In 1776, Virginia’s Hanover Presbytery called on the legislature to “cast off the yoke of tyranny.” Dissenters had special reasons to complain about the oppressive practices of the established Anglican Church. In years leading up to the war, colonists were terrified that Britain would plant an Anglican bishop in North America. They were clearly committed to religious liberty as much as to political and economic freedom.
What Is Liberty?
R.J. Rushdoony has a brilliant discussion in Politics of Guilt and Pity of “The Relationship of Man to Liberty.” Rushdoony labels the Biblical model, “man under law” — where “God is the source of law. Man and all institutions are under law. Law is ministerial, not legislative. Liberty is under law. The state is restricted to justice, and government is more than the state.” Rushdoony shows that there is a formal order created by God, and within that framework one finds true liberty.
“Man over law” is what Rushdoony labels the statist model. “Man in the state is the source of law. The state is divine. Law is man’s creation. Liberty means state law. The purpose of state law is salvation. The state is man’s savior.” Statist systems, furthermore, are Erastian, meaning that the state will dominate the church.
“Man apart from law” is how Rushdoony describes the third model, of anarchism and antinomianism. Here, “man recognizes no law apart from himself. Man is his own god. Liberty means no law. Lawlessness means salvation.” The antinomianism that flourishes in modern society is the perfect expression of this humanistic chaos.
Rushdoony’s points are intriguing and compelling. It should be obvious, for instance, that “morality rests upon religion.” More provocative is his claim that “the source of a culture’s law is its god.” And it’s true: even the most relativistic and antinomian worldviews are anchored in religious presuppositions — no matter how obscure or perverse those presuppositions may seem.1
The Revolutionary Generation
The American Revolution encouraged movements to disestablish the dominant Anglican Church. Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) is an excellent example of the desire for liberty. It was supported by Jefferson and Madison, as well as by evangelical dissenters who feared the tyranny of an Erastian civil magistrate.
While eager for liberty, almost everyone in the revolutionary generation hoped to encourage orthodox Christianity and Biblical morality and believed that this was a legitimate function of the state. Many states had religious tests. Madison and Jefferson called for days of thanksgiving, wanted laws punishing sodomy and Sabbath-breaking, and attended religious services in public facilities. The language of Jefferson’s 1779 Virginia Thanksgiving Proclamation is especially interesting: “that [God] would . . . pour out his holy spirit on all Ministers of the gospel [and] would in mercy look down upon us, pardon all our sins, and receive us into his favour.” Given his Unitarian convictions, he may not have really meant it, but Governor Jefferson was praying for revival!
It must be noted that the First Amendment did not establish a “wall of separation” between religion and the state. It prohibited Congress from creating a religious establishment (or national church) or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. General support for Christianity and individual state support of churches was still acceptable. Without giving preference to any denomination, then, there was in the Revolutionary generation a general encouragement of a Christian order.
Anarcho-Statist Assaults on Biblical Liberty
The situation today is very different. The goal of our “anything goes” society appears to be liberty and freedom from God. Postmodern society desires “man apart from law.”
Yet society cannot be neutral. Some standard of morality and religion must prevail. In 1983, Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status because its practices were inconsistent with “federal policy.” A 68-year old Swedish pastor was threatened with jail time for delivering a sermon against homosexuality. (It was considered a “hate crime.”) As worldviews become clearer and those in rebellion against God’s order act more consistently, Christians will face greater opposition. Because it is a religious system, humanism is invariably hostile to its heretics and dissenters.
Rushdoony saw the issue of religious liberty and social order clearly. Noting that religious groups have practiced “human sacrifice, cannibalism, ritual prostitution, bestiality, murder [and] homosexuality,” he argues that, “absolute freedom of conscience and religious practice would destroy all law and social order and make civil government impossible.” His conclusion: “There can be no separation of religion and the state. The question is simply, which religion will undergird law and society?”2
1 Rousas Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity (Fairfax, Virginia: Thoburn Press, 1978), 139-152.
2 Rousas Rushdoony, Christianity and the State (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 1983), 84.