a mere collection of individuals or as the executive agent.


  1. Two Tales of Two Cities: Calvinism and the “Transfer” of Liberty

There are many different narratives as to how the transfer of spiritual to civil liberty played out, but I want to highlight two main forms of the narrative, which I will call the “quietist” and the “activist” versions. Note that these two labels are merely heuristic; in practice, they function more as poles along a spectrum, and indeed, as we shall see at various points, can readily blur into one another. To oversimplify radically, the quietist forms are perhaps more concerned with Isaiah Berlin’s “negative liberty”—in this case, the freedom of the religious conscience to be left alone to its religious activities—while the activist forms are more interested in the development of “positive liberty”—in this case, the freedom of the religious conscience to empower individuals or societies through putting its convictions into action. The quietist forms thus attempt to defang the conflict of loyalties by using liberty of conscience itself as the means to adjudicate the boundaries of each set of loyalties. Indeed, Calvin’s quote above could be read as doing just this: assigning the just bounds of civil authority to prevent it from meddling in affairs of conscience.

The great historian of political thought, Quentin Skinner, offered an influential version of the quietist form of the narrative in his Foundations of Modern Political Thought: The Age of Reformation. Essential to the modern idea of politics, he says, is the idea “that political society is held to exist solely for political purposes. The endorsement of this secularized viewpoint remained impossible as long as it was assumed that all temporal rulers had a duty to uphold godly as well as peaceable government.”[4] Of course, Skinner unhesitatingly acknowledges that the Protestant Reformers hardly abandoned this medieval assumption; rather, they consistently upheld the ideal of the godly prince, even if he thinks their theology tended in directions that would sever the medieval synthesis of theology and political philosophy. Nonetheless, the circumstances of persecution and the need to assert their freedom of conscience against ungodly magistrates led to a key shift, he argues. Within Skinner’s narrative, the key moment was the move by Protestant resistance theorists from the language of a duty to resist idolatrous tyrants (grounded in religious obligations to protect right worship) to the language of a right to resist tyrants in the face of their violation of constitutional laws and norms of civil justice:

They were able, that is, to make the epoch-making move from a purely religious theory of resistance, depending on the idea of a covenant to uphold the laws of God, to a genuinely political theory of revolution, based on the idea of a contract which gives rise to a moral right (and not merely a religious duty) to resist any ruler who fails in his corresponding obligation to pursue the welfare of the people in all his public acts.[5]


In other words, under pressure of persecution, and faced with rapid changes in policy by successions of more favorable and more hostile regimes, Protestants quickly adopted the notion of a general political right to freedom of worship and assembly, which any just regime must protect. Any regime, whether Protestant or Catholic, could be equally compelled by the same arguments to honor this right, grounded as it was in the nature of political society itself. It may seem odd to label a view forged in the fires of religious war “quietist,” but the point is that for Skinner, the endpoint of the conflict was a conscience left alone in an increasingly private sphere, recognized by the political realm, but buffered from it. Modern political liberalism, of course, does not spring fully-formed out of this transition; nonetheless, thinks Skinner, this emergence of an autonomous sphere of political rationality was necessary and essential for the development of liberal order. And while he denies that this development emerges directly out of the Reformers’ teachings, he does see it as the natural fruit of the political crises the Reformation generate, and the Reformers’ firm removal of temporal authority from ecclesiastical control.

John Witte’s Reformation of Rights, as the title suggests, also focuses on the emergence of rights-language within the early Reformed tradition (among the resistance theorists particularly but also, he thinks, proleptically within Calvin himself), as seminal to the development of liberal political order. Unlike Skinner, he is less concerned about how the Reformation might lead to an autonomous political order than he is about how it might lead to a pluralistic one dedicated to individual freedom, and though he recognizes the journey is a long one, he believes that it begins, not in unintended consequences, but in the theological teaching of the Reformers. Although he acknowledges Calvin’s firm distinction between spiritual and political liberty and his warnings against a transfer, Witte is confident that the distinction itself grounds a progressive development of political liberty, by putting religious matters outside the reach of coercive authority, and thus laying the groundwork for a wider range of individual rights. Of course, Witte is the first to admit that the actual practice of Calvin’s Geneva was far from liberal in this respect, but he insists that the principle laid important groundwork. By means of these two factors, argues Witte, this first right of freedom of conscience became, over the course of a lengthy historical development, both the “mother” and the “midwife” of the many other civil liberties we now enjoy.[6]

David VanDrunen, in his Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, has recently offered a longer and more theologically complex narrative that shares some similar themes, emphasizing the anti-perfectionism of Calvin’s political vision and its stress on the separation of church and state. One thing that each of these three narratives share in common is the relatively passive role that Protestant clergy and citizens play in them—although I must stress the word relatively here. Certainly, Skinner, Witte, and VanDrunen all have a great deal to say about the resistance theorists, and the important role played by their stand against tyrannical authorities who transgressed the bounds of religious liberty. But still, heroic and hard-won though these changes may have been, the basic mindset is still essentially one of laissez-faire, of a certain kind of quietism. That is to say, on narratives such as these, the way that Protestantism upset the medieval political order was simply by demanding a sphere of immunity for its religious principles, a sphere in which to obey God, rather than man, thus effecting a slow transformation of the civil order so as to protect the pursuit of godliness, without itself being directly concerned with this pursuit.

This common feature becomes more apparent when we examine some other, more “activist” accounts of the development from spiritual to civil liberty in Protestant, and particularly Calvinist, communities. These lay much more stress on the other side of the “freedom of conscience” that we noted above—the freedom to obey God’s word. To obey God’s word was to put it into practice, and often in the social sphere just as much as the individual sphere. Needless to say, on this narrative, the more theocratic manifestations of the Calvinist tradition (which for Witte and VanDrunen must be treated as outliers, the results of Protestants not really following through on their principles) look like much more natural fruitions of the liberated individual Protestant conscience.

The noted political theorists, Michael Walzer and Eric Voegelin, each in their own ways saw the fundamental legacy of the Protestant Reformation as one of radicalism and activism, reform and revolution in the political sphere. On this account, Calvin’s warning against a transfer was quite directly ignored, with a quasi-Anabaptistic radicalism the legacy of many of his followers, and of course, as with most cases of radical reform, the line between freedom and totalitarianism proving a tenuous one. Let’s consider Voegelin’s version of the thesis, since for him, the key development is closer to what we identified above in the tension between the testimony of private conscience and the truth to which the public order witnesses. Not that Voegelin thinks that the Reformation marked a fundamentally new departure. Rather, he discerns in it, and in the Calvinist movement in particular, a version of the “Gnosticism” that he identifies as a perennial temptation within Christianity. For Voegelin, the essence of the Gnostic is not contempt of the material world (the sense in which the term is most frequently tossed around nowadays), but the claim to secret knowledge, knowledge that gives him the key to the meaning of history. By virtue of their private revelation, opaque to the surrounding society, Gnostic groups will lay claim to the mantle of being called by God to usher in the next age of history, whether that be one in which all God’s people are prophets or one in which private property and finally the state are abolished (Voegelin considers the modern world to be a string of experiments in secularized Gnosticism, with communism but the most pronounced example). In this paradigm, freedom of conscience hardly leads to pluralism, except as an eventual unintended by-product of the revolutions it ignites. Rather, the freedom of the conscience to obey God (or the Zeitgeist) rather than man demands the transformation of human authority structures to conform to the divine order. The Reformation did not introduce the possibility of such movements, but it did make them more likely and more natural; Calvin and especially his English followers, the Puritans, argues Voegelin, did more than anyone to bring the Gnostic spirit into the modern world.[7]

It is not difficult to see that these narratives contrast rather sharply with those of Skinner, Witte, and VanDrunen; indeed, Voegelin’s would seem to be almost the polar opposite—here is the Calvinist not as anti-perfectionist, but as arch-perfectionist, not as separationist, but as arch-transformationalist. Of course, both Walzer and Voegelin were political theorists who enjoyed painting with a broad brush, not Reformation historians, and what history they do draw on is a half-century out of date. But we should not be too quick to dismiss them on that account. On the contrary, any honest look at the historical evidence suggests that there is every bit as much an activist legacy to Protestantism, and perhaps Calvinism in particular, as there is a quietist one. Philip Benedict’s magisterial survey of the Reformed tradition, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, highlights this impulse—not political revolution per se, but certainly aggressive social reform—as lying at its heart.[8] This reformist impulse may not always have taken on the form of freedom as we tend to imagine it; indeed, it was often downright oppressive. But inasmuch as Reformed churches and communities were ready to challenge the status quo in favor of the will of God, as they understood it, they signaled an awareness of the possibility of a clash of loyalties, in which obedience to God demanded a remaking of the social and political order.

This sort of freedom, the fervent obedience of the conscience to a “higher law” than that of the state, was accordingly to become a powerful force for reform in England and America through the succeeding centuries, even as it lost some of its distinctly Reformational flavor. In his recent book Weird John Brown, Ted Smith traces how the language of the “higher law” to which conscience must yield, even at the cost of civil disobedience, came to animate the abolitionist movement in America in the mid-nineteenth century. He cites the declaration of the American Moral Reform Society in 1843: “Therefore, under whatever pretext or authority these laws have been promulgated or executed, whether under parliamentary, colonial, or American legislation, we declare them in the sight of Heaven wholly null and void, and should be immediately abrogated.”[9] He shows that such language could be grounded, in more theologically orthodox fashion, in the demands of Scripture (as in the rhetoric of Presbyterian minister Henry Highland Garnet), or in a generic theism (as in the rousing Senate speeches of William Seward). But perhaps most representative of the age was the use to which the language of conscience and the higher law was put by Methodist bishop Gilbert Haven:

What Haven called the “moral law,” though, arose as an expression of a higher human faculty, Conscience. Conscience was the “viceregent” of God (7), Haven said, and while it could be “rendered imperfect and obtuse by reason of sin,” it retained a “force that is ever pressing it against all temptations” toward right discernment of an unchanging moral law (9). As Conscience was higher than the social element in humans, the moral law was higher than the civil law in society. Haven’s language was unmistakably theological. But at the heart of his argument was not a string of biblical texts but individual conscience.[10]


A subtle shift was well underway in how the language of conscience was used. In the older way of speaking, “conscience” was con-scientia, a way of “knowing-with.” But what was the “higher law” that it knew? The unchanging moral law of God, revealed in nature and then corroborated and further revealed by Scripture. As Darren Walhof summarizes, for Calvin at least, “conscience is that aspect of human nature that innately apprehends the natural law.”[11] Conscience, then, points beyond itself, laying hold of an object to which it then submits. Conscience is an inner and hidden means of knowing, a faculty that belongs to each individual, and yet the truth which it lays hold of is a publicly-available one, the law to which it submits is the one to which everyone’s conscience witnesses, or ought to witness. The appeal to conscience, from this standpoint, does not seem like such a radical notion. But once one entertains a strong enough view of human depravity, it is easy to imagine that in reality, very few people’s consciences are laying hold of the higher law; it lies hidden beyond their grasp. Only those who have received special illumination (and who does not like to count themselves among this number?) have rightly-functioning consciences that can apply the higher law against the near-universal convictions of their contemporaries. This is the essence of Voegelin’s “Gnosticism,” which, whether or not he rightly diagnoses it in Calvin, is indeed a recurrent feature of modernity.

In this way of thinking about conscience, although the appeal to a “higher law” remains, it is not hard to see that the conscience itself becomes effectively not the pointer to this law, but its source, a sacrosanct seat of authority that cannot be challenged. Orestes Brownson, though himself also an abolitionist, challenged this new way of thinking about conscience in the 1850s:

“The appeal to the supreme Lawgiver is compatible with civil government,” Brownson wrote in 1851, “but the appeal to private judgment, or conviction, as to a higher law than that of the state, is not; for it virtually denies government itself, by making the individual paramount to it.” Brownson argued that relying on individual conscience as a guide to the higher law could end only in anarchy or tyranny. If every individual was left free to follow his or her own conscience, there could be no civil order.[12]


If we believe Walzer and Voegelin, Protestantism could not have been otherwise from the beginning; if its freedom was freedom only to obey God, then how could it permit freedom to others, including the governing authorities, not to obey God?


III. An Uneasy Legacy: Liberty of Conscience in a Liberal Age

Both the “quietist” and the “activist” narratives of the legacy of Protestantism’s declaration of Christian liberty have much to be said for them, for clearly both impulses were operative within the first decades of the Reformation itself. Indeed, the demand for the freedom to obey the higher law of Scripture could go in either direction, even in very similar faith communities. The Swiss Anabaptists signed the Schleitheim Confession in 1527, eschewing all use of the sword and calling for withdrawal into quietistic communities; but by 1534, some of their brethren were busy trying to usher in the millennium by the sword in nearby Munster. In seventeenth-century France, presbyterian Calvinists accepted their minority position in society and sought only the freedom to organize and worship, while in nearby England, they campaigned vigorously (and in the 1640s, violently) for the comprehensive reform of society. Nor, of course, can the two impulses be neatly separated; even the quietistic demand for freedom of conscience, and the many other liberties that grow out of it, can itself be quite revolutionary.

In any case, we moderns, heirs to both legacies, find ourselves increasingly torn between them; we have a love/hate relationship with the increasingly individualized notion of freedom of conscience that Brownson complained about, and the revolutionary impulses it can unleash. Even those modern liberals who might be willing to forgive John Brown his indiscretions for the sake of the sanctity of his cause might change their tune in evaluating a more recent would-be-John-Brown, Paul Hill, who killed a Pensacola abortion doctor in 1994. Hill, like Brown, appealed to the Bible in defense of his actions, with complete sincerity and with not-implausible exegesis.[13] In the face of such violent, anarchistic appeals to the “higher law” to trump the current civil laws, many liberals have called passionately for a strict religious neutrality when it comes to political action. And yet those same liberals most concerned about the intrusion of destabilizing religious appeals into the political process are likely to be profoundly grateful, despite themselves, for the contributions of such religious discourse to the many profound reforms that our societies now look back on with pride, from Wilberforce’s abolition of the slave trade to Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign against segregation.

Despite its debt to the crusaders of conscience like King, however, modern liberalism remains quite nervous about the kind of activist freedom of conscience that gave it birth and nourished it. Having used the language of obedience to God, filtered increasingly through the prism of individual conscience, as the means by which to resist servile obedience to princes, Western society hopes now to bury this disquieting legacy, lest conscience find in Scripture reason to disobey, and even actively subvert, the norms of liberal society. We would much prefer to draw upon the more quietist kind of conscientious freedom that we find in narratives such as Witte’s and VanDrunen’s: Christian liberty as carving out a sphere of immunity for faith, rather than underwriting a campaign to remake society in obedience to Scripture. “You can be free to believe whatever you want, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, or force anyone else to change”—that is the motto of the modern ideal of freedom of conscience, for which theorists such as John Rawls attempted to supply an adequate theoretical scaffolding. Despite the triumph of Rawlsian rhetoric in much public thinking about religion, politics, and individual freedom, however, that scaffolding has been under attack ever since Rawls tried to erect it, and has proven increasingly unworkable in the courts. Consider the recent explosion of controversy about “religious freedom” laws, which, although framed in thoroughly quietistic terms, were seen by many in society as an act of aggression.

The conflict of loyalties, then, although certainly rendered more acute by such radical programs of reform as that of the Munster Anabaptists in 1534 or John Brown in 1859, is hardly done away with by espousing a more modest, quietist, and “liberal” concept of freedom of conscience. Is there then any way to sustain a commitment to some kind of liberal freedoms—which is to say, the freedom to disagree about the good, the true, and the beautiful, and to act on the basis of those disagreements, without undermining the social order? I would argue yes, and it is a theological ground anchored in Protestantism.


  1. The Freedom of the Citizen

The chief contribution of Protestantism to political thought, and to the emergence of liberalism, consisted not in the ordering of human institutions per se, whether that be a Calvinist separation of church and state, or in Richard Hooker’s defense of constitutional government,[14] but in the relation of all such institutions to their Lord. Protestantism’s two-kingdoms doctrine instilled in the Christian a sense of healthy detachment toward earthly loyalties, a healthy realism about what earthly institutions can accomplish, and offered consolation when they failed to achieve their lofty aims. It discouraged any attempt to make the kingdom of God a complete outward reality here and now by force, whether by holy war or holy law. In this doctrine, the authority of political institutions is quite limited: they may command the body, to the extent that the demands of civil order and justice require, but they cannot command the mind or the conscience. Each subject remains, in the last analysis, answerable to the Lord who made and redeemed him, not to his prince.

This leads to a second and more crucial point: the freedom of the citizen. It can seem in some of Luther’s formulations that Christian liberty is interiorized to the point of being almost meaningless. There is a radical interiority in the freedom of a Christian that, it would seem, remains wholly blind to the external embodiment of this freedom. For Luther and many of the Reformers, the freedom of the Christian before God can coexist with complete external bondage, and indeed any claim to have achieved freedom in the earthly realm is illusory, since it is always tainted with the bondage of sin.

Understandably, this line of thinking has seemed unacceptable to many modern theologians. It appears to be a stance of complete political quietism, encouraging a dangerous complacency about injustice, inasmuch as it suggests that all that matters is the liberation of the soul from the bondage of sin, no matter how many physical chains remain. This is the doctrine, they will rant, that would preach the gospel to African slaves, while happily continuing the slave trade. This is the doctrine that upheld apartheid. They are no more happy when they read it in St. Paul. Paul may have said that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, and yet he betrayed his message (or perhaps, some other pseudo-Paul later on inserted a different message) by calling for slaves to obey their masters, calling for wives to submit to their husbands. The freedom of the Gospel, on this reading, is empty and indeed oppressive if it does not involve a change in external relations, a real empowerment of individuals. The shrewder critics may even venture that this radical interiorization of freedom contributes in some way to the development of the modern autonomous subject, the concept of the naked unconditioned will that David Bentley Hart identifies as the great modern heresy — that Luther, Kant, and modernity are all part of the same voluntarist line of development.

I would argue, however, that even while accepting this essentially inward account of freedom, we can nonetheless allow it to have potentially revolutionary political implications. A merely mental freedom—the freedom to pass judgment on the rightness or wrongness of a law even while quietly submitting for the time being—might seem a feeble freedom indeed, but in fact few things are more powerful, as Richard Bauckham argues:

That the latter kind of freedom [inner freedom of spirit] is real and important can be seen, for example, in such extreme cases as Soviet dissidents in the Gulag, remaining free, in their thinking, of the system which oppresses them unbearably, or in the Christian martyrs under the Roman Empire, who could be regarded as the most truly free people of their time, in their refusal to let even the threat of death cow them into submission. Such freedom in and despite oppressive structures is not only real but essential to the cause of liberation from essential structures. It is only out of their inner liberation from the system that Russian dissidents can publicly protest against and hope to change the system. … It needed a Moses liberated by God from resignation to the irresistible power of Pharaoh to lead the people out of Egypt, and it needed the gradual psychological liberation of the people themselves to free them from Egypt even after their escape from Pharaoh’s army.[15]


By the exercise of such critical intelligence, the citizen is rendered free even in the moment of obedience. Oliver O’Donovan captures the essential insight that we have claimed for this doctrine of Christian liberty: “sovereignty properly belongs not to law but to truth, for only a perception of the truth can lead us to whole-hearted action. The marvel, we may say, is not that the community can demand conformity; the marvel is that conscience can secretly transcend that conformity and pass judgment upon it in the light of truth.”[16] But of course, in passing such judgment and when challenging the sovereignty of law, the conscience presses inexorably beyond the bounds of interiority. While evangelical liberty must be understood as an inward, rather than outward, freedom, it cannot content itself with only inward expression, for the hope that sustains the free mind in the midst of oppression is the hope of a future in which circumstances may change and outer freedom become a possibility: “The point is that real freedom cannot be confined to one dimension. Inner freedom cannot rest content with outer unfreedom, though it may have to suffer the contradiction in circumstances where outer freedom is unattainable.”[17] Accordingly, in due time, Protestant jurists took the lead in constructing institutional forms for the expression of public consent or dissent, for enabling the judgment of each conscience to have a voice in the making of laws and sometimes even an exemption from their binding force.

Of course, O’Donovan qualifies, “Modern liberalism is not yet ready to leap fully armed from the head that first conceived this thought. This is not yet ‘freedom of conscience’ in a generalized sense. It is ‘evangelical liberty’, which is to say, the freedom freely to obey Christ.”[18] This is a crucial qualification. So long as the freedom of a Christian was understood quite specifically as the freedom of a Christian, not of any old individual who wanted to pursue his or her sense of meaning and ultimate reality, such freedom of conscience remained far off from a general liberal right to freedom of conscience. Indeed, there might seem to be no room at all for the freedom for others to hold and act on erroneous beliefs, which is essential to any liberal theory of toleration.

Yet at this point, we must recognize the importance of the Protestant doctrine of adiaphora, the “things indifferent” that were not essential for salvation and in which there was ample room for difference of prudential judgment about how to practice obedience to God in society. By means of this concept, a great deal of space was potentially opened up for liberal toleration. When it came to what to believe, the state obviously could not bind the conscience; that, all the Reformers admitted, was simply an impossibility. When it came to how to act on that belief in love of neighbor, then, to the extent that most such actions were judged things indifferent, they could in principle be left up to individual judgment, to the extent that civil peace allowed. Thus, O’Donovan concludes,

evangelical liberty has proved to be the foundation of a more generalized freedom, including a certain, not indefinite liberty for misguided and erroneous judgment. … Which is not to say that there is no such thing as evident and unarguable error … it is simply that he [each person] has (has, not is) his own master, and his master is not the ruler who governs him in the order of civil society. There are some judgments that may be evident enough, but which do not fall to the ruler to make. The ruler has to establish a prima-facie interest in the implications for civil order before intervening between any man or woman and the God who commands. That is the correct way of stating the liberal doctrine which is often put misleadingly as ‘the separation of law and morality”. There can be no separation of law and morality; but what there can be, an is, is a sphere of individual responsibility before God in which the public good is not immediately at stake.[19]



I have covered a great deal of ground in this lecture. So let me try to bring it all in for a quick landing by summarizing the key points of my argument. First, while many scholars have sought to find in the Protestant Reformation the groundwork for a liberal freedom of conscience, which is to say a private zone of conviction that does not threaten a neutral commonwealth, the fact is that appeals to freedom of conscience have just as often had a revolutionary and illiberal flavor, demanding reform of the social order in obedience to the law of God rather than men. Second, I noted that this more activist idea of conscience is indeed deeply imbeded in the liberal narrative itself, with figures like William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King, Jr., appealing to religious conscience in order to challenge the status quo and help establish liberal freedoms. Today, however, liberalism wants to deny this religious foundation, with the result that even more minimalist invocations of freedom of conscience are perceived as aggressions against the so-called liberal order. Third, then, I have wanted to contend that Protestantism can and does provide a foundation for a kind of political liberalism, by virtue of two key claims: (1) political authority can claim only a penultimate obedience, leaving the conscience free; (2) errors of conscience should only be prosecuted to the extent that public order is thereby endangered, meaning that political authority can permit a relatively wide range of beliefs and conduct without thereby accepting that all paths are equally legitimate.

But this means, of course, that an authentically liberal order can only sustain itself on Christian, and indeed Protestant principles; a secular liberalism, lacking any means to distinguish between the ultimate and the penultimate, will eventually tend to regress into intolerance and totalitarianism.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, and trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960) 1:847 [III.19.15].

[2] Different versions of this narrative shall be considered below, though for a particularly clear (because crudely drawn and popularized) version see Douglas F. Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World: The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments From the 16th Through 18th Centuries (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992). It is worth noting that this narrative is not remotely new; one of its most famous proponents was Abraham Kuyper more than a century ago (see “Calvinism, the Source and Stronghold of Our Constitutional Liberties,” in James Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 279–317). And Glenn Moots has recently documented how in mid eighteenth-century sermons, for instance, the equation of “popery” with “tyranny”—in the sense of anything that subverts the rule of constitutional law—had become so commonplace that the two terms were virtually interchangeable, and similarly with the opposite equation of “Protestantism” and “constitutionalism” (“Searching for Christian America,” in W. Bradford Littlejohn, ed., For Law and For Liberty: Essays on the Trans-Atlantic Legacy of Protestant Political Thought, Proceedings of the Third Annual Convivium Irenicum (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Press, 2016).

[3] The phrase comes from John E. Witte, Jr., Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 2.

[4] Quentin Skinner, The Age of Reformation, vol. 2 of Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 352.

[5] Skinner, Age of Reformation, 335.

[6] I should add that in singling out Witte’s Reformation of Rights as an example of the “quietist” version of the narrative, I am knowingly abstracting it from Witte’s work as a whole, which has often given attention to the ways in which Protestant jurisprudence actively transformed political order in response to theological ideals (see, for instance, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation [Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002]).

[7] See Voegelin’s initial analysis of Gnosticism in medieval and subsequently modern thought in The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (1952; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 106-132. On the importance of the Reformation as “the successful invasion of Western institutions by Gnostic movements,” see p. 134. On the English Puritans as paradigmatic Gnostics, see pp. 135-50; on Calvin, pp. 138-39.

[8] “They repeatedly unsettled the political order by sparking a rejection of established rituals, the formation of illegal new churches, and resistance to princely innovations in worship believed to threaten the purity of God’s ordinances. The political history of later sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe is incomprehensible without an understanding of the history of Calvinism and the reasons its spread proved so unsettling. One reason the faith proved so compelling to many was that it inspired dreams of a dramatic transformation of manners, morals, and the social order” (Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002], xvi).

[9] Ted A. Smith, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), 92.

[10] Smith, Weird John Brown, 94, quoting from Gilbert Haven, “The Higher Law,” preached in Amenia, New York, in November 1850, in National Sermons: Sermons, Speeches, and Letters on Slavery and Its War: From the Passage of the Fugitive Slave Bill to the Election of President Grant (Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1869), vi.

[11] Walhof, “Accusations of Conscience,” 402.

[12] Smith, Weird John Brown, 95-96, quoting from Orestes A. Brownson, “The Fugitive Slave Law” (1851), in Henry Francis Brownson, ed., The Works of Orestes A. Brownson (Detroit: Thorndike Nourse, 1884), 17:34.

[13] See Smith, Weird John Brown, 101-102.

[14] This, of course, is the point at which many Whig historians have claimed Hooker as antecedent for liberalism, an argument recently given an impressive new defense by Alexander Rosenthal in Crown Under Law, one which is, however, considerably weakened by its inattention to theological foundations.

[15] Bauckham, Crisis of Freedom, 23–24.

[16] O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 131.

[17] Bauckham, Crisis of Freedom, 24.

[18] O’Donovan, Desire of Nations, 255.

[19] O’Donovan, Desire of Nations, 255.